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After slow start, Khris Middleton growing on and off the court

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The Bucks knew they were getting an elite 3-and-D guy when they signed Middleton to a $70 million deal. They might have gotten a star, too.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Khris Middleton's game on the basketball court resembles his personality. He's not very loud, yet his smooth and crisp style make him one of the most interesting and unique players on the rise in the NBA.

In Friday's game in Milwaukee against the visiting Atlanta Hawks, Middleton scored 26 points, but his points didn't come easy, as he finished 11-for-23 from the field and 0-for-4 from deep with the Hawks upping their defensive pressure on the Bucks' best shooter. They sent double and triple-teams and launched defenders at him to stop catch-and-shoot opportunities, the shot that's been his bread and butter for most of his career to date.

The added attention couldn't stop Middleton from scoring, though the extra pressure was something he hadn't experienced previously.

"Not too aggressive like that," Middleton explained. "It's something I have to start watching the film on and getting used to."

After signing a five-year, $70 million extension to stay with the Bucks in the summer, Middleton didn't exactly start his fourth season in ideal fashion. Though the 24-year-old still scored 13.9 points and shot well from three point range early in the season, he also shot just 36 percent overall as the team got off to a disappointing start.

Fortunately he didn't disappoint for long, and the fluid and calm Middleton is now enjoying the best stretch of his career, scoring 23.1 points on 52.4 percent shooting from the field and 41.9 from deep in addition to 4.9 assists over his last 15 games. In that span his true shooting percentage is a whopping 62.9 percent with only a 9.6 percent turnover ratio. And after struggling inside the arc early in the season, he's been unguardable from midrange of late:

middletonlast15

(Note: His percentage from this distance is 42.5 this season compared to 60.7 in the last 15.)

As part of his expanded role, Middleton has also taken a bigger responsibility handling the ball, regularly initiating the Bucks' offense and flashing a more refined pick-and-roll game. In the last 15 games his usage rate has increased from 21.3 to 24.4 percent, in the process taking pressure off Michael Carter-Williams, who has also looked much improved over the past six weeks. On Saturday, Middleton took care of the ball late to close out the game for the Bucks in Charlotte, the third straight game in which he scored between 24 and 26 points. And for a guy known as a long-distance shooter, it's remarkable to note that he's scored 20+ points without a triple in three of his last six games, including a 1-for-11 streak from deep over the past three games. In short, Middleton is showing he's far more than just a 3-and-D guy — a role already highly valuable in today's NBA game — by not only shooting and defending, but creating and handling. Bucks players understand his intentions as a playmaker, too.

"They know I'm trying to make a play for everybody and that I'm not just trying to score." Middleton said.

"I'm a quiet person and I don't really like to yell or curse guys out, but sometimes I have to do it. They all respect me and know it's coming from a good place."

Less visible to fans has been Middleton's increased voice in the Bucks' locker room and with the media. The naturally laid-back Middleton has this season become a voice on the youngest team in the NBA. He's usually one of the first players to speak after games; even on nights when other players are done talking and he hasn't spoken yet, he voluntarily makes himself available. This was different last season when the Bucks had Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia, players that always made themselves available. Both men are gone this season, and Middleton is filling the void.

Whether or not Middleton will be able to sustain this for the remainder of the season is an intriguing and fascinating question, but watching the 24-year-old excel in the role of lead guard should be nothing but encouraging for fans in Milwaukee. While Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are still widely considered the cornerstones of the Bucks' future, Middleton is making a clear case to join them.

Not that Middleton is satisfied with his personal hot streak. The Bucks still have plenty of ground to make up — specifically on the defensive end — and will need the Celtics, Magic, Wizards, Knicks, Hornets and Pistons to slip in the East if they want to somehow steal a spot in the playoffs. If they manage to do so, Middleton may well be the man to lead them there -- an idea not many people would have expected at the beginning of the season.