Khris Middleton: (Re)Setting the Standard

Khris Middleton: (Re)Setting the Standard

By Eric Nehm

Along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Charleston, South Carolina, rivers, creeks and inlets puncture every nook and cranny of the shore. In the winter, when the temperature is just right, a dense fog blankets the city.

On those days, if you aren’t careful, you might miss Exit 1 as you cross the Robert B. Scarborough Bridge going from downtown Charleston to James Island. It can sneak up on you. And if you drive too fast, you might miss the first left turn, which takes you to the Porter-Gaud School. It’s a small, private school on the banks of the Ashley River. You just might miss it.

On the school grounds, one of the smaller walking paths leads to the gymnasium. At the entrance, in a small portion of a glass trophy case sandwiched between four other identical trophy cases, you will find a red autographed red Milwaukee Bucks jersey, a signed basketball, and a few photos of Khris Middleton.

The display is the centerpiece of the five cases, but between state championship trophies and medals, the display dedicated to the player preparing for his seventh NBA season barely stands out. It’s modest and quiet, much like the man it celebrates. And somehow, the man it celebrates is the school’s second-most famous alumnus. (That distinction belongs to late-night host Stephen Colbert.) It nearly perfectly encapsulates the Bucks shooting guard.

Solid, but never spectacular. Trustworthy, but never a star. Someone you desperately want on your team, but rarely ever your first pick. But every time you think you have gotten to know him, he shows you something new. He reveals a way he has improved. He leaves you a hint that there just might be a little more. And if you’re paying close enough attention, you just might figure out what’s coming next.

January 22, 2009. Pinewood Prep vs. Porter-Gaud. Charleston, South Carolina

The Porter-Gaud Cyclones are hosting the Pinewood Prep Panthers, the winner of three consecutive South Carolina Independent School Association Boys Basketball (SCISA) championships and the team that beat Porter-Gaud in the SCISA State Championship the previous season. The Cyclones trail 22-21 and Pinewood Prep has been employing a full-court press throughout the first two periods. At times, the Cyclones have struggled with that press, but not on this possession.

Sinewy 6-foot-7 forward Khris Middleton heads up the front of the press and calmly dribbles up the floor. Once he passes halfcourt, Porter-Gaud forward Jamal Curry sets a screen for him. The Panthers attempt to trap the pick-and-roll, but Middleton splits the double team with a low dribble, gets into the lane and destroys the rim. That sets the tone for the rest of the game.

Middleton would go on to carry the Cyclones to victory over their rival, an occurrence his high school coach John Pearson (who you just heard) came to expect, but one that would have shocked him two summers earlier.

With a growth spurt before his sophomore season, Middleton shot up to 6 foot, 7 inches tall to form a triumvirate of talented teenagers Middleton refers to as “The Three Amigos” –Travis Smith, Curry and himself. The trio would ultimately lead the Cyclones to back-to-back South Carolina state championship games, but in the spring of 2007, they were just trying to figure out what team to play with in the summer.

Before the AAU season got underway, Pearson received a call from the Carolina Celtics, a strong AAU team featuring a number of future Division I players, asking about Smith, the team’s point guard. Smith, however, already had a team and didn’t have any interest in leaving. Curry was on the team he coached, so Pearson asked if they would be interested in bringing Middleton in for a practice.

“I shot the ball well the first day I was there,” Middleton said. “Played well. Defended well. And they invited me back for more.

“It was pretty cool. It was eye-opening. They had a lot of athletes at that time, just something I wasn’t used to seeing in Charleston.”

Pearson was shocked to hear the Celtics wanted to keep Middleton for the rest of the summer. Not that he didn’t expect a lot out of Middleton, but he simply hadn’t played well enough with Porter-Gaud for Pearson to believe that he could actually stick with one of the area’s best AAU teams.

Sure. Khris Middleton managed to make it on an AAU team, but there’s no way he can cut it at the college level.

Fall 2009. Texas A&M University Practice. College Station, Texas

The Texas A&M Aggies are preparing for their conference schedule. After starting the team’s first two games, forward Khris Middleton has struggled to find minutes under coach Mark Turgeon. Turgeon tried Middleton, just 190 pounds, on the wing to start the season, but Middleton just wasn’t yet ready for the competition.

“It was tough,” Middleton said. “That was just a whole ‘nother level for me. I had a rough time adjusting at first, so they moved me to the four so I could just space and shoot pretty much.”

Some of those early season struggles are coming through in practice as well. During a scrimmage, Middleton slips and gets pushed to the floor by redshirt freshman center James Blasczyk. Like Middleton, the seven-foot center has been unable to find a footing in Turgeon’s rotation. Tempers flare as the two players get involved in a scuffle after the play. The players are split up, but that would not be the end of their confrontation, as Middleton’s friend and teammate at Texas A&M Jeremy Adams tells it.

Middleton parlayed that sneaky athleticism and occasional tenacity into some playing time, eventually gaining the trust of his coaches and teammates. He would end up starting all but two of their conference games, putting together a decent freshman season averaging 7.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.

His struggles, though, were significant. The game was much different at the college level for Middleton as he moved from playing opponents from small, private schools in South Carolina to some of the best college teams in the country. Gone were the days where he could just jump over smaller players for rebounds or bring the ball up the floor with ease. Instead, he was forced to box out, commit to team defense and run the floor rather than hanging back to wait for the ball and bring it up.

There was no growth spurt this time around, but after some early struggles, Middleton took on a leading role as a sophomore. He would start every game and lead the Aggies in scoring on their way to an NCAA tournament appearance. All of the lessons Turgeon needed to teach him in his sophomore season started to take hold, he adapted a more fundamental style and doubled his scoring in his second season in College Station.

Popular NBA Draft website Draft Express noticed early in the season and wrote this in December 2010: “Possessing a very intriguing combination of physical attributes, versatility, and feel for the game, Middleton looks like the type of prospect that could really catch someone’s eye, especially when you consider that he’s a year younger than most of his sophomore class.”

After the season, Middleton had a tough choice to make: Should he stay at Texas A&M or go to the NBA after his sophomore season?

“I would say I was close to 50-50,” Middleton said. “I had a great year, but we got upset in the NCAA Tournament against Florida State. It was something I thought about for a while. I talked to my family about it. I talked to my friends. I talked to Coach Turgeon about it and then the decision was for me to come back. Everybody thought it was going to be best for me to come back. I could take a chance and leave, see what happens, but they felt like I really couldn’t hurt my draft stock by waiting one more year.”

Turgeon left Texas A&M for a new job at Maryland two days after Middleton’s decision. Middleton got hurt in the Aggies’ first game of his junior season and Texas A&M struggled in Billy Kennedy’s first season. After a sophomore season which forced his name into NBA Draft conversations, his draft stock stalled out in his junior season with a nagging injury and a new coach.

Sure. Khris Middleton found a way to impact his college team, but there’s no way he is an NBA player.

October 6, 2015. United Center. Chicago, Illinois

The Bucks have made the trip to Chicago for a preseason game against the Bulls. The two teams had faced off in a grueling six-game playoff series in the spring, but this was little more than a sleepy, preseason game typical of early October.

The Bucks are up five in the second quarter, when Nikola Mirotic makes a lazy pass to Jimmy Butler on the right wing and Middleton pokes it away and corrals it near midcourt, with the Bulls star running step-for-step with him on his left shoulder. Around the free-throw line, the Bucks guard gathers the ball, takes two more steps, plants off his left foot with the ball extended in his right hand and hammers the ball through the rim on top of Butler.

“I think we were all surprised, but Khris is always up for surprises to show you that he can do something,” former Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “When he dunked that, it just let everyone know that he's making a jump.”

Middleton broke out in the 2015-16 season, starting 79 games while putting up career highs in points and assists. He exhibited a level of scoring and playmaking far exceeding his presumed NBA role as a “3-and-D guy,” even serving as “Point Khris” in January and February before the Bucks moved on to trying out ���Point Giannis” after the All-Star Break.

It was a surprise to many around the league and maybe even to Middleton, who described the day he was traded to Milwaukee as the lowest moment in his NBA career. At the time, it was the one moment where he really felt any sort of doubt creep into his mindset.

“I questioned what was going on,” Middleton said. “You don’t play your first year in Detroit. You get traded and you’re on a one-year guarantee. That’s the day you really question things.”

Middleton had persevered through the self-doubt and “just a second rounder” labeling. He proved he was worthy of time on an NBA floor. He had broken through the label of “just a 3-and-D guy” and been entrusted with playmaking opportunities. He seemed destined to break into an even higher echelon of NBA play following his breakout season, before he tore his hamstring completely off the bone before the 2016-17 season.

It seemed as though it would be just another hurdle for Middleton to clear. After all, he had been able to conquer just about everything put in front him to that point in his career, but that wasn’t the case. He struggled in the Bucks’ first round playoff series against the Raptors, shooting just 40 percent from two and 36 percent from three. He tried to affect the games in ways other than scoring, evidenced by his 5.3 assists per game, but just didn’t feel like himself.

“That was probably one of the worst things I've ever been through,” Middleton said. “Overall, I had the hamstring, which was nowhere close to where it needed to be. I couldn't jump off one leg or stop on one leg. And then I had the throat issue going on, where I couldn't eat the last couple games. It was bad. I couldn't really eat or drink or sleep, so yeah. That was one of the worst experiences of my life.”

Kidd recounted that Middleton didn’t practice in the lead-up to Game 6 of that series and mentioned his shooting guard needed to use his shoulders to turn his body in the locker room before the game. The Texas A&M product played 42 minutes in that elimination game, including the final 30 minutes, and helped spearhead the Bucks’ 25-point comeback, which ultimately came up short. After the game, he would be sent to the hospital to recover.

Sure. Khris Middleton can put up some numbers in the regular season, but there’s no way he can do it when it actually matters in the postseason.

April 5, 2018. TD Garden. Boston, Massachusetts

The Bucks have been chasing the Boston Celtics for the entire fourth quarter in Game 1 of their first round playoff series. After being down four at the start of the period, they’ve been unable to cut their deficit down to anything less than five and now trail 86-76 with 4:27 left in the game after a Marcus Morris jumper. They desperately need a run.

Starting with a Middleton jumper though, the Bucks rattle off an 8-0 run in just under two minutes to draw within two on a Giannis Antetokounmpo lay-in with 2:38 remaining. The next few minutes teeter back and forth until Malcolm Brogdon ties it at 96 with 11 seconds on the clock. The Celtics hold the ball for the final shot of regulation, which Terry Rozier hits just slightly too early, leaving 0.5 seconds on the clock.

The Bucks are still alive, technically. Half a second is just barely enough time to catch-and-shoot, but an open look from three will be tough to come by against one of the NBA’s most well-coached teams.

Overtime wouldn’t go nearly as well for the Bucks as they fell to the Celtics 113-107 in Game 1. The series would go to seven games and the Celtics would come out victorious, but Middleton played better than just about anyone else in the series. He effectively exorcised any playoff demons he might have had, averaging 24.7 points per game on 59 percent shooting from inside the arc and 61 percent shooting from outside. And to this day, he takes no solace in his human flamethrower numbers from the series.

“That series still doesn't sit well with me, even though I had a hell of a series that we lost,” Middleton said. “Last year was supposed to be our year where we get past the first round and see what happens after the first round. And we still couldn't do it. It still doesn't sit well with me. I felt like I played great, but, to me, at the end of the day, I don't feel like I did enough to actually win. It just keeps stabbing me this summer.”

Despite his own disappointment in the team’s final results, Middleton once again proved his naysayers wrong by showing he can perform in the playoffs and thus belongs in the conversation among the league’s best shooting guards. USA Basketball made it clear they agree with that sentiment by naming Middleton to the 2018-2020 men’s national team roster this past April as he was wrapping up a season in which he averaged over 20 points, five rebounds, and four assists per game. (He was one of just 11 players to average 20/5/4 this past year.)

Middleton was in Las Vegas for USA Basketball mini-camp last Thursday and Friday in an attempt to make the Team USA squad for the 2019 World Cup or 2020 Olympics. He’ll get a chance to measure himself up against the shooting guards there, but those aren’t the only players he compares himself to.

“I measure myself against everybody, not just the shooting guards,” Middleton said. “Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Giannis, seeing him every day, seeing how good he is, letting me know I still have a lot of work to do, stuff like that. The point guards - Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Damian Lillard, all those guys. I just like to see what those guys are doing and measure my game up to those guys and seeing how I compare to them.”

Sure. Khris Middleton can make some plays in the NBA, but there’s no way he can make the US Olymp…stop.

Khris Middleton hears you. And like always, he’s ready to prove you wrong.

“I love challenges,” Middleton said. “For somebody to say I'm not good enough if I get cut from these teams, that's them saying I'm not good enough, so that means I have to work harder and figure out a way to make myself better.”

If the past is any indication, that’s exactly what he’ll do.

“Nothing has ever been given to me,” Middleton said. “Second rounder, getting hurt, all of that. From Day One, I've always had to work to find my way onto the court or onto the top position or whatever it may be.”

Sure. Khris Middleton has reached a level higher than most of the rest of the league, but there’s no way people stop questioning him any time soon, so he’s just going to keep working. And keep proving them wrong.

Eric Nehm is the Milwaukee Bucks reporter at ESPN Milwaukee, where he is also a radio host and producer. He is also the co-host of the Locked on Bucks podcast. His first book 100 Things Bucks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die comes out on October 9, 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @eric_nehm.