Last March, I wrote about “The New Khris Middleton” that developed after the Bucks’ deadline deal swapping Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams. Middleton was dribbling more, shooting more, and taking more difficult shots. Many, including Middleton, thought that version of his game would disappear this season and he would move back to a more complimentary offensive role this season.
“I felt like last year I was forced into that role (after the All-Star Break). This year, I won’t be forced into that role to take as many tough shots as I felt I did last year,” said Middleton on Bucks media day. “With Greg (Monroe) and Jabari (Parker) coming back, I should just be able to play my role, not force as much, and just play off others and play my game.”
That, however, hasn’t been the case, which makes Middleton’s recent surge even more interesting. In fact, Middleton’s scoring profile looks remarkably similar to his play after the All-Star Break last season.
Before the All-Star Break, and, more importantly, the trade deadline last season, Khris Middleton was taking just nine shots per game with nearly 60 percent of those shots coming at the rim or behind the three-point line. Of his three-point attempts, 44 percent came from the corners, creating a shot profile befitting a limited “3-and-D” guy.
After the All-Star Break, Middleton’s shot profile changed dramatically. Teams ran him off the three-point line (especially out of the corners), and kept him from getting all the way to the rim, resulting in Middleton taking nearly 20 percent more mid-range shots. Despite facing new and more challenging defensive schemes, Middleton remained relatively effective as the Bucks’ primary offensive option, averaging 16.8 points on 14 shots per game. But he never really looked comfortable in the role.
This season, instead of his offense becoming more complementary, Middleton’s shot profile has looked more like it did after the trade deadline. Once again, teams have kept Middleton from getting all the way to the rim. What’s different, however, is that Middleton has recorded the highest three-point rate of his career – 34.4 percent – despite opponents giving him even fewer opportunities for corner threes. Middleton seems to have accepted that opponents will continue to pay him significant attention, but seems more comfortable finding and making shots.
While the location of his shots help illustrate the changes Middleton has made, the manner in which he has gotten to those spots paints an even more vivid picture of his seemingly ever-changing role.
Middleton’s catch-and-shoot opportunities have decreased from 53.9 percent to 43.6 percent. He’s shooting more after dribbling. Middleton is creating more offense for himself, leading to an increase in unassisted baskets.
Middleton has struggled to get to the rim – the percentage of points he has scored in the paint has shrunk from 29.9 percent to 19.7 percent. His inability to score in the paint might suggest an over-reliance on inefficient mid-range jumpers, but Middleton has done a nice job balancing this possible inefficiency by scoring more of his points at the free throw line and recording a career high free throw rate of .276.
In a single season, Middleton has seen the way he scores change dramatically. But his changed scoring approach is only half of the story.
The most impressive part of Middleton’s development may be the strides he has made as a playmaker.
After the All-Star Break last season, Middleton saw his usage rate (per NBA.com) jump from 18.4 to 21.5, which is a nerdy way of saying he transformed from a complimentary player to a primary offensive threat. Middleton added more than an assist per game in the Bucks’ final 29 games, but his number of turnovers increased at a similar rate.
Last season, the post-trade Bucks bestowed Middleton with greater playmaking responsibilities even though Middleton never appeared comfortable with those responsibilities. One could describe the struggles as “growing pains,” but only if they had the luxury of knowing Middleton would eventually showcase his skills as a playmaker like he has in the last few weeks, because there did not appear to be much growth last season.
NBA playmaking is extremely difficult and Middleton didn’t truly understand the intricacies of his new role. You don’t just have to know when to shoot or pass; you have to know when a 15-foot jumper is a good shot and when it is a bad shot. When you choose to pass, when do you throw that pass? How do you throw that pass? Where do you throw that pass?
The video above shows the difficulty a new playmaker must work though to gain comfort with pick and roll play. As the video goes on, Middleton holds on to the ball a bit longer, throws passes in slightly different ways, and yet, each play ends with a turnover. A pick and roll seems simple, but it is excruciatingly complex and, as the video illustrates, timing is crucial.
Patience, too, is crucial to a successful pick and roll. The beauty of the best pick and rolls comes in the manipulation of defenders, which was something Middleton struggled with last season. When young players have plays called for them, they often feel as though that play must unfold a certain way. But that isn’t always the case. On each of the plays shown above, Middleton never got a defender to commit to an action; the defenders were instead able to show token pressure and return to their responsibilities.
Middleton has made major strides in manipulating defenders this season. Wizards forward Otto Porter went underneath an initial screen and Middleton initiated a rescreen with John Henson. In the closing minutes of a game, Middleton attracted two defenders and took two dribbles to the side, giving Henson time to go to a more dangerous spot on the floor, leading to a Giannis Antetokounmpo dunk. These seemingly insignificant actions make all the difference in pick and roll play and show the growth Middleton has made in just around 50 games.
Last season, Middleton’s pick and roll play was statistically awful (per Synergy). In 175 pick and roll situations, Middleton did not score well (.649 points per possession – 24th percentile leaguewide) and turned the ball over 21 percent of the time. Unfortunately, things weren’t much better for the Bucks as a whole – the team scored just .714 points per Middleton pick and roll (14th percentile).
This season has been much different. Middleton has been scoring .735 points per possession and turning over the ball just 17.7 percent of the time (per Synergy), which is pretty average, but a huge step forward for someone who struggled so much last season. The Bucks have also used Middleton in pick and roll situations 188 times, already 13 more times than all of last season.
While his improved pick and roll scoring is nice, it’s his playmaking that really stands out. On Middleton’s pick and roll passes, the Bucks are scoring 1.12 points per possession (77th percentile). On passes to the roll man, the Bucks are scoring 1.28 points per possession (93rd percentile). That type of production is huge for a Bucks offense that has struggled to score this season.
Along with helping out roll men, Middleton’s improved pick and roll play has given wings like Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker easy looks at the rim. While many of the league’s best pick and roll combos are surrounded by great shooters, the Bucks have used their best shooter in pick and rolls and surrounded him with non-shooters. The unorthodox setup has somehow managed to work extremely well, as the Bucks are scoring 1.45 points per possession on Middleton passes to cutters in pick and roll situations.
The above video might be the best evidence of Middleton’s improved sophistication in pick and roll play. In each instance, Middleton displays fantastic timing and patience while manipulating defenders. He skillfully surveys the floor and figures out the correct way to puncture the defense.
While Middleton’s impressive box score statistics have stood out as of late, the manner in which he accumulated those stats is most noteworthy. Adding playmaking abilities to a true three-point shooting stroke makes Middleton more than just a specialist; it makes him a special player that can be leaned on while the Bucks youngsters learn how to do many of the same things.