Khris Middleton was once a relatively unknown prospect, packaged by the Detroit Pistons — along with Brandon Knight and Viacheslav Kravtsov — to acquire Brandon Jennings eight years ago.
When Middleton signed a 5-year deal worth $70 million two summers later, he probably still wasn’t a widely familiar face to most casual NBA observers despite 13.4 points per game on 47 / 41 / 86 shooting splits in his third NBA season before signing the big extension. The Milwaukee Bucks had improved to 41-41 from 15-67 in 2014-15, even making the playoffs before the third-seeded Chicago Bulls eliminated them in six games. Hell, never mind Middleton — we were still learning about Giannis Antetokounmpo, then in his second year, and only posting 12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.6 assists, while being second in minutes played at 31.4 per game. (Their best player was actually the aforementioned Knight.)
Not long after, as Giannis rose to stardom, making his first All-Star appearance two seasons later, it became trendy for Middleton to receive the “underrated” tag. When he reached his own ASG status in 2019, then repeating in 2020, the calls grew louder. Today, Middleton is in the midst of an up-and-down playoff stretch for the third straight season.
The first time the current incarnation of the Bucks made it out of the first round was the season Middleton became an All-Star in 2018-19. They had the league’s best record at 60-22 but lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. His regular-season averages were roughly 18, 6 and 4 on 44 / 38 / 84 splits. Middleton’s points, rebounds, and assists each playoff series, along with his splits, were as follows:
- Round 1 vs. Detroit Pistons: 19-6-4, 46 / 46 / 90 — Bucks in four
- Round 2 vs. Boston Celtics: 19-6-5, 40 / 47 / 45 — Bucks in five
- ECF vs. Toronto Raptors: 14-7-4, 41 / 38 / 77 — Raptors in six
In 2019-20, after regular-season averages of 21, 6 and 4 on 50 / 42 / 92 shooting:
- Round 1 vs. Orlando Magic: 15-8-5, 36 / 38 / 65 — Bucks in five
- Round 2 vs. Miami Heat: 26-6-7, 42 / 33 / 93 — Heat in five
And this year, following regular-season averages of 20, 6 and 5 on 48 / 41 / 90 shooting, here’s what we’ve seen from Middleton:
- Round 1 vs. Miami Heat: 22-7-4, 49 / 41 / 90 — Bucks in four
- Round 2 vs. Brooklyn Nets: 24-9-4, 41 / 37 / 86 — Bucks in seven
And in Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, in which the Bucks lost 116-113, Middleton only netted 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting from the floor and 0-of-9 from three, adding five rebounds and four assists.
Middleton is no doubt one of the great players in the sport who had been underrated for much of his career, but he’ll need to establish more of his regular-season self if the Bucks are going to avoid an upset against the Hawks. Other mitigating factors are reasons for their loss, and it was only by three points in Game 1, but Milwaukee can’t expect a 6-for-23 performance from their best shot creator to be sufficient. In his playoff career, save for a 2017-18 first-round seven-game series against the Celtics where he averaged 24.7 points, Middleton’s never shot over 41.8 percent from the field — though he does have a career 40 percent hit rate from deep in the postseason.
But whether it’s not letting Trae Young completely dominate you for 48 points and 11 assists, or not giving up 34 combined rebounds to Clint Capela (19) and John Collins (15), as Giannis (34 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) and Jrue Holiday (33 points 10 assists) hold up their end (offensively), the Bucks will need a little more consistency out of their second All-Star to avoid a loss of their golden opportunity. And Middleton is nice, bruh, he’s beyond capable — it’s just that with All-Star status comes All-Star expectations.