Khris Middleton set to return for Bucks after working through grief and a long recovery from wrist surgery

Khris Middleton had a big smile on his face as he pulled up a chair in the Sports Science Center, a legitimate “happy to be here” feel surrounding the Milwaukee Bucks all-star. He had just wrapped up another practice with the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks’ G League affiliate, completing another step in his long-awaited return to the court after offseason wrist surgery.

Middleton finally has been cleared to return to action for the Bucks after missing the first 20 games of the season, the longest stretch of regular-season games he has missed since losing the first 56 games of the 2016-17 season following a hamstring tear.

“It feels like a shortened offseason with a training camp combined,” he said of the last month-plus. “Not necessarily rushing but just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I have to get on the court to kind of go through the process of what my body needs to prepare itself for an NBA season.”

Middleton hasn’t played in an NBA game since he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on April 20 against Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.

“It’s wild,” Brook Lopez said of how long it’s been since they last played together. “It’s wild, you know, we’ve been playing the way we are and we haven’t had an all-star, all-NBA guy like that, just tops at his position. It’s scary. Obviously we want Khris to take his time, make sure he’s healthy and get right and everything, but that’s an exciting prospect to think about.”

During media day in late September, Bucks general manager Jon Horst felt Middleton might be back “around the start” of the regular season, but the team never settled on a firm timeline on a return.

Khris Middleton is on the verge of returning to action for the Milwaukee Bucks after offseason wrist surgery.
Khris Middleton is on the verge of returning to action for the Milwaukee Bucks after offseason wrist surgery.

Middleton told the Journal Sentinel in August his knee, and legs in general, felt great after a full offseason. He said Monday his wrist is healed, it’s just that going more than six months without actual basketball activity required a longer ramp-up period to a return.

“That’s exactly what it is,” he said. “I’m in a cast where I can only do so much on the court or physical activity. Then I get out of that and just trying to get my body ready for the pounding that it takes. It’s a lot of miles you put on your body – not just a whole season but in one game. So you want to be able to bounce from one game to the next and still be fresh and still feel like yourself and not feel like you ran into a wall five games in.”

The July surgery repaired a torn scapholunate ligament in his left wrist suffered late in the regular season. The ligament is located between the scaphoid and lunate bones, which are in the crease of the wrist. It is a common injury in a fall, and it also be stretched out over time. Along with pain, it limits the range of motion and creates general weakness.

During the Bucks' preseason game against Brooklyn on Oct 12, Middleton told the ESPN broadcast he began ball handling with the left hand that day.

“My wrist feels great,” he said. “I haven’t really had any problems in this week or two. My first three weeks when I first started playing and dribbling again it felt like sometimes the ball wouldn’t come back up in my left hand. But that started coming along smoothly now.”

Familiar with leg injuries and the recovery for them, this process required some different thought processes for Middleton as he got back into action.

“It’s kind of where I tell myself I’ve been through it before as far as going through a rehab process and getting myself ready to go, but then me being specific about it (and) saying it’s a wrist injury – how do you rehab your wrist?” he said. “That was a little bit different the first couple weeks. Like OK, I have to pay attention to this and make sure I’m not trying to hide it on the screens or I’m not trying to use my left hand, which I like to do from time to time. Trying to make a conscious effort of telling myself my wrist is medically cleared to get through contact and flick it, whatever, and it’ll be fine. It might get hit, dinged up a little bit, but it’s going to be alright.”

On Nov. 1 he had his first practice with the Herd in Milwaukee, but the next day his father, James, passed away in Charleston at age 57.

“It’s tough. I mean, he was the guy that introduced me to all this,” Middleton said, lowering his head a bit and gently rubbing his hands together as he began to speak, “That showed me the love, allowed me to fall in love with the game to take me to all these places. So, to go through this process when he was waiting for me to return and watch me play, I think about it all the time. It’s tough to get through.

“But I’m grateful for my family that I have at home and that’s been around. My teammates, this organization. They’ve done everything to make sure I’ve been comfortable, that I’m not alone and pressing myself to do whatever. They understand, which I really appreciate.

"But yeah, it’s been tough. It’s going to be tough the first couple games for sure. But I’m ready to play. I know deep down in my heart, too, like ‘gotta play.’ He’s always wanted me to play basketball. I’ve always wanted to play basketball. I know he’ll always be watching and he’ll always be there with me. So it’s tough, but I’ll be able to get through it.”

Middleton rejoined the team in Oklahoma City on Nov. 9, and began practicing to some degree with the Bucks and the Herd beginning Nov. 20. He has been seen often in the arenas, pre-game shootarounds and sideline with a smile, laughing and enjoying his time back with his teammates.

“I got so many great people that I can lean on around here,” he said. “Sadly, some people have been through it before. Then some people I can just go talk to and just have a distraction, get something off my chest, be myself. That’s why I love this place so much.”

It’s been a long, hard road back, physically, mentally and emotionally.

But he is, which is why he can smile so freely.

“They’ve been great,” he said of his team. “Especially the way they’ve been playing, it makes me say OK I don’t have to feel the pressure that these guys need me, even though they want me, they don’t need me, they’re taking care of business. I feel like I’m an extra weapon that hasn’t been used yet this season.”

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Khris Middleton set to return to Bucks on Friday