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The Adaptation of Khris Middleton

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Khris Middleton’s struggles can all be boiled down to one issue...

New York Knicks v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Khris Middleton always has been a mid-range shooter. It came so natural to him on the basketball court it was almost as if it were an innate ability. And that was fine. Some of the NBA’s all-time best players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant created Hall of Fame careers by being unstoppable just inside the three-point line. But like everything else, the game has evolved. And so must Middleton.

Last year, the Bucks’ shooting guard took 52.12 percent of his shots from mid-range (4 feet out to the 3-point line) with 23.58 percent coming from short mid-range (4-14 feet) and 28.54 percent coming from long mid-range (14 feet to the 3-point line). That worked well for him, as he connected on 49.77 percent of those shots.

However, new Bucks new head coach Mike Budenholzer has the same mantra about long-twos that Jabari Parker has about defense; avoid at all costs.

This has led to a tough adjustment for Middleton. He’s no longer encouraged to dip into his go-to repertoire, as his mid-range shots have only accounted for 27.43 percent of his looks, the lowest percentage of his career. Instead, he’s forced to take more threes and shots at the rim, staples of the Budenholzer offense.

The modification to Middleton’s game appeared to be working. At least to begin the season. For the first 19 games, he was shooting 42.6 percent from downtown and averaging 28.5 points per 100 possessions. But then the shots stopped falling; since November 26th, Middleton is only shooting 30.6 percent from downtown and averaging 19.9 points per 100 possessions.

Part of the struggle has been Middleton’s change in shot selection. In addition to taking fewer mid-rangers, he’s also being forced to create his own shot more often, something that seems counterintuitive to the offense Budenholzer runs.

Last season, 83.2 percent of Middleton’s threes were assisted by his teammates. Now, that number has plummeted to 58.6 percent this season according to pbpstats.com. Despite Budenholzer’s five-out offense that emphasizes ball-movement, Middleton is asked to run more isolations and pick-and-rolls than before. According to Synergy, he ran 29.3 percent of his offense out of iso’s or pick-and-rolls in 2017-18 compared to 33.6 percent this season.

On the above possession, Middleton gets the ball on the wing following a switch by the Charlotte Hornets. Because of the natural spacing of the offense, he’s allowed to go one-on-one with his new defender in an attempt to take him off the dribble. Given that he’s typically used to stepping a few feet inside the arc, it’s a much more difficult shot for Middleton to acclimate to and has led to some recent struggles.

Here, Middleton and Brook Lopez run a pick-and-roll. There isn’t much there at all, however, Middleton strays to the corner and hoists up a difficult, fall-away, contested three that clanks off the iron with plenty of time left on the shot clock.

Transition is another area where Middleton is still adjusting. Even though he’s getting just about the same amount of looks, they are again coming from behind the arc instead of in his trusted mid-range. Even though this shot goes through the hoop, it’s still forcing Middleton outside of his historical comfort zone:

Besides three-point shooting, the aspiring All-Star is also taking more shots at the rim; another Budenholzer special. And Middleton’s certainly getting to the rim more often (21.61 percent this year compared to 15.88 percent last season), but it’s on his own (drives) as only 33.33 percent of his rim field goals are assisted compared to 58.12 percent last year.

Check out this extremely tough shot:

Following the ball screen from Lopez, Middleton attempts to turn the corner and get to the hoop. However, due to his lack of explosiveness and foot speed, the Indiana Pacers’ defenders are easily able to keep up with him. As the on-ball defender is chasing over the screen, Lopez’ man stays in front and forces a difficult runner high off the glass. Talk about a low percentage shot.

Here’s another ball screen where Middleton tries to get all the way to the rim, but ends up taking another tough runner:

Instead of being able to continue his drive straight to the basket following the pick, the Knicks big man forces Middleton to begin to head away from the hoop. This creates a lefty layup that has a very little chance of actually going in.

Middleton’s lack of great athleticism makes it difficult for him to create his own shots and score around the basket efficiently. He doesn’t possesses a specific athletic trait that allows him to score in traffic or even get himself to the free throw line on a consistent basis. Instead, he generally avoids contact and throws up some very challenging shots.

Don’t get me wrong, this offense certainly creates good looks for the wing. However, even when he’s getting good looks, they haven’t been falling for him lately:

That play is a staple of the Bucks’ offense and they got exactly what they wanted out of it; an open three. Unfortunately, Middleton is in such a funk right now even these shots aren’t falling for him. And like anybody else, Middleton is prone to frustration and disengagement when the things he’s used to doing aren’t happening. Check out his body language after this missed three:

All in all, Middleton is still adjusting to the new expectations of his shot selection. He grew up in an era where the mid-range was king and he now must adjust on the fly. Fortunately, he knows that better than anyone, as this is what he had to say following his 0-for-7 downtown shooting performance against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday: “It’s a little bit different system I’m playing, so I can’t go back to my old habits as much. Just have to do the best I can finding (my rhythm) the way we’re playing now.”

Middleton appears to have the right mindset, as he later continued, “If you’ve been a Bucks fan for a while, this isn’t new. I’ve gone through some slumps every season I’ve been here. At some point, it’s going to come through. Just gotta keep shooting. Stay patient.”

All great shooters experience slumps at some point or another. It’s one of the risks to bombing from the outside and a major reason coaches stayed away from an emphasis on the three-ball for so long. However, as Middleton continues to adapt to the new NBA he’s got to remember one thing: Shoot to get hot, shoot to stay hot.