Lowe: Khris Middleton is a rare kind of second star

Father and son remember the stops at Fuddruckers in Columbia, S.C., more than halfway through the five-hour drive back to Charleston from Atlanta, where the son, only 12, had started practicing that summer with a high-level AAU team.

The son realized he was in over his head during warm-ups. The Atlanta players dunked. He wouldn’t dunk until the end of sophomore year in high school. He would cry sometimes on drives back.

“I thought I was good,” Khris Middleton says. “I realized I was s—ty.” His father, James, had picked the Atlanta team to show his son how far he had to go. Fuddruckers became the place where Khris cheered up.

“I let him order whatever he wanted,” James says. “‘Get yourself together. I cannot let you come into the house crying, or I’m going to be in trouble with your mother.'”

Middleton kept going back to Atlanta — sometimes twice a week. Those practices marked the start of a jagged, improbable journey to Middleton’s first All-Star appearance last week.

Halfway through high school, Middleton wasn’t drawing interest from major nearby colleges. Dave Odom, then the coach of South Carolina, spotted Middleton as a sophomore while scouting other players. He asked John Pearson, Middleton’s coach at Porter-Gaud School, if Middleton could dunk. He couldn’t. Odom lost interest.

“He looked and played young,” Odom says.

“His IQ was beyond his years,” Pearson says, “but he did not have the physical makeup to execute his ideas.”

Middleton hit a growth spurt that summer, and found his game. A lot of big programs — including Clemson, his dream — had already moved on. Middleton played an old-school, deliberate style that did not attract eyeballs. A couple of Texas A&M assistants who had never heard of Middleton before noticed him during AAU tournaments.

In the spring of his junior year, the Middletons had a family event in Shreveport — a four-hour drive from A&M. They asked if they might visit. Someone — no one can remember now — sent DVDs of Middleton highlights to Mark Turgeon, A&M’s head coach.

Turgeon thought Middleton looked young. “He doesn’t have any hair on his legs,” Turgeon told Middleton’s father as they strolled campus.

“Late bloomer,” James replied.

Turgeon liked Middleton enough to offer a scholarship despite having never seen him play in person. Middleton soon committed. Turgeon called Scott Spinelli, an assistant who pushed for Middleton, to relay the news. “Good news,” Turgeon said. “Khris committed. Bad news: This m—–f—– better be able to play.”

After two years at A&M, Middleton was a solid first-round NBA prospect. Turgeon convinced him to stay another year. That May, Turgeon took the University of Maryland job. A&M hired Billy Kennedy to replace him.

Kennedy and Middleton never clicked. Middleton tore the meniscus in his right knee in early November. He returned a month later but wasn’t the same. “He was skittish,” Kennedy says. “He played not to get hurt.”

His draft stock fell. Scouts — the Thunder were especially interested, sources say — heard rumblings Middleton was soft.

Detroit picked him 39th in 2012 — nine picks after Middleton and his father, devastated at falling out of the first round, had stopped watching. “I didn’t see soft,” says Joe Dumars, then the Pistons’ GM. “I saw a guy who played at his own pace.”

Observers confused languid style with lax effort. “He looked so low motor,” says Steve Hetzel, a Pistons assistant then who worked closely with Middleton. Hetzel nicknamed Middleton “WD-40.” He once stashed a can in Middleton’s locker.

But Middleton was still playing tentatively in his first summer league. He hadn’t regained full strength in his knee.

Hetzel and Middleton were reviewing film in the lobby of the Grand Bohemian Hotel during the NBA’s Orlando summer league when Dumars walked by. He paused to chastise Middleton about his effort. “He almost had his finger in his face,” Hetzel says.

“This isn’t college,” Dumars remembers saying. “Turn it up.”

Hetzel doubled down. “Your physicality has to change,” Hetzel told him. “You’re playing soft. You’re not making contact plays.”

Another assistant said Middleton “floated” through games. Six-plus years later, that word came up again when Mike Budenholzer, the new Milwaukee Bucks coach, benched Middleton during a Dec. 1 loss to the Knicks. Middleton had reached half-heartedly for two loose balls.

By then, Budenholzer and Middleton had already reviewed film of Middleton falling short on hustle plays. Middleton was struggling to adapt to Budenholzer’s offensive system, which did not offer as many one-on-one opportunities in Middleton’s pet midrange, and letting the uncertainty infect other parts of his game.

“Things frustrated me and it was coming out the wrong way,” Middleton says. “I was floating through possessions. I was being used as a 3-point shooter instead of as someone who can do lots of things. [Budenholzer] saw that.”

Budenholzer has tried to be less dogmatic — to meet Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the middle. But he has been blunt about floating. “[The benching] wasn’t out of nowhere,” Budenholzer says. “Khris has another gear. We need him to get to that gear more. We are demanding. If your best players aren’t doing it, you’re f—ed.”

The Bucks have since established themselves as the league’s best team outside Oakland. Middleton has accepted Budenholzer’s request to shoot more 3s — something Jason Kidd, Budenholzer’s predecessor, also asked of him, according to player and coach. A big contract — and a fork-in-the-road moment for the Bucks — awaits.

“It’s amazing how Khris has grown,” Antetokounmpo says. “As a team, we have clicked. It is something special.”

In Detroit, Middleton fell behind fellow rookies Kyle Singler and Kim English. His right leg — the one in which he tore his meniscus a year earlier — would sometimes swell. Lawrence Frank, Detroit’s coach, thought he was lacking on defense. “If Lawrence didn’t think you could guard, you weren’t playing,” says Dee Brown, an assistant on that Pistons staff.

One-on-one and 2-on-2 battles against English, Singler, and Brown — before games or after practices — became Middleton’s games. They kept score. Trash talk flowed. “It was sacred ritual,” Brown says. The rookies knew coaches were watching. Middleton went at English, taken five spots behind him, with special zeal.

“It was absolutely cutthroat,” English recalls. Greg Monroe sometimes stuck around after practice to watch, he says.

“It got personal,” Brown says. “He didn’t say it, but Khris always thought he was better than Kim.” Games turned physical. “I would tell Khris, ‘You can’t push a coach!'” Brown says, laughing.

Three years later, Middleton channeled that same competitive rage into a higher-end roster battle: against Antetokounmpo, for alpha status in Milwaukee. In the winter of 2015, Kidd sensed an unspoken tension as Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Monroe, and Jabari Parker felt out a hierarchy. He wanted it in the open. He interrupted a film session and asked every player on the roster, one by one, who was best among them.

“It was awkward,” Middleton says. Most nominated Middleton. Antetokounmpo refused to go along. “He was stubborn,” Monroe says.

“Khris was better then,” Antetokounmpo admits.

Middleton and Antetokounmpo ratcheted up the physicality defending each other in practice. “We were fighting for that top spot, and we were almost actually fighting,” Antetokounmpo says. “I would come home with bruises and scratches.”

That level of competition seemed a long way off in Detroit in 2012. Back then, Middleton asked Brown for tips on just sticking in the league. “He was authentic,” Brown says. “A lot of guys think they are something they’re not and get disappointed when it doesn’t go their way.”

In December 2012, amid a streak of 35 consecutive games in which Middleton did not play, the Pistons finally sent him to the D-League. “He was upset,” Monroe says. “I told him he needed to play somewhere.”

Hetzel watched one of Middleton’s D-League games and called with observations. He was not sure Middleton would be enthusiastic about dissecting D-League film.

“He was locked in,” Hetzel says. “There is beauty in a player who falls, and grows from it.”

Middleton had always embraced work. James gave no quarter in father-son backyard one-on-one games. “I played to beat him,” James says. He would force Khris left — to work on his weak hand.

An oak tree hung near the family hoop, limbs jutting into shooting paths from various angles. Middleton asked his father to trim them. His father told him to shoot around them. Middleton would shoot long into the night. He once kept shooting during a lightning storm, finally cowering under the tree. His father screamed from the doorway: “Get your ass out from under that tree! That’s the worst place to be!”

Middleton’s jumper was pure even then. Midway through his rookie season, teammates and coaches noticed how he used learners, step-backs, and other tricks of footwork to get it off whenever he wanted — even if he rarely blew by anyone. Tayshaun Prince nicknamed him “Baby Joe Johnson.”

Still, the Pistons were not worried they had (reluctantly) traded a future All-Star when they included Middleton for salary-matching purposes in the 2013 Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight swap with Milwaukee. “I thought he might become a good rotation guy,” Brown says. “I never expected this.”

The Bucks finished a league-worst 15-67 in Middleton’s first season there, but he established himself as a solid starter. He felt chemistry with Knight and a freakish rookie from Greece. “As terrible as we were, that was one of my favorite years,” Middleton says. “We knew there was something — that someday, we could play at a high level.”

Milwaukee fired Larry Drew that offseason and poached Kidd from the Nets. Kidd immediately targeted Middleton as someone who could do more. During a late December practice in 2014, Kidd ripped Middleton in front of the team, telling him he “sucked,” the two recall. “That was our first encounter,” Kidd says. “You always remember your first encounter.”

Middleton fired back. Kidd didn’t mind. He wanted Middleton, an introvert, to speak up. Kidd also sensed Middleton could take it, and set an example in doing so: No one is above hard coaching. “I loved it,” Middleton says. “He fired me up.”

Kidd pushed Middleton to get better at everything: defend harder, hone his passing, bully smaller guys in the post, get more comfortable going right — going left against his father might have tilted him too far — and shoot more 3s. Middleton was versatile enough to do it all. Pearson, his high school coach, favored positionless basketball. He refused to label Middleton, and urged him to play all over the court — including in the post after his growth spurt.

“He resisted,” Pearson says. “But I wasn’t going to pigeonhole him.”

He resisted Kidd’s entreaties to shoot more 3s too. Middleton tried fewer than four per game; Kidd dared him to double his attempts in some games. “I was stubborn,” Middleton says.

He blossomed anyway. Middleton averaged 18 points in 2015-16, and received All-Star consideration. He was primed to make it the next season. But at the end of a September practice, Middleton slipped on wet spot, and tore his left hamstring muscle completely off the bone.

Wet spots were common at the Bucks’ old practice facility, housed in the back of a Catholic church, whenever it rained or snowed. Wiping them required extreme diligence. “Someone didn’t clean the court,” says Marc Lasry, one of the team’s owners.

Middleton called his older sister, Brittney, perhaps his closest confidante. She could hear his voice cracking. “It was the whole injury cycle — again,” she says.

After surgery, Middleton couldn’t travel with the team. He couldn’t drive. Climbing stairs in his four-floor townhouse was treacherous.

He called Travis Smith, a childhood friend and high school teammate, and asked if Smith might visit. Smith knew what Middleton meant: Help me. Smith stayed six weeks. He helped with shopping, cooking, managing stairs. Middleton’s stitches ruptured several times. Blood poured out. Each rupture delayed his rehab.

“Travis held me together,” Middleton says.

They geeked out on League Pass. Middleton watched as Antetokounmpo ended any debate about who stood as Milwaukee’s franchise player. “He goes out, and Giannis becomes an All-Star,” Lasry says. “Think how some guys might have reacted.”

Middleton found watching from afar gave him perspective on ways he could help beyond scoring. He attended coaches meetings. He craved being around the team, just as he had the last time he almost completely lost basketball: ninth grade, when a D grade in Spanish pushed him below the academic floor for athletes.

His parents took his basketball away. They would not let him watch his team’s games (still junior varsity then) from the stands. He could either stay home, or sit on the bench in street clothes — where everyone would see him, and know he had done something wrong. Middleton answered right away that he would sit on the bench with his teammates.

“I damn near cried,” his father says. “He showed me what he was made of.” He studied harder, and got his grades up.

He attacked hamstring rehab the same way. Once the stitches came out, it went smoothly. Reattaching the hamstring had been easy; the muscle had stayed near the bone instead of drifting. “We didn’t have to go down the leg and fish it out,” says Troy Flanagan, the team’s performance director.

Even so, some feared Middleton would never be the same. “It was, ‘Who knows how he comes back from this?'” Kidd remembers.

Flanagan was confident. Middleton’s top sprinting speed might take a hit, but that was more important for NFL players. By retraining muscles and movement patterns — and Middleton’s diet — the performance staff hoped to make him more athletic.

Middleton’s hamstring strength — based on pushing and pulling exercises — doubled post-injury, Flanagan says. His runs faster side-to-side.

Games are different, and Middleton wasn’t himself when he returned in February 2017. He averaged 14 points on 40 percent shooting as Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in the first round.

He played that series through severe strep throat. Abscesses — collections of pus — developed along the inside of his throat. He couldn’t eat solid foods; he subsisted on smoothies. He couldn’t turn his head side-to-side. Middleton’s father stayed with him; Middleton texted him even when they were in the same house.

“I was shocked he played the last game,” Flanagan says.

After that game, Middleton went to the hospital for an IV. Middleton’s father and a nurse then held him down — one arm each — while a doctor stuck a needle down his throat to drain pus and blood.

When John Hammond, then the Bucks’ GM, learned the extent of Middleton’s health issues, he took a Middleton bobblehead from his office cabinet, perched it on his desk, and used it as a prompt during exit interviews, teammates recall: We all need to put ourselves on the line like this guy.

Milwaukee had high expectations for 2017-18, but the Bucks hovered around .500 into late January. Opponents had learned to slice through Kidd’s trapping defense. Parker’s return from knee surgery imperiled chemistry. Players grew weary of Kidd’s confrontational style.

Kidd felt it. On Jan. 20 in Philadelphia, two days before his firing, he asked Middleton, “Do you need another coach?” both recall. Middleton replied that he would do his job regardless. “You could tell the team was going away from him,” Middleton says. “I couldn’t pin it all on him. It is never all one person’s fault. Jason and I had had a great relationship.”

They regrouped under Joe Prunty, an interim replacement, and extended Boston to seven games in the first round. Middleton destroyed every Celtic who guarded him. He averaged 25 points on 60 percent shooting.

“I couldn’t even believe myself at times,” he says. Teammates could.

“You give Khris a series where he sees the same coverages,” John Henson says, “and you’re going to see that a lot.”

The Bucks hired Budenholzer to recalibrate their team on both ends. That included recalibrating Middleton’s offense. Over a mid-May breakfast with Antetokounmpo and Middleton before his formal hiring, Budenholzer told Middleton he would have to shoot more 3s within an offense featuring fewer set plays.

Middleton spent the summer practicing his usual shot diet, only from farther out. He intensified his training. He told coaches he felt as if “he was losing his legs” toward the end of the Boston series, and wanted to be ready for a longer playoff run, says Charles Lee, an assistant under Budenholzer.

Lee visited Middleton last summer. He expected Middleton to use a private gym, and an expensive trainer. He found Middleton lifting on his own at Porter-Gaud, the school’s football players working around him.

Middleton kicked a Lucky Charms addiction in favor of turkey sausage and egg whites. He tried salad even though he hates cold foods.

The goal: a breakout year. It has happened for the Bucks, but only kind of for Middleton. His scoring and shooting numbers are down. Finding shots in Budenholzer’s flowing system has proven harder than either expected. “He was fighting it,” Budenholzer says. “We need to find balance, him and I.”

But peak Middleton is a snug complement for Antetokounmpo: an ace shooter who can space the floor, score late in the shot clock, and defend multiple positions.

Milwaukee will need peak Middleton to bust through the East, and compete with (at least) Boston and Philadelphia beyond this season. He is not as good as the typical second banana on a title team. The Bucks hope to compensate with depth and fit — and with Middleton raising his level to at least approximate that championship second banana when it matters.

Milwaukee’s playoff performance could shape its future. If the Bucks pay all their free agents — Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon — they could be locked into that roster through Antetokounmpo’s prime. Is that good enough?

Middleton hopes so, and wants to stay. Milwaukee fits his low-key personality. “It has to be the right situation,” he says. “But I feel like we have a team that can compete.”

He is fine with his role next to Antetokounmpo. “People expect us to be more buddy-buddy, but it’s not like that,” he says. “We’re friends. We respect each other. We need each other.”

The Bucks know they might have to pay $30 million per season to keep Middleton. “Does he love Milwaukee enough to re-sign?” Lasry asks. “Yes. Enough to give us a real discount? No.”

Middleton isn’t thinking beyond this season. He just wants to get out of the first round.

“I don’t want to be one of those players who has a good career but couldn’t get out of the first round,” Middleton says. “We’ve had three tries. We want to go deep.”

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