It didn’t take long for Khris Middleton to see which way the winds were blowing in Milwaukee several years ago, as the second-year player was trying to find his way and noticed a raw, 19-year-old rookie doing some freakish things.
It was 2013 and the Bucks were headed for a 15-win season, but Middleton figured out pretty early that Giannis Antetokounmpo was going to be something special once his game caught up to his body and athleticism.
“We saw it coming along. We didn’t know how good he could be, but we knew he had the talent and skill set to be special, like he is now,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports. “It’s something you saw a couple years ago, what he could be as a player.”
Perhaps it was then, or sometime later, but Middleton decided to become the perfect complement for Antetokounmpo, and together they form one of the best tandems in the East. Middleton is averaging 17.6 points and 5.8 rebounds for a Bucks team that’s two games behind conference-leading Toronto.
“I think the main thing is everybody’s bought into each other,” Middleton said. “We know who’s gonna get the majority of the shots, majority of the touches, and we all try to feed off that.”
Antetokounmpo shines brightest as an MVP candidate who starts and ends every sentence for the Bucks, who are crashing the Eastern Conference playoff party. But it’s Middleton who dots the I’s and crosses the T’s.
“I’d say we’re up there. We don’t get talked about as much as a duo, but I think we’re definitely up there,” Middleton said.
Almost overnight, the East has become top-heavy with multiple stars across the board. Philadelphia added Jimmy Butler to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to cover for their youth while providing moxie and late-game heroics. Toronto bet big on Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry is a made man. Boston has a plethora next to Kyrie Irving, a constellation of future stars waiting for orbit.
The belief within the Bucks is Antetokounmpo is the bona fide star, with Middleton and Eric Bledsoe as solid supporting pieces. But when it comes to players who can easily play off each other, Middleton could be the best wing man to Antetokounmpo’s best man.
“We’re small forwards, power forwards that can play like point guards,” Middleton said. “I’m not as athletic as him, but I can still be able to switch on bigger and smaller guys. When you put it like that, I think we’re one of the most dynamic duos in the East.”
While Antetokounmpo’s game continues to evolve, it’s not easy to project who could be his ideal running mate. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work with Jabari Parker, the player who was pegged to be the super scorer alongside Antetokounmpo.
But Middleton’s simplicity could make him the perfect sidekick, even if it made him easy to overlook.
Every team could use a Middleton, which makes him even more of a commodity for the Bucks. Can you see him playing in Golden State’s movement-based system, getting open shots with his quick release? How about playing next to LeBron in L.A., as someone who doesn’t need the ball but can score 25 in the blink of an eye? He already terrorized Boston in the first round last year, so Brad Stevens could certainly employ him in some mix-and-match schemes.
The 27-year old Middleton, who is expected to hit free agency this summer, has earned the embraced-yet-dreaded tag of the league’s “most underrated player,” one of the few elite two-way wingmen who hasn’t been rewarded with an All-Star appearance or national recognition.
But without a hint of anger or sarcasm, Middleton quips, “Teams know who I am.”
The Celtics most certainly do, as Middleton torched them for 24.7 points per game — including a 40-footer to send Game 1 into overtime — in their seven-game, first-round series.
While Antetokounmpo can take up the whole floor with his length and considerable athleticism, Middleton only needs a sliver of space to get his shot off, drive to the basket or make a play on the run.
He can make an impact quickly, even if he is capable of doing more, but he is launching seven triples a night (making 39.5 percent) — a byproduct of playing next to a star who needs space.
While the volume has resulted in career-low 42 percent shooting from the floor — with more than half of his attempts coming from 3 — Middleton keeps the perspective of a 2012 Pistons second-round pick who barely played as a rookie before being traded to Milwaukee in the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight deal.
“Coming here it was kind of a new beginning, and I had to earn my spot,” Middleton said. “So at the point I’m at now, I still have that hungry mindset. I want to do great things, I still want to lead the team, but at the same time, you have to sacrifice certain parts of your game.”
“Touches, shots. A little bit of everything, but I know it’s best for the team,” he said. “So I don’t take that personally at all. I accepted that role, I accept who I am as a player and person.”
The Bucks feel Middleton can fill that role and should he opt out to hit free agency, a Bucks official told Yahoo Sports: “We’re gonna do everything we can to keep him.”
Half of the league will hit free agency in July, and Middleton will have plenty of suitors if he so chooses.
“I feel like over the years we’re building something special here, so I feel like there will be an opportunity for me to be here and win at the same time,” Middleton said. “If I feel like I have a chance to win somewhere else and do better things, I’ll look into that.”
Talking the talk
“It’ll definitely be buried five years from now when we’ve got the next Durant and Westbrook.”
— Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger, referring to De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley and defending his praise of Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic from being interpreted as criticism of the Kings’ front office
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