LAS VEGAS — Khris Middleton can claim sole custody to the shotgun seat next to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The levelheaded Milwaukee Bucks forward is the only player who has been there every step of the way during Antetokounmpo’s six-year rise from pre-draft unknown to 2019 NBA MVP. He personally endured all the bumps and bruises, from a 15-win season in 2013-14 to a humiliating 54-point elimination loss to the Chicago Bulls in the 2015 playoffs, in which an incensed Antetokounmpo was ejected for tackling Mike Dunleavy Jr. into the crowd.
As a result, Middleton knows better than anyone what to expect if USA Basketball meets Antetokounmpo’s Greece team in the FIBA World Cup.
“We’re both alike,” Middleton said. “We’re not backing down from anything or anybody. I know he’s going to take that game very personally. I’m sure if he sees me on the fast break, he’s going to try to run me through the wall. And it’s the same for me. Everybody knows the book [on how to guard him], but he’s an incredible player and he’s always trying to let you know he’s the best player. I don’t think people give him enough credit for how smart he is. If you try to take something away, he can still get to it and more.”
While Antetokounmpo’s NBA takeover drew headlines all season long, the 27-year-old Middleton enjoyed quite the ride of his own.
In February, he made his first all-star team. In April, he advanced in the playoffs for the first time during his seven-year career. In July, he celebrated a new five-year, $178 million contract by getting his high school jersey retired and receiving a key to the city from the mayor of his hometown of Charleston, S.C. And in September, he will have a chance to claim his first gold medal with Team USA.
Long one of the NBA’s most overlooked and underappreciated impact players, Middleton isn’t exactly basking in the newfound acclaim and nine-figure deal.
“I’ve been raised to never have that feeling of being satisfied,” he said. “Keep striving for more. That’s just how I approach life every day: Find a new challenge and attack it.”
For the Bucks, whose 60-win regular season joyride ended in the Eastern Conference finals against the Toronto Raptors, only two major challenges remain: Reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974, and win it at all for the first time since 1971.
Milwaukee’s collapse against Toronto unfolded in stunning fashion. Up 2-0 after a pair of convincing home wins, the Bucks pushed Game 3 to double overtime on the road before finally falling. Then Milwaukee, which lost consecutive games just once in the regular season, dropped Games 4, 5 and 6 to the eventual champs.
Time and distance have left Middleton thinking back on the four straight losses, in which Kawhi Leonard prevailed over Antetokounmpo.
“I wouldn’t say we relaxed, but [the Raptors] changed their scheme a little bit and we didn’t do a great job of adjusting,” Middleton said. “We could have done a lot of different things: the way we guarded pick and rolls and [isolation sets]. You watch the tape and see a loose ball you could have gotten. Me and [Coach Mike Budenholzer] have had conversations about that. Us players have had that conversation. We let [Game 3] go, and it was a domino effect. I’m still proud of the season we had, but we knew we let a great opportunity slip out of our hands.”
The sour ending didn’t affect Middleton’s approach to free agency. The Bucks had a long list of pending free agents this summer, but Middleton — a proven complementary scorer and plus defender who averaged 18.3 points and 6.0 rebounds last season — was the priority.
His lucrative new pact was announced as soon as the negotiating window opened June 30, and Middleton never bothered to engage in discussions with outside suitors.
“There was nothing to think about,” he said. “The Bucks knew that I thought about them as a big part of my family. They felt the same way about me. I let them know Milwaukee was where I wanted to be. I made sure that I got the security I wanted for myself and my family."
Other factors that influenced Middleton’s decision included the opportunity to continue playing with Antetokounmpo, and General Manager Jon Horst’s aggressive moves to upgrade the roster and add high-character role players. For now, Middleton sounded unconcerned about Antetokounmpo’s possible 2021 free agency.
“Since I was first traded there [in 2013], we got better each year and made playoff runs,” he said. “You’ve got the MVP; anyone would want to play with him. But it’s not just about one guy, it’s about the whole organization. They brought in guys who fit our style of play and are easy to trust. It was something I didn’t want to give up on.”
Middleton, a 2012 second-round draft pick who wasn’t a full-time starter until his fourth season, is right at home on a U.S. roster that will be defined by its collective style of play rather than its headlining talents.
His ability to score without dominating the ball, his willingness to defend multiple positions and his ego-free approach are all valued by USA Basketball’s brass, and Coach Gregg Popovich hailed him as a “class act” who “understands it’s about us, not me.”
Whether Middleton and Antetokounmpo get their head-to-head showdown in China, they will be back together on the shores of Lake Michigan chasing a title come October. The forwards “aren’t the most buddy-buddy” during the summer because of their conflicting schedules, Middleton admitted, but they enjoy a mutual respect and catch up to talk hoops because “we’re basketball junkies, and it’s all about what we need from each other.”
Those conversations may soon turn to the many changes around them in the East: Leonard’s departure from Toronto, Al Horford’s arrival with the Philadelphia 76ers and Kemba Walker’s move to the Boston Celtics.
What Antetokounmpo and Middleton won’t do, however, is look too far ahead. For stars who made their names in methodical fashion, there’s no reason to change approaches now.
“You can’t skip steps,” Middleton said. “As far as we got last year, we know it’s not going to be that easy again. I don’t think it’s just a race between Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston. You have to look at everybody. If you go into the building thinking you’re going to win, you might get your a-- kicked. That’s the approach we have: Take everybody seriously."