How an early season funk transformed Khris Middleton into an All-Star

Khris Middleton’s playmaking has boosted the Bucks’ offense. (Getty)
Khris Middleton’s playmaking has boosted the Bucks’ offense. (Getty)

TORONTO — When Khris Middleton found out he was going to his first All-Star Game in his home state of North Carolina, he was tucked into the corner of the visitor’s locker room at the Scotiabank Arena, his legs buoyed in the air by compression pants, looking like he was getting ready to go sledding. Within seconds, he was fielding congratulatory calls from his dad and his sister while his team lined up like autograph-seekers to congratulate him. He took one earphone out to dap up Tony Snell and coach Mike Budenholzer before re-inserting it and smiling down at his phone, happily ensconced in his bubble. He waved off reporters, saving his media obligations for his usual time after the game.

It was a day like any other — with no reprieve and plenty of work ahead. So why would his routine change? Besides, Middleton was tasked with particularly important work: walling Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ bruising bundle of muscle, off his favorite spots to keep the No. 2 seed in the East at the No. 1 Bucks’ heels. It was the rare February battle with seeding implications. “Tonight is just a more important game,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports before last Thursday’s announcement of All-Star reserves. “So you can’t put too much thought into it.”

Middleton spent entire possessions of the game with his legs crouched down and arms wide open, absorbing Leonard’s blows and giving the help enough time to double. He delivered a taut 18 points on nine shots, including a series of backbreaking fadeaways. He was steady and calm under duress, never doing more than what was necessary while the Bucks blew the doors off Toronto.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has spent six years watching Middleton grow from a trade throw-in from Detroit in 2013 to a 3-and-D exemplar and now an All Star, saw through Middleton’s patented nonchalant stoicism after the win. “I’ve never seen a smile on him that bright, when he found out he was an All-Star.”

Middleton was indeed happy. Not for the public’s recognition — years of being underestimated, as a high school recruit, second-rounder and NBA star have given him an acute understanding of how fickle and distorted reputation is. “The hoopla, the media — no offense — it doesn’t get to me,” he said. Instead, he puts credence into the estimations of those closest to him: his team and family, including the mother he got his “low-key, kinda reserved” personality from. Middleton isn’t the greatest showman, but he prides himself on being the greatest teammate, which only makes it sweeter that his first All-Star appearance came in the midst of a season filled with toil and sacrifice.

It started early. Before the Bucks even officially hired Budenholzer this summer, he shared breakfast with Antetokounmpo and Middleton, and the two discussed striking a balance between the seventh-year swingman’s proclivity for midrange shots and the need to space the floor to modernize their offense and unlock Antetokounmpo’s potential.

But when the season started, the Bucks were all about the rim and beyond the arc, invigorating the offense but stymieing Middleton’s dynamism. Just 9.6 percent of his points came from midrange in November. So much had been forged into Middleton’s 19-footer, a shot he honed and mastered for six years, and its sudden absence left him out of sorts. He was overthinking and playing passively, shirking drives to the rim for awkward, out-of-rhythm 3-pointers that snowballed in December into his worth shooting month as a Buck: 38.5 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three. He became disengaged, wandering listlessly around the court, deprived of the thing that anchored his game.

Khris Middleton shoots against Thunder forward Abdel Nader during a game in Oklahoma City in late January. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Khris Middleton shoots against Thunder forward Abdel Nader during a game in Oklahoma City in late January. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

“It was definitely tough,” Middleton, a career 38.9 percent 3-point shooter, said. “I’ve been a good 3-point shooter, but I’ve been a better midrange shooter my whole career, so it was definitely frustrating to try to figure out that balance.”

It all came to a head against the New York Knicks in early December, when a series of low-effort plays — capped off by a failure to box out and close out in the same possession — landed Middleton on the bench for the fourth quarter and overtime of a Bucks loss.

The rub to disregarding outside opinions? Repudiations from the inside hit harder. They mean more. “I understood everything, why I was on the bench,” Middleton said. “I owned it. I owned up to everything. I couldn’t play a game like that and expect my team to win.”

The next practice, Middleton and Budenholzer — relative strangers just a few months ago — pored over film in search of a resolution, acknowledging how special they could be together. The Bucks were 15-7, the East’s No. 2 seed, with the NBA’s best offensive efficiency. The system was working. They just had to find a way to make it work for Middleton.

The meeting ended with player and coach demanding more from each other. “How could he be more involved? Feel more impactful? And I think, at that point, I could do a better job as a coach,” Budenholzer reflected. “You just gotta stay the course. Sometimes players, teams, have little …,” he trailed off before picking up again. “Doesn’t mean you are going, in my case, to abandon what you believe in.”

Middleton didn’t leave the meeting treating threes like a scourge upon his career, and Budenholzer came to understand that Middleton needed to operate more on the fly and less like a shot plot of pure efficiency. They agreed to put the ball in Middleton’s hands more for pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs, where his ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor would work as a constant threat, which would open up things for his teammates.

Against the Raptors, he scored his first basket by hesitating at the arc, giving his defender Danny Green pause, before exploding for a driving dunk. Later, he left Leonard in the dust after a pick, but didn’t settle for the jumper. He took an extra dribble, forcing the Raptors to squeeze into the paint, and kicked out the ball to D.J. Wilson for three.

Budenholzer learned to see Middleton differently. Middleton is in turn learning to see the game differently, constantly picking up points from the coaching staff and new reads from game tape, forging his own path to stardom, with fewer shots — he’s averaging 17.3 points compared to 20.3 last year — and shared playmaking duties. His sacrifices helped vault the Bucks into contention, forcing the NBA’s hand in an era in which constant surveillance and data collection ensure that winning contributions won’t go unnoticed.

He didn’t make the All-Star Game in L.A. last season, despite averaging three more points. He made it in Charlotte — a three-hour drive from the beach fronts in his hometown of Charleston, still his ideal vacation spot to laze around with old friends — where he’ll be joined by Antetokounmpo, Budenholzer and the rest of the Bucks coaching staff. “There’s no other second family you’d wanna be around other than these guys,” Middleton said.

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