Bucks forward Khris Middleton offers a wide grin and a chuckle. Normally, he does not say much he’s not supposed to say, keeping his interviews straightforward and plain. But, these days, Middleton has reason to perk up if a certain subject arises — his free agency, which will kick in should Middleton decide to opt out of the final year and $13 million of his current contract. Around the league, speculation has it that Middleton could command a max salary.
Hence, the smile.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” he concedes, nodding. “Very good.”
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Naturally, it is. Back in 2015, Middleton signed a five-year, $70 million contract that some felt was overly generous from the Bucks. It’s turned into a bargain. Middleton has developed into one of the top two-way wings in the game. He’s averaged 19.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists this year, making 42.4 percent from the 3-point line. He is ranked sixth in the league with 3.1 3-point makes per game, a career high.
Those are star-quality numbers, and they’re the reason Middleton has max-deal buzz. There will be opportunities to explore — both the Lakers and Clippers, sources say, will have interest in Middleton, and he’ll have options with rebuilding teams such as New York, Dallas and Cleveland. Either way, Middleton will get something around a five-year, $190 million deal from Milwaukee, or a four-year, $140 million contract to sign elsewhere.
There’s still plenty of time, but here in the depths of the early season, Middleton is shaping up to be one of the most interesting players of next summer. It’s a forgone conclusion that Middleton will opt out, because he is slated to double his payday if he does. The Bucks, a source told Sporting News, are prepared for that reality and prepared to be aggressive when it comes to re-signing Middleton.
Expect the market for Middleton to reflect the market for Warriors guard Klay Thompson, a bigger name with similar skills.
“He is as good a two-way wing as Klay,” one general manager told SN. “Nearly as good a shooter, as good a defender, a better playmaker. You can run things through him more than you can do with Klay. Khris would be as big a star as Klay if he were playing in Golden State, and he’s probably going to get similar money.”
Middleton is not going to thump his chest over any of this speculation. That’s not his way. He’s got five months of season left, plus the playoffs, and after a wistful max-salary interlude, it does not take long for him to get back to speaking in bland platitudes.
“I have always been the kind of guy who just takes it one day at a time,” Middleton told Sporting News. “Focus on what needs to be done that day. Don’t think too far ahead. Once you start thinking too far ahead, you get distracted by things that don’t matter on that day. So that doesn’t matter.”
It does matter to the rest of the league, however. It matters even more to the Bucks as a franchise, as they’re off to a sterling start this season under new coach Mike Budenholzer and are playing in a just-opened downtown arena that was the vision of owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry when they bought the team in 2014. How Milwaukee handles Middleton could be a bellwether for the team’s future with megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will be a free agent two years later.
Lose Middleton, and the Bucks will suffer a talent setback and be at greater risk to lose Antetokounmpo, squandering the momentum the franchise has amassed in recent months. Keep Middleton, and maybe the Bucks build the kind of consistent contender that the city has not had in three decades.
For Middleton, the job is simple: Take what he’s been doing as he has blossomed into stardom the past few years and translate it to winning. He’s appeared in three postseasons with the Bucks, but he has never advanced past the first round. He helped the team push Boston to seven games last spring, averaging 24.7 points and shooting 61.0 percent from the 3-point line, but his 32 points in Game 7 were not enough to propel Milwaukee into the conference semis.
“We need to win,” Middleton said. “I learned in the past that winning takes care of everything. As long as I am worried about winning and doing the right things, everything will work out for me.”
A max deal would be nice, but before that Middleton must get somewhere in the playoffs to assure teams he’s worth it.
When Middleton was a freshman at Texas A&M, during a practice scrimmage early in the season, he got into a scrap for a loose ball with a teammate, James Blasczyk, a bulky 7-footer. Middleton had been a lightly recruited wing coming into the Aggie program, and he had been wanting to prove himself. The scrum for the ball left him a bit worked up, and on the next trip down the floor he made it a point to drive to the rim and put down a dunk against Blasczyk.
It was not typical of Middleton’s personality — nor of his mostly below-the-rim game — but it did show his explosive streak. Despite his mostly laid-back approach, Middleton is capable of bringing some fire.
There was plenty of reason for him to feel frustration early in his college career, and to determine how he has developed into one of the more important players in the NBA this season, you’ve got to go back to Middleton’s time in the NCAA and before.
In his early days in Lubbock, nothing, it seemed, was working out for Middleton. He had been brought on by coach Mark Turgeon (now with Maryland) as a big wing who could shoot. But as a freshman, he made just one of his first 11 3-pointers as an Aggie, and 29 games into his college career he was shooting 37.3 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from the 3-point line.
Turgeon kept the faith. He had taken notice of Middleton after seeing him play AAU ball in Atlanta, but the real spark came from Middleton’s high school days at Porter-Gaud in Charleston, S.C. When Turgeon asked coach John Pearson for tape of the Cyclones, he recognized how undervalued Middleton was.
Turgeon was fortunate, too, that Middleton has family in Shreveport, La., a seven-hour drive to the A&M campus.
“I didn’t realize how good he was until I saw his high school film,” Turgeon said. “He played point guard for his high school team. He handled the ball and did a lot of things. You did not see that in AAU. I was like, ‘Holy cow, this kid is really good.’ But there were not a lot of people recruiting him — we kind of got lucky.
“There was a family wedding in Louisiana, and they came over to Texas A&M, unofficial visit. We had a great day and we wound up getting it done.”
Middleton struggled to find a comfort level in college, and Turgeon had to remind him that he’d been brought to the Big 12 for his versatility, even as his shooting remained poor.
“He came in as a shooter,” Turgeon said, “and he started out 1-for-12, something crazy. It got into his head a little bit.”
By the end of his freshman year, though, Middleton was validating Turgeon’s confidence in him. He had four straight games of double-digit scoring (16.3 points per game), including 14 points in a season-high 34 minutes in the conference tournament against a Kansas team that featured five lottery picks. But the season ended with a thud for Middleton, who was limited to 1-for-6 shooting and just three points in Texas A&M’s second-round overtime NCAA Tournament loss to Purdue.
Middleton was transformed during his sophomore year. He has a sneaky work ethic, Turgeon said, showing up for workouts without much fanfare. He improved dramatically as a defender, one of his strengths in the NBA, but defense was not a natural skill for him.
“Khris was so quiet,” Turgeon said. “He would sneak in, work out and leave without anyone knowing it. A lot of people want you to know they’re in the gym. Not him. He worked hard, and the thing is, he was so smart. … His defense, he has built that up over time through work. He always understood angles and he knew his lane.
“But he had a hard time guarding the basketball when he first got to A&M. He worked hard on it. He became a really good team defender for us. He was always a smart defender. But it is great to see how far he has come individually guarding the ball.”
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Middleton averaged 14.4 points as a sophomore, with 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He shot 45.2 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from the 3-point line. When he put 31 points on Arkansas (on 16 shot attempts) in December, and, a month later, had 28 against Missouri (also 16 shots), Middleton began to pick up steam as a potential 2011 NBA lottery pick. When his sophomore year wrapped up, Middleton acknowledged, “I was 50-50 on whether I was coming back.”
Middleton was unsatisfied closing his college career with a loss to 10th-seeded Florida State in the NCAA Tournament — Texas A&M was seeded seventh — and he ultimately decided to stay put.
“I am glad I did that now,” Middleton said. “Looking back, it was probably not the best decision. But we all felt it was right at the time.”
The issues for Middleton started with Turgeon’s departure to Maryland. (He was replaced by coach Billy Kennedy.) Disaster struck in the opening game of his junior year. Playing against Liberty, Middleton felt a twinge in his right knee. He’d never been hurt before, but the injury proved serious: He had partially torn his meniscus, and would require surgery. His timetable for a return was set, rather aggressively, at three to four weeks.
Middleton was not himself when he came back. He averaged 13.2 points on 41.5 percent shooting and 26.0 percent 3-point shooting as a junior.
“It was one of the toughest years I’ve been through,” Middleton said. “It was my first time dealing with an injury. It was my first time having surgery. It wasn’t right. I wasn’t right all year, but I thought I could play through it. I kind of forced myself to be out there when I shouldn’t have been at times.”
In the post-surgery shuffle, Middleton’s NBA Draft stock took a drubbing. The potential lottery pick had become a fringe first-rounder, at best, in 2012. Kennedy understood why Middleton wanted to force himself back onto the floor despite the knee problem. But it became harder to envision Middleton as an NBA player as he did so.
“He was frustrated because he wanted to help us,” Kennedy said. “We were struggling with other injuries, too, but he was our best player and he wanted to get back and try to help us. … With the injury, it was tough to see that he was going to be a good player in the NBA. There were glimpses, but he was not really able to put together a long stretch.”
Turgeon had seen enough during his two years with Middleton to stake his reputation on the guy. He said he called “three or four teams” picking late in the first round, telling them they’d regret passing on Middleton. Considering that only one of the final 10 picks in the 2012 draft is still playing (Miles Plumlee), Turgeon was right.
Still, Middleton fell into the second round, No. 39. He admits now that he should have taken better care of himself, that he was too concerned with his NBA stock in his final year at Texas A&M.
“I had one foot out the door my junior year,” Middleton said. “Everyone knew that. That was why I was forcing myself out there. I wanted to show that I could play, that I was healthy. But I really wasn’t healthy.”
The All-Star Special at the Waffle House in Charleston consists of a waffle, two eggs, grits, toast and your choice of breakfast meats, all for $7.50. On a summer morning three months ago, before what would be the most important season of his career, you might well find Middleton lounging here, the All-Star in front of him. Never mind that Charleston has a burgeoning restaurant scene. Middleton knows what he wants.
“Waffle House is my childhood thing,” he said. “We used to go there on Sundays, or weekends every now and then with my family. It’s just good Southern, home-cooked food, and that’s what I love.”
It’s also a place where Middleton easily blends in, and that’s what he likes to do best. He may be among the NBA’s most important players of the coming seven months, but he also might be the most anonymous of the league’s stars. He should have been an All-Star last year, but he was beaten out by the likes of Kevin Love and Goran Dragic.
He shrugs when reminded of the snub.
“It has been like that my whole career,” Middleton said. “I have not been worried about that. Honestly, like I always say, my teammates know what I bring to the team. They know what I bring to the table. That means the world to me, and they give me that confidence, that fire when I need it. I am not really worried about getting the recognition.”
That is changing, though. The Bucks are fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and they are a half-game behind Toronto for best record in the league. Antetokounmpo is the magazine cover guy, the player who has gotten a full feature on “60 Minutes.” But winning is bringing attention to Middleton now, too, especially as he thrives in Budenholzer’s new offense.
Under former coach Jason Kidd, the Bucks played a cut-to-the-basket offense that allowed the defense to crowd the paint and created little space for shooters. Middleton still did well in the system because he is a standout midrange shooter who is not bothered by clutter. According to NBA.com stats, Middleton attempted 5.5 midrange shots per game last season and made 49.3 percent of them.
Budenholzer, though, wanted Middleton to all but eliminate the shot. Rather than taking the long 2-pointer, take two steps back and shoot a 3-pointer. Spread the floor. Remove the clutter. Middleton resisted at first — he’d made his name with 16-foot jumpers. But as the Bucks’ offense has hummed with this new emphasis on the 3-pointer, Middleton has bought into Budenholzer’s system.
He’s taking just 1.9 midrange shots per game this year. The 3-pointer, which had accounted for 32.0 percent of his shots during his first six NBA seasons, now accounts for 51.9 percent. Middleton was originally not sure about giving up on the midrange shot.
“I still shoot it,” he said. “Just not as much as I thought I would.”
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When Budenholzer met with Middleton and Antetokounmpo last spring, his goal was to sell them on better spacing for the offense, even if it took the two stars out of their comfort zones. He wanted Middleton to work on stepping back for 3-pointers, on making shots while on the move. Despite his skepticism, Middleton did so.
“He’s been great,” Budenholzer told Sporting News. “The efficiency with which he is playing, the way he is playing behind the 3-point line and attacking the basket. He has been a little bit of a playmaker, too. I mean, he’s a great player regardless, but the way he has embraced being a more efficient player has been impressive.”
Much like his college career, though, Middleton’s NBA time has had some swings. He spent his rookie year in Detroit as a second-round pick, and appeared in 27 games for a team that struggled to 29 wins. At the end of July 2013, though, as the Pistons were working out a deal to swap point guard Brandon Knight for Brandon Jennings of the Bucks, Middleton became a bargaining chip. The Knight-Jennings swap was held up because the only way for the deal to work, salary-wise, was to have Middleton included.
“The Pistons did not want to include Khris in that deal,” said Magic GM John Hammond, who was with the Bucks at the time. “A lot of people considered him a throw-in in that deal, but Joe (Dumars) did not want to give him up. We knew what Khris had done at Texas A&M before he got hurt, so there was potential. Detroit did not want to give him up, but in the end they had to in order to make the deal work.”
Middleton needed some reassurance after the trade.
“My first reaction when I was traded was, am I going to be cut? Am I going to make it?” he said. “If you are a second-round pick and you get traded, you are kind of in limbo that way. You are starting over. … I talked to Joe Dumars after it happened and John Hammond when I got to Milwaukee. Both were saying that I wasn’t a throw-in there.
“John Hammond told me they were starting over and they were just looking for players who could play. They were rebuilding, and he wanted to see if I could fit and earn a job.”
Middleton did. The Bucks slogged through a 15-win season in 2013-14, and though Antetokounmpo — then a mysterious Greek rookie — provided most of the intrigue that year, it was Middleton who was the team’s bright spot. He averaged 12.1 points and earned a starting job at age 22, one he has not relinquished since.
Yet he can still get around Milwaukee without much fuss or commotion. Middleton was one of just 27 players to average better than 20 points last year, but he remains mostly unrecognizable to fans around the league, even in his home market. While some NBA free agents might go hunting for more exposure in bigger cities next summer, Middleton seems satisfied with a low-key market.
“He is an anonymous guy, but that is what happens in Milwaukee. It’s a small-market team,” teammate John Henson said. “But that is how he is. He is a low-key guy, he stays in his lane, he does what he needs to do. On paper, he may not get the love he deserves, but we know how valuable he is as a team and as an organization. Hopefully, we keep him around.”
A productive postseason and a big contract are almost certainly in Middleton’s future. But before that, there’s one goal he’d like to attain: an All-Star selection.
Middleton maintains a strong connection to his hometown, still works out every summer in Charleston, still runs a basketball clinic there in the offseason and, a year ago, pledged to give $1 million in scholarships to his high school. This year, the All-Star game will be in Charlotte, just a three-hour drive from where Middleton grew up.
“It would definitely be cool,” Middleton said. “First, just to be part of All-Star, that would be a dream come true for me. But then to be in the closest city, next to Charleston, that would be even more special. To have family and friends be able to come there and support, that would mean the world to me.”
If the Bucks maintain their position near the top of the conference, there’s little question they’ll get two All-Star slots, one for Antetokounmpo, the other for Middleton. He’s been among the best shooters in the game, plays top-notch defense and ranks eighth among forwards in assists. He has a net rating of 14.6, fourth in the NBA among starters.
He also has a big booster in his fellow star.
“I thought he should make it last year,” Antetokounmpo said. “This year, I think, he has to make it, to be an All-Star. My success comes because of him because he can shoot and the defense has to be out there to guard him. So, I tell everyone to vote for him.”
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Of course, getting to the All-Star game will jeopardize Middleton’s anonymity. So will a long playoff run by the Bucks. The more exposure Middleton gets, the tougher the price tag becomes when free agency hits in July. He says he’d like to stay in Milwaukee, which would make him a foundation piece for the franchise. Mention these trappings of fame and riches, though, and Middleton shakes his head.
“No, no, no,” he said. “I am not going to get distracted by all of that. We’ve had a good start. I just want to keep that going.”
The Bucks have been one of the teams most worth watching in the early portion of this season. And, as he has adjusted to a new style of play in a crucial year of his career, Middleton has been the player most worth watching.
He’ll have a decision to make in a handful of months, but in the meantime he’s doing what he usually does: playing great and laying low.