Lunchtime at the Khris Middleton Skills Academy on Friday had hungry campers waiting for pizza boxes to open inside the Porter-Gaud School gym. Middleton’s aunts were serving as fast as the Milwaukee Bucks’ shooting guard releases a 3-point shot.
With more than 100 kids from ages 9-17, including guests from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, the camp has doubled in size since its debut two years ago. Its growth precisely shadows Middleton’s NBA progress.
Which means they will probably need a lot more food next June.
Middleton had his breakout season at precisely the right time. The 24-year-old Porter-Gaud graduate is a restricted free agent rated among the very top summer spending targets. The Bucks can match any other team’s offer but the going rate for a versatile wing player is expected to reach $13 million-$15 million per year. Middleton made $915,000 last season.
Quite the opposite from a “Show me the money” showboat, Middleton is soft-spoken and humble. He is more likely to hit a cliché trifecta than ruffle management. He says he “definitely” wants to stay with the upstart Bucks, preferring to keep low while agent Michael Lindeman of New York-based Excel Sports Management handles the free agent circus that starts July 1.
“We have a lot of great pieces with the Bucks,” Middleton said Friday. “If we can stay together, we can do something special.”
What leverage. Middleton was the best player on a Milwaukee team that improved from 15-67 to 41-41 and the playoffs under new head coach Jason Kidd. The Bucks want to keep him on a young roster that includes Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Last year we had a terrible year,” Middleton said. “This year we came back with a new coaching staff and they put in a lot of work with us. (Kidd) taught us how to work and taught us how to win. It was good to have him.”
Middleton has made stepping-stone improvements each NBA season since leaving Texas A&M after his junior year:
2012-13: Second-round draft pick learns the hard way at times and gets in only 27 games with the Detroit Pistons (6.1 points per game).
2013-14: Plays in 82 games after a trade to Milwaukee and doubles his scoring average (12.1).
2014-15: Scoring (13.4), assists (2.3) and steals (1.5) all go up while helping the Bucks make the playoffs.
“I didn’t play too many games my first year,” Middleton said. “I was a little nervous. Well, I wouldn’t say nervous but I just wasn’t comfortable I guess. Now I feel like I know what I’m doing out there and I know my style and the game comes to be a lot easier.”
Advanced analytics and common eye-tests tell more. ESPN’s Real Plus Plus-Minus, an inclusive statistical formula measuring overall value, rates Middleton No. 10 among all NBA players for the 2014-2015 season (Golden State’s Stephen Curry is No. 1, Houston’s James Harden No. 2 and Cleveland’s LeBron James No. 3).
Kidd’s Milwaukee system that calls for constant switching on defense is ideal for Middleton’s rangy ability on the perimeter.
“It’s just me trying to play smart,” Middleton said. “It’s just using my size and it’s been nice being on a very versatile team that allows me to change positions and guard different guys.”
Few good NBA defenders are able to score inside and make as many 3-pointers as Middleton. He had a career-high 30 points in a 91-85 victory over the Washington Wizards on March 7.
Middleton isn’t calling out switches at his basketball camp, or asking kids to spell Antetokounmpo. It’s more about fundamentals, fun and people wondering what it’s like to guard LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
On LeBron: “He’s in charge of the game at all times. He has the ball in his hands and he can shoot, drive and make other players better. He’s a tough guy to match up with.”
On Curry: “He kills you in different ways. You have to try to make him work for everything and try to contest everything but he’s so good, he hits those crazy shots.”
Pretty soon, other NBA players will get asked to tell what it’s like to guard Khris Middleton and they will need a bigger food order at the Khris Middleton Skills Academy.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff