TORONTO – Khris Middleton came into the NBA as a largely unheralded second-round pick at No. 39 in the 2012 draft. About a year later, he was generally regarded as the “other guy” sent from the Detroit Pistons to the Milwaukee Bucks in the trade headlined by Brandon Jennings and Brandon Knight.
Over six seasons in Milwaukee, Middleton has steadily climbed from a standout player on a 15-win team to a consistent, high-level contributor with his best work coming on the biggest stage of last season’s playoffs when he was arguably the top performer in the series between the Bucks and Boston Celtics.
In the long shadow of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton has embraced his complementary role. While it doesn’t necessarily allow for him to shine as much or his name to be as widely known — it’s become a tired cliché for pundits and outsiders to call Middleton underrated or under-appreciated — he focuses more on the fact that he knows exactly how much his team values what he does.
In the locker room at Scotiabank Arena following a 105-92 win over the Toronto Raptors that moved the Bucks further ahead of everyone else in the Eastern Conference, Middleton was able to bask in the glow of a day a long time in the making that he couldn’t have scripted any better.
The Bucks had won, claimed a 3-1 win in the season series against the Raptors and before the game, the NBA announced he — for the first time — had been selected among the Eastern Conference reserves for the All-Star Game as voted on by the league’s head coaches.
“Definitely couldn’t get any better,” he said.
When the announcement came, Middleton was sitting at his locker with headphones in while watching film on the TV across the room to prepare for the game. Either his dad or his sister — he can’t remember which — called him first to give him the news.
Moments after the announcement on TNT, general manager Jon Horst entered the room and was the first person to congratulate Middleton in person before telling Antetokounmpo, the captain of one of the all-star squads, that he was going to have to pick his teammate in the all-star draft on Feb. 7.
The gravity of Horst’s words didn’t immediately register with Antetokounmpo, but then his eyes lit up and he broke into a wide smile, pointing at Middleton and asking, “All-star?” He then went over to congratulate Middleton, something the rest of the Bucks did one-by-one as they filtered in and out of the locker room.
“I’m really happy for him,” Antetokounmpo said. “As I’ve said it in the past, he’s sacrificed so much for this team. He’s one of the leaders of the team. He definitely deserves it. I’ve been teammates with Khris for six years; I’ve never seen a smile on him that bright when he found out he was an all-star.”
Joining Middleton among the Eastern Conference all-star reserves are Washington’s Bradley Beal, Detroit’s Blake Griffin, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who is injured and will soon be replaced on the team. The Western Conference reserves are San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. The All-Star Game will be played on Feb. 17 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte.
With Middleton joining Antetokounmpo in Charlotte, the Bucks will have two all-stars for the first time since 2001 when Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson were picked for the midseason exhibition in Washington, D.C.
For both Middleton and Antetokounmpo, experiencing the All-Star Game together is especially meaningful. The two arrived in Milwaukee in 2013 and together toiled through a 15-win season. They’re the only two players on the current roster who have fully experienced the Bucks’ rebuild over the past six seasons, with each lending their skills and leadership to that ongoing campaign to construct a championship contender in Milwaukee.
“We both never thought we were going to be No. 1 in the East, going to the All-Star Game, taking the coaching staff with us,” Antetokounmpo said, thinking back to six years ago. “I was 18, he was 21 at the time. We were just fighting for a spot, fighting for some playing minutes. It was hard. It was hard playing against Khris and Khris is going to tell you it was hard playing against me. But we never thought we were going to be in this situation representing the Milwaukee Bucks in the All-Star Game.”
Doing what they’ve done, particularly in a small market like Milwaukee, means even more.
“Giannis has been here his whole career and he hasn’t told us or made us think that he wanted to leave,” Middleton said. “From everything I’ve heard, he wants to be here for the rest of his career and I feel the same way. For us, it’s not being in the right market, it’s being with the right team. This organization laid down everything that they can to make sure we succeed.”
Entering Thursday’s game, Middleton was averaging 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game while shooting 37.6 percent from three-point range. The only other players in the league averaging at least 17-5-4 and shooting at least 37 percent on three-pointers are Oklahoma City’s Paul George and Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — each of whom will start in the All-Star Game.
Middleton’s overall numbers may be down compared to last year, but that’s largely due to a schematic shift by the Bucks that includes less playing time for everyone. His per-36-minute scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are the best of his career while he’s played a key role in Milwaukee owning the best winning percentage in the NBA as the calendar flips to February.
The league’s coaches obviously took notice.
“I think he’s always been very well respected around the league,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said earlier this season. “Maybe not as well-known as other people in his class. He’s an excellent player. He fits the modern game with the way he shoots the ball and his own defensive ability with his length. He’s a key part of their team.”
When Middleton arrives in Charlotte for his first all-star appearance, he’s going to do so knowing he belongs there among the best players in the league. If he didn’t know it before he certainly learned it over the past year. Last season he took on a greater role for the Bucks, averaging a career-high 20.1 points while playing all 82 games before upping his output further during the playoffs when he averaged 24.7 points and shot 59.8 percent — 61.0 percent on three-pointers — in a seven-game series against the Celtics.
Prior to that playoff series, Middleton was named to the U.S. men’s national team pool, which included participating in a summer minicamp in July. There, he played with and against some of the best players in the world and received affirmation from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who pulled Middleton aside to remind him he was there because he belonged.
“That was a huge confidence boost for me,” Middleton said. “Being in that type of group with those types of players in that type of setting gave me a lot of confidence.
“It gave me reason to believe I am one of the best players here; I am one of the best players in the league.”