When the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks swapped point guards two seasons ago, with Brandon Jennings going to Detroit and Brandon Knight going to Milwaukee, most observers didn’t know what to make of the deal. The two Brandons had been drafted in the lottery and neither had lived up to expectations, but they were still young enough to where there was reason to believe they could turn things around. There were people who thought Knight would be the better player and those who believed in Jennings and you can still make the argument either way. The one part of the deal no one talked about was Khris Middleton, one of two seldom used Detroit reserves included for salary cap purposes.
A three-star recruit from South Carolina in the class of 2009, Middleton came on the national radar after his sophomore season at Texas A&M, where he averaged 14 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists a game on 45% shooting. He probably would have been a first-round pick if he declared, but like a lot of underclassmen he ended up staying in school because of the threat of the looming lockout. Few suffered for this decision more than Middleton, though, as he partially tore his meniscus in the first game of the next season.
Middleton missed 12 games over the course of his junior season recovering from knee surgery and was not the same player when he returned. His statistics and percentages dipped across the board - from 45% to 41% from the field and from 36% to 26% from 3. With their best player struggling and a new coach (Billy Kennedy) dealing with an out of nowhere Parkinson’s diagnosis, Texas A&M went 14-18 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons. It was Murphy’s Law - everything that could have went wrong for Middleton did.
Perhaps gun shy after his injury scare, he declared for the draft anyway, knowing he would have an uphill battle to earn a guaranteed contract with such underwhelming statistics on his resume. That’s generally where you are going to find sleepers - guys who weren’t in the best situation in college to maximize their game. Every team in the league is familiar enough with the stats to go by what the numbers tell them when it comes to the draft. These days the inefficiencies occur when the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
As a second round pick, the odds were against Middleton. The Pistons were a rebuilding franchise so there were minutes available, but he was one of a number of younger players trying to earn his way onto the floor. As a rookie, he played about the same number of minutes as Kim English, another wing player Detroit selected in the 2nd round. English became a victim of a roster crunch the next season before heading off to Europe never to return.
There was little reason to think Middleton would be any different. He wasn’t an elite athlete and his shooting numbers as a rookie hardly foretold great things - 44% from the floor, 31% from 3. In an age where role players have to be able to stretch the floor, Middleton had not been an above average long-range shooter in over two seasons. With so many other players looking for minutes in Milwaukee, it would have been easy to slip through the cracks playing for an organization that had nothing invested in him.
Instead, a raft of injuries opened up playing time and he made the most of it, playing in all 82 games while averaging 12 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 44% shooting. Most importantly, his 3-point shooting percentage went from 31% as a rookie to over 41% as a 2nd-year player. The Bucks had expected to compete for a playoff spot and were one of the worst teams in the NBA - Middleton was one of the only bright spots amidst a lost season.
At 6’8 220 with a 6’11 wingspan, Middleton has an almost ideal combination of size, speed and shooting ability for a wing player in the modern NBA. He had never been an elite athlete even before the knee injury so he had to learn how to change speeds to score off the dribble and how to use his length to score over the top of defenders from anywhere on the floor. He’s a young player with the game of a 10-year veteran, a throwback to the days where perimeter players could kill you in the mid range as easily as they could from behind the three-point line or at the rim.
After thriving under Larry Drew, Middleton clashed initially with new coach Jason Kidd before buying into his defensive-minded philosophy and becoming one of the leaders of a up-and-coming young team that came out of nowhere to take a playoff spot. Like most young players, his per-game statistics have gone up in each of his three seasons in the NBA as he has gotten more playing time. Where you can tell that he has been working on his game is in his per-minute numbers, which have increased each season as he has earned more responsibility and trust.
Like Draymond Green, Middleton will make up for all the money he missed in the first round in restricted free agency this offseason. According to the latest reports, he will be looking for a contract similar to the one Chandler Parsons, a second round pick in 2011, received from the Dallas Mavericks - three years, $45 million. The difference is the Houston Rockets let Parsons walk in order to sign Trevor Ariza, an option the Bucks aren’t likely to have.
No matter how much money Middleton ends up signing for, it’s hard to imagine the Bucks not matching the offer sheet. Milwaukee is not exactly a franchise known for its ability to sign veteran players in the prime of their career. His ability to stretch the floor is absolutely crucial to their future, given that they are committed to three guys - Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams - who are not three-point shooters. Middleton’s length and ability to switch positions on defense is the perfect fit for Kidd’s scheme and losing him would significantly set back their rebuilding effort.
A 3-and-D player like Middleton who can create his own shot without dominating the ball would make almost any team in the NBA better. The problem is that its almost impossible to sign restricted free agents. The only way is to “overpay” them to the point where their original team wouldn’t want them. There’s little incentive for a team to let a well-regarded young player leave for nothing - you build around them or use them in trades. Given the way the free agency is set up in the NBA, the vast majority of the best players won’t hit the market until their 3rd contract in the league, when they are already nearing their 10th season and are beginning to decline as players. Those are the kind of guys you find on the market.
The better option is looking for the next Khris Middleton. There will be guys from the 2013 and 2014 drafts with similar careers - guys who are currently sitting at the end of some team’s bench, waiting for the opportunity to show what they can do. He could have been had for a song two years ago but now he will cost a fortune to acquire. Like the Drake record, by the time you have heard about Khris Middleton, it’s already too late.