Middleton making most of latest chance

Second-year pro quickly finds niche in Milwaukee

Khris Middleton

Khris Middleton has demonstrated multiple times over the course of his basketball career that he can seize an opportunity when he gets a foot in the door.

And he is doing it again during his first season with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Middleton, a 6-foot-7-inch, 215-pound forward, was acquired by the Bucks along with guard Brandon Knight and forward/center Viacheslav Kravtsov from the Detroit Pistons in a trade for guard Brandon Jennings on July 31, 2013.

Middleton, who averaged 6.1 points and 1.9 rebounds as a National Basketball Association rookie with Detroit in 2012-13, has wasted little time making himself at home in Milwaukee.

Through the Bucks’ first 15 games, Middleton was one of just three NBA players to have played 350 or more minutes and have shooting percentages of at least .460 from the field, .410 from 3-point range and .850 from the free-throw line.

The 22-year-old Middleton, who had earned eight starts, was averaging 10.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 25.4 minutes per game, shooting .469 from the field, .412 (14-of-34) from long distance and .864 from the line.

Middleton achieved NBA career highs of 19 points, eight rebounds, three steals and 43 minutes against Orlando on Nov. 13, then booked another career best with 20 points against Charlotte on Nov. 23. He rattled off three consecutive double-digit scoring games spanning Nov. 23-27 – the longest such streak of his pro career.

Middleton’s emergence has been valuable to a Bucks team that lost small forward Carlos Delfino for the season to a right foot ailment and most recently saw small forward Caron Butler sidelined by left knee soreness.

Bucks Head Coach Larry Drew likes the way Middleton has earned his opportunities and made the most of them.

“Looking at Khris, he has really shown that he belongs in this league,” Drew said. “He has been one of my most efficient guys from a numbers standpoint, and moving forward I will continue to put more on his plate.

“From a responsibilities and challenge standpoint, I’m going to continue to challenge him defensively. He has shown that he can score the basketball, but defensively he needs to be more of a presence, and that’s where I’ll challenge him the most.”

Working hard to make an impression is nothing new to Middleton.

“I was born and raised in Charleston, S.C.,” Middleton said. “I played in a private school (high school) league where there wasn’t much competition.”

Middleton usually got the better of that competition.

He averaged 12 points and eight rebounds per game as a sophomore at Porter-Gaud School, then bumped his numbers to 21 ppg and 8.6 rpg as a junior and was named state player of the year. He earned the honor again following his senior season, during which he scored 22.4 ppg and grabbed 8.6 rpg and Porter-Gaud to the state title game.

Middleton played AAU ball for the Carolina Celtics, teaming with three players who went on to play D-I college hoops – Devin Booker (Clemson), Jamal Curry (Radford) and Khris’ cousin, Kenny Manigault (Wichita State).

“I would say I became a (Division-I college) prospect while playing AAU basketball heading into my junior year of high school,” Middleton said. “We traveled to tournaments in a lot of different states, and that’s how I got my college offers.”

ESPN ranked Middleton as the 64th best prospect in the Class of 2009. He was recruited by Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Michigan and Saint Joseph’s before committing to Texas A&M shortly before his junior season and signing with the Aggies in May 30 of 2008.

“Texas A & M was always my biggest school,” Middleton said.

Middleton realized he would be attending college in a football-crazy state at a school that was known first and foremost for football. But he and his teammates embraced that challenge.

“It was football-crazy there, but we were also turning into a basketball school,” Middleton said. “We made it to four or five NCAA tournaments in a row. We were always selling out Reed Arena there, which was great.

“You always want all of your sports teams at your school to do well. We wanted our football program to do well, but we wanted to do well, too.”

The Aggies, under the direction of then-Head Coach Mark Turgeon, did precisely that, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fifth and sixth consecutive times during Middleton’s freshman and sophomore seasons.

Middleton became an impact player midway through his freshman campaign, starting 18 of his team’s last 20 contests. He scored 16 points to help Texas A&M erase an 11-point second half deficit to defeat Missouri 77-74, then scored a season-high 19 points in the Aggies’ 69-53 NCAA Tournament Round of 64 victory over Utah State. A&M finished 24-10 following a loss in the Round of 32 to Purdue. Middleton averaged 7.2 points and 3.7 rebounds and led his team in scoring five times.

Middleton doubled his scoring production as a sophomore, leading the team and finishing ninth in the Big 12 Conference in scoring at 14.4 points per game while also contributing 5.2 rebounds per outing. He led his team, which lost to Florida State in the NCAA Round of 64, to a 24-9 record, received All-Big 12 second-team honors and made the 10-man All-District VII team.

He didn’t simply boost his offensive game, either.

“I really wasn’t a good defensive player at all,” Middleton said. “Heading into college, I was mainly just a spot-up shooter. I developed my game a lot and learned how to score off the dribble. I learned how to play team defense and one-on-one defense.”

His development into a complete player helped him become a legitimate NBA prospect. He would follow in the footsteps of one of his cousins, Josh Powell, who enjoyed a six-year NBA career spanning 2005-2011.

“During my sophomore season, I realized I had a chance,” Middleton said. “But I stayed for my junior year, and after that I made the decision to go pro.”

Before Middleton’s junior year, Turgeon left A & M to become head coach at the University of Maryland and was succeeded by Billy Kennedy, who has been the head coach at Murray State University.

Middleton made a successful transition to a new coach, averaging 13.2 ppg and 5 rpg and repeating as an All-Big 12 second-team selection. He left College Station following his junior campaign to enter the 2012 NBA Draft and was selected by Detroit in the second round with the 39th overall selection.

During his rookie campaign, he continued to impress observers with his proficiency at one of basketball’s largely lost arts – mid-range shooting.

“That’s just my comfort zone,” he said. “I’m able to find my spots and get easy shots there.

“I think mid-range shooters are hard to get to a lot of times. Guys are going at you all the way to the paint, or looking to swat it at the 3-point line.”

The Bucks were impressed with Middleton’s upside and made sure he was included in the July trade.

“I was shocked at first, as most people are when they get traded,” Middleton said. “But I knew the business and was looking for a new opportunity. I just wanted to come here and work as hard as I could to earn a spot in the rotation.”

Middleton has made a smooth transition to the Bucks, helped along by the presence of Knight, his former Pistons teammate.

“Having Brandon here has definitely helped,” Middleton said. “But I knew other guys here like John (Henson) and Ekpe (Udoh) from having played against them.  It was an easy transition for me.”

Middleton and his new teammates were all disappointed by the team’s 2-13 start. He knows what it will take for the Bucks to turn their season around.

“We have to play hard for 48 minutes,” he said. “We can’t have lapses. That’s where it all starts.”