Over and over. Over and over. Jump up, come down. Hold the follow-through. Over and over. Khris Middleton had a hoop on the side of his childhood home. He took jumpers on that goal all day. From shooting up close to chucking up deep prayers. He and his dad started out by playing H-O-R-S-E. Then his pops started to show him more.
“He would teach me different types of shots, how to shoot, shooting over obstacles,” Middleton says. “That’s where I remember learning how to shoot.”
Middleton’s come a long way since that hoop in Charleston, SC. The 26-year-old is posted up at the NBA Store in New York City, where more than 100 people are waiting for him. He’s gonna autograph gear and take photos in a moment, on behalf of Fanatics. But before that gets underway, he’s sitting at a table on the store’s second floor, laid back in a folding chair. He’s real calm, taking his time to measure his words and to listen. His demeanor on the court is similar.
The 6-8 small forward doesn’t get rattled. He’s got a quick release on his shot but that thing never looks rushed. It’s always singing. It just dives straight through the net, whether he’s shooting from distance or hitting from the midrange. Middleton’s work in Milwaukee, where he’s become a legit 20-point-per-game scorer, is the reason there’s so many fans that wanna link up with him at the NBA Store.
He’s established himself as one of the League’s deadliest gunslingers, putting up 30 or more points in nine games this past season, including a career-high 43 versus the Hornets back in November. He averaged just under 25 points per game in the Bucks’ opening round playoff series against Boston, which went seven games. In a thrilling Game 1, Middleton erupted for 31 points and connected on a cold-blooded three-pointer from almost half court that sent the contest into overtime.
“That’s always been it for me,” Middleton says about his shooting. “I’ve never been the fastest guy, the strongest guy, but I just found out how to score. I was just shooting over people, getting over defenders with a quicker release.”
“Middleton is just a really, really smooth shooting guy,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens told reporters after that 31-point outburst in Game 1. “He can play off of that post-up against smaller guys and shoot it right over them. He can play off of hand-backs and pick-and-rolls and he’s just got a lot of game. He averages 20 a game. People don’t talk about him enough, probably.”
Before hitting 45/40/88 percentages and completing a personal-best 2017-18 season, though, Middleton had to overcome a torn hamstring. He had surgery right before the 2016-17 campaign started, was out for six months and only played in 29 games to round out the year. It was a crushing blow to the rising Middleton, who had averaged a then career-high 18 points per game in 2015-16, making 79 starts.
So he hit the gym and added to his game.
“It’s kind of been my whole thing and I knew for me I couldn’t be just a shooter, I had to work harder,” Middleton says, looking back. “That’s where you see my playmaking and penetration.”
He’s still spotting up and coming off pin downs, but the Bucks have trusted Middleton in more pick-and-rolls since the 2015 season. He’s become a facilitator, encouraged to strike off the dribble and find open teammates. He’s deft at accepting traps coming off down screens and making the quick pitch to his rolling big man. He completed nearly 80 assists to John Henson and Giannis Antetokoumpo, his two frontcourt mates, and averaged 4.0 dimes per game this past year.
The former A&M Aggie was ready for his moment, not letting the hamstring injury slow him down. He says his preparation began when no one was watching.
“It starts with the summer, the offseason,” he says. “What you do with your body, physically, to help improve your game and on the court, to help improve your game. I watched a lot of film, try to watch a lot of different players and see what they do, see how they try to score.
“I like watching Kevin Durant a lot, you gotta watch him,” Middleton continues. “He can score from all over the court. Steph Curry, because he’s fun to watch. James Harden, LeBron James—I just like watching basketball in general. Any basketball player that’s in the NBA you can learn from, so that’s what I like to watch.”
Middleton’s a key member of the Bucks’ young core. As the squad’s most skilled offensive threat—knockdown shooter, willing passer, capable slasher—he carries a lot of responsibility. They go to him when they need a bucket or when any of their other players are struggling. His offensive arsenal is packed full of weapons and he continues to come through for his teammates.
He shot a consistent 40 percent in the clutch during the 82-game grind. He was no longer looking to pass. Nah, he was on the attack. And the interesting part about Middleton’s game, either in crunch time or in a random second quarter, is he switches things up. One night he’s attacking the rim; one night he’s on the lookout, dishing dimes. And he also alters his shooing form.
Most good shooters rely on two different footwork approaches. There’s the 1-2, where just as the shooter catches the rock, they take two steps and then rise for their shot. Big men tend to favor the 1-2. It takes a little bit more time but it produces a solid foundation for the shot. And then there’s the hop, which a lot of guards use. Players will meet the catch with a hop, applying tons of momentum to their shot while quickly firing away.
It’s rare for the League’s best shooters to switch their forms. So much of shooting is muscle-memory and repetition. But Middleton doesn’t care which one he uses, as long as the ball hits the nylon.
“It’s all timing, it’s just how to get my shot off,” Middleton says. “The hop, you get there quicker and throws the defense off just a little bit. The 1-2, a defender can time it a little more and challenge it or get a piece of it so that the little stuff you watch in film to try and get the rhythm of. The hop, I probably used it a lot more because I gotta get it off quicker than a lot of guys have to so I probably go with that more.”
With all the shooting he used to do back in Charleston, it’s a safe bet the joint’s going in.
Over and over. Jump up, come down, hold the follow-through. Over and over.
Photos via Getty Images.