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The Ascent of Khris Middleton

The Milwaukee Bucks are loaded with young talent, and their record this year after a league-worst mark last year shows that. Despite a 4-9 record since the All-Star break, the Bucks still sit as the sixth seed in the East with a 34-32 record.

The core of the team revolves around stud rookie Jabari Parker – who’s out with an ACL injury – and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s taking the NBA by storm. Michael Carter-Williams has the potential to be a good player under the tutelage of head coach Jason Kidd, but the wild-card is Khris Middleton.

Middleton came to Milwaukee when the Bucks sent Brandon Jennings to Detroit for Middleton and Brandon Knight, who’s now in Phoenix. Middleton is enjoying a career year and will be rewarded with a hearty contract in the offseason.

Middleton will be a restricted free agent this summer, and Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times reports that some NBA executives have pegged Middleton’s annual contract value to be between $7-8 million, although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get an even bigger contract. For now, the Bucks’ plan is to match any offer sheet.

These salary estimates come on the heels of the news that the salary cap will make a huge leap in 2016 after a smaller rise next season. On the surface, it may seem like Middleton, who’s averaging 12.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists, may not warrant such a large contract. However, advanced stats and his defensive numbers indicate Middleton may in fact be deserving of a lucrative deal.

First, Middleton is an extremely efficient shooter, especially from three-point land. On the season, Middleton is posting a 47.3/43.8/85.4 shooting line. A 50/40/90 line is the gold standard when it comes to shooting, and while Middleton isn’t on that level, his numbers are encouraging for a 23 year-old.

Since the All-Star break, Middleton has increased his three-point efficiency despite his team’s struggles. Middleton is shooting 48.1 percent from beyond the arc since the break, compared to his hardly paltry 42.3 percent before the break. Among players who have attempted at least 100 threes this season, Middleton ranks fifth in the league in three-point shooting percentage.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Middleton’s game is his ability to play off the ball. Middleton uses screens effectively and often shoots immediately after coming off the screen. Highlights from his 30-point game on March 11 indicate he rarely creates his own shot, and if his shots aren’t taken coming right off of the screen, he usually only takes one or two dribbles before hoisting his shot:

Advanced stats back up this assertion about Middleton’s playing style. According to NBA.com, Middleton takes 51 percent of his shots while dribbling zero times, and he’s shooting those shots at a 48.8 percent clip. He also shoots most effectively from three-point land while not dribbling, knocking down 44.6 percent of his threes without taking a dribble.

Offensively, Middleton’s numbers are solid, but he’s also an underrated defender. While playing defense, Middleton holds his opponents below their season average field goal percentage from all places on the court, according to NBA.com. He’s holding his opponents to 3.6 percent below their average mark from three-point land and 4.7 percent below their average on two-point attempts.

Middleton’s climb to a big pay day hasn’t happened overnight, as he has improved his scoring average every month over the course of the season. He really broke out in January, when he averaged 12.9 points while shooting an absurd 53.8 percent from the field and 52.3 percent from three-point land. He’s currently averaging 20.9 points in March.

Middleton has demonstrated his value to the Bucks’ front office and Kidd since the beginning of the year. Not only are his numbers impressive, but his ability to guard multiple positions is a huge plus. This versatility is important for the Bucks as Kidd seemingly has a lineup for everything.

In addition to all of the other stats, Middleton’s on/off splits are superb:

Middleton is going to get paid this summer, and it will not just be as a result of the inflated salary cap. At 23, Middleton can be an important part of Milwaukee’s young core for a long, long time.

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