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13/14 Bucks Player Previews: Khris Middleton looks to build on strong sophomore season

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Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

As another season of Bucks basketball draws near, we're racing through the roster to break down what happened last year and what might lie ahead. Last week we kicked things off with a preview of what to expect from Jabari Parker, and today we turn our attention to Khris Middleton.

13/14 Review

For most, Middleton's arrival in Milwaukee late last summer was mostly a footnote in The Great Brandon Swap of 2013. After a solid three-year stint at Texas A&M was short-circuited by knee troubles, Middleton went 39th in the 2012 draft and played under 500 minutes as a rookie in Detroit, looking like an NBA player but offering few suggestions that stardom might be in his near future.

Fast forward twelve months and the Pistons really wish they could have that trade back, eh? At the time of the Jennings/Knight deal there was already talk of the Bucks' insistence that Middleton be included in the package heading to Milwaukee, though it's worth noting that people always say stuff like that about peripheral youngsters included in trades (fare thee well, Ekpe Udoh!). But Middleton's steady shooting impressed early in camp, and the loss of Ersan Ilyasova to a nasty ankle injury in the preseason opener offered a further chance for Middleton to see minutes as a floor-stretching small-ball four throughout preseason.

It didn't take long for Middleton to cement himself in the Bucks' forward rotation, starting half of the team's November games and compiling 10.5 points a night on 41% shooting from deep, all while looking as the Bucks' most capable wing defender to boot (no really, I swear!). By December he had really hit his stride, averaging nearly 15 points on a sizzling 48% from deep in nearly 34 minutes per contest, but Drew's decision to bench him--as part of a broader reshuffle that also saw Luke Friggin' Ridnour join the starting five--seemed to take him out of his rhythm (note: he shot 33.3% from three as a sixth man and 42.5% as a starter). Thankfully, Ridnour was gone by the trade deadline and Middleton justified his return to the starting five--this time at the expense of Giannis Antetokounmpo--by hitting 54% of his threes and averaging nearly 15 ppg in February. Though he rarely drew fouls or got all the way to the rack, Middleton looked at ease coming off screens and showed surgical precision either off the catch or after taking a quick dribble to find space.

By season's end Middleton had emerged as the team's most consistent (only?) marksman, using his quick, compact perimeter stroke to compensate for a mediocre handle and less-than-stellar finishing in the paint. His defense didn't show the same consistency throughout the season, though he still had the look of a player capable of developing into a solid individual defender (wait, am I the only one?). Add in one more year on his hyper-affordable minimum-level deal, and he looked like damn good value at seventh on our countdown of Bucks' assets.

- Frank Madden


Last season saw Middleton develop from a garbage-time finisher into a lethal catch-and-shoot threat from all over the court--check out his shot chart evolved from his rookie to sophomore seasons (note the size of the squares indicates relative volumes):



Interestingly, Middleton shot an identical 44.0% from the field in each of his first two seasons, with his true shooting mark increasingly modestly from an about-average 53.2% as a rookie to 54.0% last season. But the charts above show just how differently his process was for getting there.  Middleton's three point attempts moved in from the corners (69% of his attempts came from a corner in 12/13, just 32% last year) as the Bucks frequently used screening action to free him for quick looks from the wings. Via, 23% of Middleton's plays came off screens, including a sizzling 50% (21/42) from three, with an additional 28% of his plays on spot-ups (which saw him hit 42% from three).

Improvement from the wings also explains how his three point efficiency shot up so dramatically, though any comparison should begin by noting how small his rookie sample really was. Middleton shot just 45 total threes as a rookie, hitting 12/31 (37.8%) from the corners and just 2/14 (14.3%) above the break. All told, last year was really the first time we've ever seen Middleton both playing regularly AND shooting threes at a significant clip at any level, which should be considered in light of recent analysis that it may take 750 attempts before we can suggest that a player's three point efficiency has stabilized. Given that Middleton has now attempted 335 threes in two NBA seasons, we might therefore want to be careful assuming that he'll automatically shoot 40+% each year, a lesson we probably should have learned after watching the more experienced Ersan Ilyasova slump to under 30% last year after hitting better than 44% each of the previous two seasons.

Still, Middleton is still only 23 and his value to last season's team shouldn't be understated. He was the only Buck to register an offensive RPM of greater than +1 pts/100 possessions, hinting at just how important his ability to knock down shots and minimize turnovers proved to a team that ranked 23rd in total threes and 20th in three point percentage a year ago. Moreover, he wasn't bad in other phases of the offense either, posting respectable numbers as a P&R finisher (0.80 points per play, 9.4% of total plays) in addition to solid albeit small sample results in the post (0.90 PPP, 11/22 shooting) and isolation (0.80 PPP).

Here's a chart showing the Bucks' "real plus-minus" data--an adjusted metric similar to xRAPM that ESPN developed to control for lineup effects (among other things) and thus provide a "real" measure of a player's impact on a team's offense and defense. As you might guess, the picture is not pretty for the Bucks, but it hints at the impact Middleton brought on the offensive end.


The story is decidedly less rosy on the defensive end, where no returning Buck from last season posted a worse figure than his -3.50 pts/100 impact. But hey, at least Jerryd Bayless (-3.68 pts/100 with the Celtics and Grizzlies last year) won't feel quite so lonely.

- Frank Madden

I know what you did last summer...

Khris has been around Milwaukee most of the off-season putting in work for the most part, though he did start his summer by hosting a basketball camp in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

He then joined several of his teammates out in Vegas to take in some Summer League ball.

...and had a good learning experience along the way

While out in Vegas practicing with the team, Khris was part of possibly the best photo of the off-season.

Khris then returned to Milwaukee to keep training for the upcoming season. The Bucks had adapted some cutting edge training at the time, and Bucks Director of Physical Training and Athletic Trainer Chris McKenzie had high praise of Middleton's work:

"[It's been] just night and day. He has really accepted his role in doing this on his own, and has taken this better than probably any of the guys."

When he wasn't in the gym, Khris took the time to come out to the Wisconsin State Fair to meet with fans. He even made a new friend!

He also completed the ice bucket challenge and closed out his summer by taking in the other two Wisconsin sports teams' games and meeting Badgers coach Bo Ryan. He even threw out the first pitch at one of his Brewers game visits (and didn't bounce it in!):

- Eric Buenning

Upside/Downside Projection

If it only takes two points to make a line, next season Middleton will average 18.1 points per game, shoot 51.7% from behind the arc, and play 42.4 minutes per game. Seem reasonable?

With only two years under his belt, and drastically differing roles in each of those years, straight linear projections aren't incredibly useful in the case of Khris Middleton. He's either a marginal role player with no real discernible skill, or a knockdown spot-up shooter who can function as a wonderfully effective release valve on offense while playing multiple positions on defense. The answer, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

It might be tempting to discount Middleton's excellent three-point shooting with the Bucks in light of his below-average mark with the Pistons, but the much larger sample size in Milwaukee would seem to suggest he's at least an above-average, if not an excellent marksman. And that's what he'll likely be relied on for again. The question he and the team will need to answer is whether he can offer more.

In the best-case scenario, Middleton evolves into a solid 3&D type of player by improving the latter, spacing the floor while "capably" defending the wings and even some less-threatening power forwards. In truth, a perfect world would probably see his MPG cut a bit from last season's 30-minute-a-night mark, perhaps into the 24-26 range, but with a corresponding jump in efficiency as he becomes a dedicated long-range sniper. That might not be great for Middleton's long-term salary outlook, but even in this perfect world, he's not a priority over Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker. While focusing on his three-point shooting is critical, lightest-timeline Khris would also boost his 2-point percentage back up near 50%, giving the Bucks a reliable jump-shooter to operate with their primary playmakers. After the season he agrees to return on a three-year, $13.5 million contract and the Bucks retain a key cog of their young rotation.

The darkest timeline would reveal itself with a plummeting three-point percentage and defensive struggles. His defensive RPM would tick the few points lower needed to claim the outright worst rating in the NBA as his lack of ideal footspeed and size is continually exploited. Ultimately this Evil Khris falls out of the rotation entirely, replaced by Jared Dudley and perhaps even Damien Inglis. Next summer Middleton signs elsewhere on a two-year deal with only one year guaranteed. Bucks fans begin to regard the Knight/Jennings trade as pleasantly lopsided instead of laughably lopsided.

- Dan Sinclair

Projected Role

No one will mistake Middleton for the same sort of long-term prospect as Jabari Parker or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that doesn't mean either of the 19-year-olds is necessarily better or more useful than Middleton right now. That could very well put Jason Kidd in a bit of a pickle: How can he best balance the development of Parker and Antetokounmpo with the near-term floor-spacing value of Middleton, who isn't an old fogy himself?

And as if the young "it" kids weren't competition enough, the Bucks also happened to add a more established wing shooter in Jared Dudley just a few weeks ago. Put it all together and it's obvious that Middleton will face an uphill battle to lead the Bucks in total minutes for the second straight season, though that's not to say he's a sure bet to go tumbling down the depth chart just yet. After all, shooters never go out of style, right? And given his age, it shouldn't surprise anyone if Middleton returns this fall with a better all-around game. A tighter handle would certainly go a long way toward helping him get to the rim more often off opponent closeouts--which should be more frequent now that the league has seen what he can do--as well as make him more of a threat in transition.

Middleton's playing time would also get a boost from the Bucks' willingness to give him run at shooting guard, something that both David Morway as well as Jason Kidd have alluded to in recent weeks. And spoiler alert: last week while recording a series of podcasts, Steve and I also talked about our hopes of seeing Middleton as a floor-spacing "two" in a lineup with Giannis and Jabari at the forward spots, a combination that would force Brandon Knight to play as more of a traditional point guard (which I'd still like to see further tested out) while also requiring Jabari and Giannis to carry their share of the offensive initiating load (since Middleton isn't a strong ball-handler himself). Whether Middleton would actually end up defending shooting guards exclusively in a lineup like that is also debatable, as that task generally fell to Giannis last year when they shared the court. But whatever--there could be something interesting there.

Middleton would also stand to benefit from the potential departure of Ilyasova or O.J. Mayo, each of whom could rival Middleton as the team's best perimeter threat. It's not that Middleton would necessarily be a direct replacement for either in the rotation, but losing a pure four like Ersan or a pure two like Mayo would certainly create trickle down minutes for everyone in the mix at the 2-3-4 spots, and you'd expect that the Bucks would want to keep at least one shooter on the court with guys like Knight, Parker and Antetokounmpo. In short, Middleton will remain a key rotation piece as long as his jumper holds up, though he may be more of a 20-25 minute per game guy given the current roster and the team's presumed (?) emphasis on getting Jabari and Giannis major minutes. Then again, Middleton's proved us wrong before--why stop now?

- Frank Madden