Milwaukee Bucks: Patience is warranted with Khris Middleton

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 05: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 05: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

Despite having some significant inconsistencies with his shooting this season, Milwaukee Bucks fans should patient with Khris Middleton.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton has been a lightning rod for criticism this season.

Despite making the first All-Star appearance of his career just a few weeks ago in Charlotte, Middleton has often been the focus of fans’ ire in the rare instances when the Bucks have suffered defeat.

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Much of the criticism has focused on Middleton’s inefficiencies with his shot. In several of their losses, like their surprising defeat against the sputtering Phoenix Suns last week, Middleton has failed to get going in any significant way.

Some of this criticism isn’t unfounded.

Middleton experienced his first major shooting slump of the season back in December, which I discussed in some detail at the time. He’s in the middle of a second significant slump now.

In the ten games the Milwaukee Bucks have played since the all-star break, Khris Middleton is shooting just 38.7 percent from the field on 15.5 attempts per game.

Given these two shooting slumps, it comes as no surprise that Middleton is in the middle of the worst shooting season of his career. After shooting at least 44 percent or better in every season he’s played, Middleton’s shooting percentage this season sits at 42.7 percent, 3.9 percent below his percentage from last season.

Why is Middleton continuing to struggle?

The simplest explanation is that the role he’s being asked to play is quite different from the one he was required to play over the past several seasons.

When Middleton first broke out for the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013-14  season, his offensive game was almost entirely predicated on hitting open jump shots.

Of the 376 shots that Middleton made in his first season with Milwaukee, 291 were assisted by a teammate. In addition to that, 259 of his made shots were regular jump shots.

In that season, 45.7 percent of his shot attempts were catch and shoot. He shot 45.1 percent on those catch and shoot attempts and had a well above average effective field goal percentage (60 percent) on them.

As the Bucks’ offense began to change, however, Middleton’s role began to change with it.

Middleton went from playing as a primarily off-the-ball shooter over his two seasons in Milwaukee, to a player who could create his own shot.

His transformation began in 2015-16. During that year, he made 279 assisted shots, but saw his unassisted makes jump from 85 and 122 in the two seasons prior, to 228.

Catch-and-shoot attempts, which made up over 40 percent of his total attempts in his first two seasons in Milwaukee, dropped to just 31.9 percent of his total shot attempts that season.

That trend continued in his first full season back from a hamstring tear last season, as 314 of Middleton’s made shots were assisted last season compared to 279 that were unassisted. Catch and shoot attempts dropped to a career low (to that point) of 28.6 percent of his shots.

Middleton was forced to evolve his game. Part of this was certainly related to Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s emergence as the team’s star player. Another part of it was that it was a logical next step for his game to take in his progression as an NBA player. However, the most significant cause was the Bucks’ inefficient offense they ran under former head coach Jason Kidd and interim head coach Joe Prunty.

Because of the slow pace, lack of ball movement, and poor floor-spacing the Bucks had, Middleton was forced to expand his game to where he could create shots for himself. Failing to do this in the Bucks’ clogged offense would have seen Middleton struggle to produce much as a scorer.

As a result, Middleton became quite good at creating his own shot. Last season, Middleton shot 45 percent on 40 fadeaway jump shots, 50.3 percent on 167 pull-up jumpers, 53.2 percent on 47 step back jump shots, 56.5 percent on 46 turnaround fadeaway shots, and 52.8 percent on 36 turnaround jumpshots. All of those stats put him at or near the top of the league for players who could create their own shot.

His transformation into an elite shot creator has continued this season, as well. For the first time in his career, Middleton is making significantly more unassisted shots (216) than assisted ones (163).

Middleton struggles this season haven’t come on the shots he’s been able to create for himself. Most of his stats on those types of shots are comparable to or better than they were last season. It’s been in his inability to hit jumpers that’s hurting him.

Of the 365 regular jump shots that Middleton has taken so far this season, he’s made just 34.8 percent of them. Only in the 2015-16 season, the first where he began to evolve his game, did Middleton have a worse shooting percentage on those shots (34.3 percent on 654 attempts) than he has now.

His numbers on catch and shoot attempts are by far the worst of his career too. Despite taking fewer of them with each passing season, Middleton continued to maintain his efficiency on catch and shoot shots until this year.

Though they currently make up just under a quarter of his total attempts per game, Middleton is shooting 35.9 percent when taking them, and his effective field goal percentage on those attempts is just 51.4 percent. He had never shot below 42 percent on catch and shoot attempts before this season, and his effective field goal percentage this year is 7.2 percent worse on those attempts than his previous low which he set last year.

His jump shot issues are not related to the quality of the looks he’s getting either. In the Bucks’ new offense under Head Coach Mike Budenholzer, the team has been much more efficient at creating open shots for everyone, particularly players who can space the floor. This is quite different from the Bucks’ offenses of past seasons.

Middleton is often getting open looks, especially from three: 51.3 percent of his shots this year have been open or wide open. He’s just not making them at a consistent rate.

Middleton is struggling to adjust to his new role in the team. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe have emerged as the first and second offensive options. This means Middleton is often being asked to play third fiddle on offense, where’s he’s playing off the ball more often than in years past. That’s a major change for a player who’s completely remade his game in recent seasons, and who had become the Bucks’ second option behind Antetokounmpo.

Making a major adjustment to your game is a big ask of any player. Former Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat star big man Chris Bosh discussed this issue on The Bill Simmons Podcast in February.

At the 45:49 mark, Bosh drew on his experience with the Miami Heat to discuss what that kind of role change entails:

"“You know what, the hardest thing as a primary ball-handler is catching and shooting off the catch. You’re stepping into the shot and shooting, It’s surprisingly hard to learn to how to do that. It took me two years to learn how to do that, to shoot wide-open jumpers. As crazy as that sounds! Because a guy like D[wyane Wade], he’s used to creating the shot and is used to certain moves to get [the defender]. If he’s in a situation that’s just catch and shoot, you think you have to do more, and you’re not used to somebody else being that creator and hitting you. It’s a different thing. It’s a different concept to learn. It’s a way different approach to the game.”"

Though Middleton isn’t learning how to shoot open jumpers for the first time like Bosh was, he’s being asked to undergo a similar role change as the one Bosh was asked to undergo in Miami. Like Bosh, Middleton finds himself playing as a third option on a very good team where many of the shots he’s expected to take are open jumpers.

That takes time to adjust to, as Bosh highlights.

Middleton’s shown, as his stats in his previous seasons indicate, that he can be a great off-ball shooter. It just takes time for a player to adjust their game to a different role, even if it’s a role they’ve had before.

Despite his struggles at times this season, the Bucks are still posting a net rating of 10.3 with him on the floor, which is 1.5 points better than their league-best team net rating. The Bucks are a significantly better team with him than they would be without him.

Time is running out for Middleton to figure it out. However, the Bucks should keep faith.

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: Ranking potential Eastern Conference playoff matchups. dark

Given the quality of the looks he gets, and the success he’s had on those shots in the past, it’s only a matter of time before a regression to the mean occurs and he gets hot in a major way.