Player Profile: Khris Middleton is the Reserve that the Eastern Conference (And America) Needs

Like most NBA fans, I was dismayed to hear that Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall would miss six weeks recovering from knee surgery. Before the NBA announced Pistons center Andre Drummond as the All Star Game replacement player, I saw a tweet from John Henson that made me think of an argument I had with my friends in 2016.

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Khris Middleton is not exactly a household name. The 26 year old swingman out of Texas A&M has been a very solid player for Milwaukee for the past 5 seasons after being traded from Detroit in 2013. Middleton is a classic example of an excellent basketball player who gets overlooked by today’s NBA fan; he’s not super exciting, and you won’t see any dunks of his on Instagram highlight accounts the next morning, but he’s one of the most fundamentally sound basketball player in the league today, and if he can’t be the 13th man for the Eastern Conference All Stars, maybe there is another All-Star team where he’d fit in.


Arguably the most important part of Middleton’s game is his shooting, which is why it’s important to do somewhat of a deep dive into his 3 point numbers.

He’s shooting 35% from 3 this year, which is not great. He’s a 39% career 3 point shooter, with his best shooting season coming last year, where he shot 43% in limited minutes. His 39% career clip is enough to make him the 59th best 3 point shooter in NBA history by career 3 point percentage.

The biggest reason for his decline in shooting percentage (aside from the fact that the sample size is relatively small) has to do with the most coveted shot in basketball, the corner 3.

Last season, 27% of his 3 point attempts came from the corner, this year that number is down to just 16%, a career low. Additionally, before this year, 94% of his made 3 point shots were assisted, as opposed to just 81% this year. Both of these statistics point to something that is fairly obvious if you’re watching Bucks games; Middleton has taken a bigger role in the offense this year, creating his own shots more often, and as a result it has led to less efficient 3 point shot attempts, hurting his 3P%.

Middleton’s been dribbling a lot more this year, and has been running pick and rolls as both the ball handler and the roll man. When Middleton runs the pick and roll as the ball handler, the Bucks score an average of 1.017 Points Per Possession, one of the best marks for an individual in the NBA. For comparison, James Harden scores .859 Points Per Possession as the ball handler in the pick and roll, per Synergy.  

Middleton’s improved shot creation has been a big reason for the Bucks’ offensive success this season. They currently hold the NBA’s 8th best offense and the 5th highest eFG% in the NBA. When Middleton is on the floor at the same time as Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks score 1.151 PPP, a rate that would translate to the best offense in the NBA. When Giannis is on the court and Middleton is off, the offense falls to 1.07 PPP, and the defense allows 1.13 PPP as opposed to 1.07 when Middleton is off the floor.

Offense (Would rank __ in NBA) Defense (Would rank __ in NBA)
Middleton ON, Giannis ON 1.15 (1st) 1.076 (23rd)
Middleton OFF, Giannis ON 1.07 (10th) 1.131 (30th)
Note: all numbers in Points Per Possession, all stats courtesy of NBAWowy

The Bucks’ defense has struggled this year for reason that have little to do with Middleton. They currently hold the NBA’s 19th best defense, the worst mark for any Eastern Conference playoff team except for the Cavaliers. Middleton allows just .795 PPP when defending isolation situations, one of the best clips in the NBA. His pick and roll defense could use improvement, but his individual defensive pick and roll metrics can be misleading since the Bucks are notorious for switching almost every screen.

Middleton Switch .gif

Watch Middleton pick up Demar DeRozan from the logo, only to switch with Eric Bledsoe when Kyle Lowry sets a screen. Middleton switches onto Lowry and Bledsoe proceeds to get shaken by DeRozan. The Bucks love to switch pick and rolls because they have a bunch of players who are all similarly sized and who can defend a multitude of positions. The mid-season addition of Bledsoe impedes this perfect switchability, as the 6’1” Bledsoe has trouble defending larger shooting guards like Derozan.

Middleton has also demonstrated great passing ability and court vision. On hard double teams in the post, Middleton is able to find the open man, averaging a stellar 1.438 Points Per Possession on those hard double teams.

Middleton hard double .gif

Middleton takes the ball up to find the smaller Goran Dragic guarding him, he posts him up trying to leverage his height advantage, and Kelly Olynyk helps off Matthew Dellavedova to double Middleton. Middleton immediately finds Dellavedova in the corner, who swings it to Tony Snell who knocks down an open three. These types of mismatches that Middleton creates with his size frequently leads to open shots, as the Bucks always try to space the floor as much as possible.

Middleton missed most of last season with a torn hamstring, but he has not appeared to have lost a step offensively. His 6’8” frame and long wingspan makes him a nightmare when he’s locked in on the defensive end, and an automatic mismatch on offense when facing smaller lineups. He’s the second best player on one of the best teams in the East, and though he doesn’t put up tons of exciting highlights or phenomenal stat lines, he’s a very complete player who gives his team many advantages on both ends of the floor.

Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic were voted by the NBA into the All-Star game as reserves, and that’s fine. They’re both having a great seasons and probably deserve to be All Stars, but there has to be a team, outside of the Bucks of course, that could use Middleton’s All-Star level skill set. I think I have found that team.

 


 

2016’s Team USA Olympic team stomped the competition, finishing 8-0 and taking home the gold medal. To refresh your memory, here is the stacked roster from the 2016 Olympic games:

  • Carmelo Anthony
  • DeMar Derozan
  • Kyle Lowry
  • Demarcus Cousins
  • Paul George
  • Jimmy Butler
  • Kevin Durant
  • Draymond Green
  • Klay Thompson
  • Harrison Barnes
  • Kyrie Irving
  • Deandre Jordan

Harrison Barnes is the only player on the olympic roster without an NBA All Star appearance. He played by far the least out of any player on the roster, scoring 17 total points and seeing less than half as many minutes as the player with the next lowest minutes total on the roster.

Barnes is hugely important to the success of the Dallas Mavericks, and is an integral part of their offense. However, when it comes to Team USA, he plays a role similar to that what Kyle Collinsworth plays on the Dallas Mavericks. There is no doubt that Barnes is a talented player, but is he really who you would want as the last man on your Team USA rotation?

In 2016, I vehemently argued to my friends that Khris Middleton should make the national team over Harrison Barnes. Now, two years later, I finally have a forum to project my ultimately meaningless opinion into the endless abyss of the internet. So here it goes.

For the 12th man on the USA team, you don’t need someone who can dribble and create their own shot. You want someone who is an excellent catch-and shoot 3 point shooter, as well as a versatile and reliable defender and a willing passer. Using the eye test, Middleton appears to check all those boxes more than Barnes, but the numbers can tell us more.

Barnes and Middleton are both in their 6th season and are both 26 years old. Despite his regression in shooting percentage, Middleton is still shooting a higher percentage from three and averages almost double Barnes’ assists per 36 minutes. In previous seasons, Middleton was a far better defender than Barnes. But Barnes is having his best defensive season yet, allowing only .82 PPP on isolation situations, as compared to Middleton’s slightly better .795.

They’re more similar than most NBA fans would tend to believe. You could swap them straight up and both the Bucks and Mavericks could see improvements or regressions, but in my opinion, it comes down to the kind of player you want as your 12th man.

Do you want someone who, when playing at the same time as Carmelo, Kyrie, Butler, and Durant, will take minimal shots off the dribble and will space the floor while playing solid defense? Or do you want someone you can use the way that Team USA used Harrison Barnes- as mostly a bench warmer checking in late in blowouts. Harrison Barnes has showed that he can be an okay first option on a bad team, or a fourth option on an all-time great team. But by playing only 31 minutes in international competition, he has demonstrated that there is minimal need for someone with his skillset on a team as stacked as Team USA.

The ideal 12th man isn’t someone who can come in and run your offense late in blowouts. The ideal 12th man is someone who can play with the rest of your team while not detracting from the massive amounts of talent you have on the floor. The ideal 12th man is someone who actually makes their teammates better by playing solid team defense, taking a backseat on offense while spacing the floor with his 3 point shooting. Maybe Harrison Barnes could be that player for Team USA one day, but he was not that player this past Olympics season.

So let’s take John Henson’s suggestion and run with it. Maybe Middleton can’t be an NBA All Star just yet, but there’s still time to get him on the 2020 Olympic roster. Let’s do the right thing, USA, and give Khris Middleton the chance to be the role player that the country has always dreamed of.

 

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

Posted in NBA

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