Giannis Antetokounmpo rightfully dominated the headlines after the Milwaukee Bucks secured the 2021 NBA Championship and he was subsequently named Finals MVP.
After all, his stunning 50-point Game 6 was historic on many levels and his averages over the course of the Finals were extraordinary. Antetokounmpo has grown into one of the league’s biggest stars and is making a strong case for himself as the best international player to ever suit up in the NBA.
His unprecedented rise and spectacular statistics often take the spotlight away from the rest of the Bucks, particularly his long-time teammate and two-time All-Star Khris Middleton, who is also deserving of credit for their successes.
As he has developed into a top tier NBA-level late game scorer, the sharpshooting Middleton has complemented Antetokounmpo’s game perfectly. His mix of shot creation and playmaking has allowed him to become the Bucks’ fourth quarter closer over these past few seasons, winning them countless games with his cold-blooded jumpers.
Middleton has excelled in this role and his clutch shot making has earned him the respect of his colleagues around the league through the years. He took his heroics to another level in this year’s playoffs and hit 15 game-tying or go-ahead shots in late game situations, tying him with LeBron James for the most in a single postseason since 1996.
The 29-year-old swingman was also a potent scorer beyond the fourth quarters of this postseason. Middleton scored 40 points in Game 4 of the Finals and had eight other games with at least 30 points in the three prior rounds. He wrapped up the playoffs with averages of 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists en-route to his first ever NBA title and Milwaukee’s first since 1971.
This monumental season for the Bucks franchise marks the eighth one together for the pair of Antetokounmpo and Middleton. They both joined Milwaukee prior to the 2013-2014 season, where an 18-year-old Antetokounmpo was selected with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft. A month later, Middleton was acquired in a trade with the Detroit Pistons, though he was far from the headliner in that transaction.
Former Bucks general manager John Hammond, who is now with the Orlando Magic, could not have predicted that his two offseason acquisitions would lead the franchise to an NBA Championship eight years later. Antetokounmpo was still a relative unknown as a lanky teenager from overseas and his selection was regarded as a major gamble for their franchise while Middleton was practically a throw-in in the trade that sent him to the team.
The rebuilding Pistons selected Middleton in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft with the 39th overall pick and he made just 27 appearances for them in his rookie year, putting up a measly 6.1 points per game while seeing time in what is now the NBA G-League. Middleton’s rookie year marked Detroit’s fifth consecutive sub-.500 campaign as the franchise continued to decline in the wake of their surprise 2004 NBA Championship run.
Looking to rekindle their fire, the Pistons traded their starter Brandon Knight for Milwaukee’s prolific scorer Brandon Jennings. In hindsight, both players’ careers were eventually derailed by injuries a few years later and never flourished as expected, but at the time, it was an exciting swap of up-and-coming point guards.
Jennings, the tenth pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, had a promising rookie campaign with the Bucks, highlighted by a 55-point game in just his seventh NBA outing. Their 46-36 record in his first year earned them the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and they had a gutsy run to the 2010 playoffs, egged on by the “Fear the Deer” slogan popularized by their fanbase. The season ended in the first round after a seven-game classic with the Atlanta Hawks, but the future was seemingly bright for the pairing of Jennings and 2005 top pick Andrew Bogut.
However, that was the pinnacle of Jennings’ stay with the franchise. They missed the playoffs the next two seasons while the 7’0 center Bogut was eventually traded to the Golden State Warriors for high-scoring guard Monta Ellis. Bogut went on to anchor the Warriors’ 2015 NBA Championship team while the diminutive score-first backcourt of Jennings and Ellis languished over the one and a half seasons that they played together.
By Jennings’ fourth year in the league, the Bucks snuck back into the playoffs as the eighth seed, despite a 38-44 record, where a first-round sweep at the hands of the eventual-champion Miami Heat awaited them.
The 23-year-old Jennings averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 assists per game in 2013, but the Bucks were not willing to commit to a long-term deal with their starting guard following the mixed results of the last four years. Meanwhile, Detroit’s 21-year-old Knight had a solid sophomore year as a team-first player for a Pistons team that was looking for someone to carry their lethargic offense. Jennings fit the bill.
Jennings was viewed around the league as the better player at the time, so Detroit threw in Middleton and Slava Kravstov to complete the deal. In his first season with the Pistons, Jennings, who was often criticized while with the Bucks for his lack of playmaking, averaged a career-best 7.6 assists. Unfortunately, his career was derailed after suffering an Achilles injury in the following campaign, ironically against the Bucks, and the shifty left-handed guard was never the same.
On the other hand, Knight had a strong one-and-a-half years with Milwaukee, putting up 17.9 points and 5.1 assists, before he was traded to the Phoenix Suns. As Knight built his confidence, he took his fellow former-Piston Middleton with him and the two went on to lead the Bucks in total points scored in their first season with the team.
Still in just his second year in the league, Middleton started 64 out of the 82 games that he appeared in after hardly seeing the floor while with Detroit. He maximized his opportunity and almost doubled his scoring average to 12.1 points. The Texas A&M product never looked back from that point on, and he continued to grow himself into the all-around weapon that he is today. By his sixth year, Middleton averaged over 20 points per game for the first time in his career then was named an All-Star in the next two seasons.
The 6’7 Middleton turned out to have the best career among the players involved in the 2013 Bucks-Pistons trade, turning Jenning and Knight into mere footnotes in his story. He became one of the foundations of their franchise’s transformation from a lottery team to the 2021 NBA Champions. Middleton’s work ethic propelled him from a second-round pick into the second-leading scorer on a title team and soon-to-be Olympian for the USA Men’s Basketball Team.
Among the 2012 class, Middleton stands firmly with Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal as the best players in their draft. He has mightily outperformed Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ first pick and the ninth overall selection from that year, who puts up bloated statistics but has been unable to contribute to winning teams so far in his career.
Middleton’s story serves as another reminder to those around the league that teams must look beyond talent when evaluating prospects and keep an eye on the intangibles of these young players.
Trades in the NBA often end up with unexpected results and Middleton’s serendipitous arrival to the Bucks is something that their franchise will forever be grateful to Jennings and the Pistons for, even going as far as including their former star in their championship parade.