"How many [jump] shots did I make today?" Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo asked after a recent game against the Knicks, during which he torched New York for 34 points.
He answered his own question.
"None. Why? Because he spaces the floor. He draws the attention. He's a threat out there."
Antetokounmpo is talking about guard Khris Middleton. Middleton, who returned from a hamstring injury in February, is quiet, and plays an aesthetically quiet game. He doesn't dunk on guys or blaze by anyone. He brings the run of play down to a slow, methodical crawl, and he rises for jump shots like he's trying not to wake up the downstairs neighbors. But if you ask his teammates, Middleton's workaday virtuosity is the biggest reason the Bucks have lately been making some noise.
The team is 10-2 with their other star—yes, star—back in the starting lineup. Middleton's 16.5 points per game on 51 percent from the field in that span show a player picking his spots with deadly precision, but also tell you he should probably be getting the ball more.
That will sort itself out as the playoffs approach. The important, and remarkable, thing is it looks like Middleton might actually take Milwaukee there. The Bucks' regular season looked lost the moment Middleton slipped on a wet spot on the floor in preseason and tore his hamstring. It looked totally hopeless after Jabari Parker tore his ACL in February. But now head coach Jason Kidd's squad is in the thick of a playoff chase, rejuvenated by Middleton's comeback and hitting a groove at the right time.
A six-foot-eight scoring guard who can catch-and-go, navigate the pick-and-roll, and do work on the block, Middleton provides much more than spacing for the Bucks offense—although that alone makes him a dynamic counterpunch for Antetokounmpo. He can bide his time spotting up off the ball or, as he did to begin a recent fourth quarter, he can call his own number seven straight trips up the court, taking over with a silky isolation game he's modeled on Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant. The thing about having Money—as Middleton has been known in Milwaukee—is it gives you options.
What helps is that he generally knows which thing to do, when. He's basketball literate. "It's the small reads he makes," says Thon Maker, the rookie center. "He makes a lot of reads. It makes it easier for us. Because other teams gotta respect him as a player, it opens up what we can do on offense. We can use him here, [or] we can use him here." (Certainly not all in one place.)
Since Middleton rejoined the starting lineup, the Bucks have moseyed along at 94.6 possessions per 48 minutes, which would place them 28th in the NBA on the season. (They hovered at around 20th without him.) Antetokounmpo and Middleton share a penchant for warming the ball, the former as he lures defenders out to the perimeter, the latter as he sizes up his opponent for the next dance. Middleton likes to channel Bryant by backing down his man anywhere inside the half-court line; things tend to go slower when you initiate offense facing the other team's basket.
As such, the team's 107 points per game on the season has plummeted to around 100 in the month of March, but the Bucks have undeniably excelled at the slog. Their offensive rating (a measurement of the team's points per 100 possessions) is a whirring 114.3 with Middleton in the game, compared to 109.6 without him, according to Basketball Reference.
"Everyone has talked about [how] our pace has dropped," Kidd told VICE Sports. "But we're more efficient with him on the floor on both ends. He settles everybody down."
And occasionally, with a smaller guard on him, Middleton makes quick work.
"His game is kind of slow motion, you know?" Rashad Vaughn, the second-year guard who often gets matched with Middleton in practice, told VICE Sports. Middleton stands two inches taller than Vaughn. "But you never know when he's going to pull up. You just try to get a hand up. You try to time it."
Elite shooters always create gravity, and Middleton is acid rain at 45 percent shooting from behind the arc this year, but his shiftiness off the dribble and playmaking ability makes opposing defenses compromise their schemes even further. He's especially lethal in the side screen-roll, where he plays off the threat of his one-dribble baseline fadeaway—"My bread and butter," Middleton says—to set up slashing teammates for easy points at the rim.
His assist rate has risen each year in the league.
"I knew I wasn't going to be a dunker," he said. "Just using my body, using my IQ, knowing what I can and can't do offensively, [I've] adjusted my game that way."
It certainly has eased the pressure on Antetokounmpo. Normally opposing defenders rush over to impede his drives to the rim, but Middleton's quick three-point release makes it impossible for help to cheat off the perimeter, leaving more space for Antetokounmpo to shapeshift and stretch in. Antetokounmpo's shooting percentage jumps to almost 58 percent with Middleton in the game, compared to 52 percent when he sits, per NBAwowy.com. Watch how Middleton's shooting ability forces a switch on a simple ball screen, and frees Antetokounmpo to bound unharassed past a slower defender:
It's worth a reminder that at one point, Middleton wasn't supposed to play at all this year. After a breakout 2015-16 campaign, he gave up Lucky Charms, spent the summer in the gym, and returned in what Kidd called the best shape he'd ever seen him. Then the accident happened. He tore his left hamstring clean off the bone. The Bucks announced he would be out six months and possibly longer, putting his season and the team's playoff ambitions in doubt. Instead, he was back before the All-Star break.
Which makes it unnerving to watch Middleton in the Bucks' frenetic defensive scheme. Alternately cutting off drives, jumping passing lanes, and sinking to tag or strip rolling big men, Middleton looks like he's daring the hamstring to betray him again. His coach doesn't stress about the possibility of re-injury in that context, though the Bucks have limited Middleton's time on the floor to six-minute bursts. "We believe he'll be in the right place at the right time," Kidd said. "We like to get after it, and that's kind of his strength."
The defensive end is also where his leadership is most valued. Middleton will never be called verbose, but he says he's making an effort to be vocal with this group.
"I don't know if people see how much he's talking on the floor," says Maker, who starts alongside Middleton. "It leads to off-court. If he sees you doing something that's not gonna help you, he's gonna tell you about it and help you out." And when Vaughn told VICE Sports that Middleton had four cats, the veteran spoke up to set him straight. (For the record: As of March 21, Middleton has zero cats.)
Middleton doesn't register most of the characteristics of an NBA star, and his understated game might doom him to be the Mike Conley of the Eastern Conference—smooth, stellar, and snubbed for All-Star recognition. "I think when you talk about Khris, his game is not flashy," Kidd said. "He's not celebrating. He just does his job. We appreciate him because he can do a lot of things that go under the radar."
"But last year he had a stretch there where he was playing up to [the quality of] Jimmy Butler, LeBron, a lot of guys who are All-Stars."
How much a Bucks playoff opponent should fear these deer is hard to say. Milwaukee is 3-11 this year against Cleveland, Washington, Boston, and Toronto—the teams occupying the top four seeds—but won the only game Middleton played in that set. They are a less athletic bunch without Parker, but they're more dangerous on the perimeter, more cohesive defensively, and better suited to the playoffs' drawn-out pace with Middleton at the helm.
"We're a good team already, but I feel like I was a big missing piece," Middleton told VICE Sports. "We put ourselves in the position to fight for a playoff seed, but I felt like I could help a lot of guys—some of them spotting up to shoot, some of them catching at the rim, some of them driving. I'm trying to make the game easier for everyone else."
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