Time to appreciate Bucks’ Middleton more

Bucks swingman Khris Middleton is proving to be one of the NBA's most underrated players.

We need to talk about Khris Middleton more. This is the fourth year now that he’s been an elite 3-and-D player for the Milwaukee Bucks. So why is he so rarely mentioned outside of Milwaukee?

Perhaps it’s because he’s not the human highlight reel that his teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo is. Or maybe it’s because he’s underutilized by his team; Middleton ranks just 81st in the NBA in usage. That puts him at fourth on his own team, or third if you take away Jabari Parker, who suffered a season-ending injury in the very game that Middleton returned from his own injury. Middleton should certainly be used more than Greg Monroe.

Middleton may not play the sexy, highlight-fueled style of basketball that fans love (he’s no Giannis or Russell Westbrook), but he brings it every night and plays winning basketball on both ends. He’s exactly the type of player that every team would love to have.

The numbers that Middleton has averaged this season are good – 14.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on .460/.443/.880 shooting. These numbers are deflated, though, due to the fact that the early portion of Middleton’s season started off slowly as he was eased back into the rotation.

The best way to look at Middleton’s season is to examine his play since the beginning of March. Mar. 1 was the first game this season that Middleton played 30+ minutes. Since then, he’s averaged 32 minutes per game. Technically, Middleton was “back” when he made his debut on Feb. 8. He played 15 minutes that game, however. The Khris Middleton of March is back back. He’s fully himself now, and the Bucks are a much scarier team with full-strength Khris Middleton.

The Bucks have won 11 of 15 games in March, and those four losses were all – at least somewhat – understandable. In the first, to Denver, Middleton didn’t start and was a plus-8 off the bench in a 12-point loss. In the second loss, the Bucks trounced by the Memphis Grizzlies.

We’re going to label that game an anomaly, though, because Vince Carter, who is actually 70 years old (he’s 40, which is basically 70 in sports), isn’t supposed to be able to score a game-high 24 points on 8-8 shooting. The third loss was against the Warriors. Nothing else needs to be said against that one; the Bucks are supposed to lose to the Warriors. The final loss was to the Bulls, as unpredictable as any team in the NBA. The Bucks would definitely have liked to win that game, but there’s not much to be done when the Bulls have that sort of night; Rondo, Mirotic, Butler and Lopez combined to shoot 36-51 (70.6%) from the field.

In his 15 March games, Middleton has averaged 16.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists on absolutely ridiculous efficiency; he’s shot 47.3 percent from the field, an astounding 44.3 percent from beyond the arc and 87.9 percent from the charity stripe. Those are elite shooting numbers.

After Jabari Parker tore his ACL, the consensus around the league seemed to be (from my vantage point, anyway) that the Bucks’ postseason hopes were doomed. At the time, that seemed weird to me, because Middleton is better than Jabari Parker. That’s not a knock on Parker, who had a fantastic year.

Middleton is just really, really good. He’s a huge upgrade over Parker defensively and is the superior outside shooter and overall offensive player. Now, a couple of months later, the Bucks are poised to make the playoffs; their 37-36 record has them tied with the Pacers and Hawks for the fifth-best record in the East.

Middleton’s offensive game is remarkably well-rounded. He’s a smart offensive player who moves well off the ball, making good cuts and coming off screens to get open looks from the arc. He’s a superb shooter who can spot up or get his shot off the dribble. When he shoots, he shoots the ball with confidence.

When driving, his size (he’s 6-foot-8) and length allow him to finish over or around most defenders, and he has a pretty good floater in his arsenal in case there’s a Rudy Gobert-type center protecting the rim. He also might be the biggest post threat of any guard in the NBA.

In the NBA, as in any level of basketball, players end up with mismatches all the time, and Middleton is one of the best out there at taking advantage when he has a smaller defender on him. A lengthy 6-foot-8 shooting guard, Middleton is precisely the sort of player that the Bucks love. He joins Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker as the long-limbed players who are quickly becoming the archetypal Milwaukee players.

Middleton’s size and shooting touch make him a lethal scorer. When Middleton is matched up with a smaller player (which happens often because again, he’s a 6-foot-8 two-guard), it’s over. He’s great at backing down the smaller defender, and he always takes the best shot that he can get before help defense arrives. Here are a few examples of Middleton taking advantage of mismatches:

Here, Kris Dunn plays decent enough defense, but Middleton has enough of a size advantage that he’s unperturbed:

This one’s exactly the same. Eric Bledsoe is one of the best defensive point guards in the league. Bledsoe does the best job on Middleton that he can (bless his heart), yet Middleton gets the exact shot that he wants:

Last example – The instant that Middleton gets a smaller defender on him (T.J. McConnell) off the switch, he takes him down into the post. Then, when a big man (Dario Saric) comes down to help, Middleton immediately goes for the close-range jumper over McConnell before Saric can get close enough to be a threat:

Here’s your TL;DR about Middleton’s offense: He’s good, highly efficient and can score from anywhere. He’s also probably underutilized in the Bucks’ offense, and should have the ball in his hands more.

Now, on to his defense, which is perhaps equally impressive. Middleton’s an excellent on-ball defender. He’s got better lateral quickness than most players his height, and he typically contests shots very well. He also has incredible hands, which you can see in this next play. Middleton is patient and careful not to foul Tony Allen during Allen’s drive and spin-move to the hoop. Then, just when Allen is about to go up with the shot, Middleton strikes, cleanly stripping the ball:

Middleton might not strike you as a strong player at first glance, but he can hold his own in the post against players his size. Here’s an brief example of that, as Middleton plays some tenacious D (I didn’t intend for that to be a pun but now that it’s there I’m leaving it, sorry) on Carmelo Anthony, and easily comes up with the block:

Defensively, where Middleton really shines is off the ball. In this play, he notices as Greg Monroe (not the best defender out there) loses Myles Turner after Turner sets a screen. Middleton picks up Turner and strips the ball from his hands without hesitation:

Here’s another example of Khris Middleton being Khris Middleton defensively. Middleton sags off of his man (P.J. Tucker, who is an okay but not great three-point shooter), leaving him open in the corner. He sinks down low (notice how he hides behind Jonas Valanciunas) and watches as DeMar DeRozan drives. Once DeRozan spots Middleton’s man in the corner and picks up his dribble to fire a pass in that direction, Middleton leaps out from behind Valanciunas, easily bats the ball forward, and goes coast-to-coast for the and-one layup:

Khris Middleton might be a top 30 or so NBA player right now. Due to his low usage, along with the fact that he was injured for much of the season, the average NBA fan doesn’t know how good he is (some fans may not even know who he is). 3-and-D wings are a rare and valuable commodity in today’s league; there aren’t a whole lot of them, and every team wants one.

The Bucks were smart enough and fortunate enough to lock up Middleton on a five-year, $70 million deal that doesn’t expire until 2020. When Middleton does become an unrestricted free agent (I know, it’s a long way off) he’ll be 29 years old, and there’s little doubt in my mind that a handful of teams will be offering him the max.

Middleton is phenomenal. The best part about him is how complete a player he is; he does everything and has no major weaknesses. He can spot up, create his own offense and bully players down low. His offensive efficiency speaks for itself. Defensively, his IQ is off the charts. Middleton is the whole package – don’t underrate him.

Spread the word; friends don’t let friends sleep on Khris Middleton.