Once per game or so, Giannis Antetokuonmpo does something like this:
And the internet, as it’s wont to do, fawns over him as if he’d just won Game 7 of the NBA Finals by scoring three touchdowns and hitting a walk-off grand slam. Meanwhile Khris Middleton casually throws up an efficient 18-4-4 every night with excellent defense and meh, his arms don’t stretch to the moon, he’s nothing special. It’s those damn highlight plays that create the common misconception that Giannis is Milwaukee’s franchise player. He isn’t. Middleton is.
At least Middleton can hit a freaking shot. In fact, he makes quite a few. He’s 13th in the NBA among qualified players in three-point percentage, making 41.6%. He’s even deadlier from the corners, making 50% from the left and 52% from the right, per shotanalytics. These numbers are impressive in a vacuum, but even more so when you remember that he’s the only starting Buck who can hit a three.
Jabari Parker (the team’s intended stretch-4) and Greg Monroe have attempted only six three-pointers combined and have made precisely none of them. Michael Carter-Williams was traded out of Philly largely because he can’t make three’s and he’s somehow second among starters at 30.8% (attempting less than one per game). Giannis is sitting at 22%. If you’re wondering, that means a Giannis three-pointer yields less expected points per shot than an average Bismack Biyombo free throw. Yikes.
Ideally, he’d make up for that lack of spacing by getting to the rim and drawing a bunch of fouls. He does make 61% of his shots near the basket, but it’s not as though he’s getting to the line at a rate that justifies those missing three’s like, say, DeMar DeRozan. As a point of reference, DeRozan takes 8.1 free throws per game. Giannis takes 4.5. Even with a far more versatile offensive game, Middleton still manages to almost keep up at 3.9 attempts per game. It’s awfully hard to play efficient offense without getting to the line or making three’s, and Giannis doesn’t do all that much of either.
He’s also a far less willing passer than he should be considering those limitations as a shooter. He turns the ball over nearly as often (2.6 times per game) as he assists (2.8). He and Middleton use roughly the same amount of possessions, yet Middleton has evolved into an above average passer who averages a full assist more per game (4.0) and turns the ball over almost one less time per game (1.9). When you combine what they do on their own with how they help their teammates, Middleton starts to look like a far better offensive player.
The story isn’t much better defensively, a part of the game in which Giannis’ talent is largely theoretical. He certainly has the potential for greatness on that end of the court with his elite speed and length, and casual observers often use those traits to justify praising his defense, but the Bucks are actually better defensively without him on the floor. They’ve given up 107.1 points per 100 possessions this season with him in the game and only 104.7 when he’s out. That trend isn’t new either, it was true last year as well.
But when Middleton sits, Milwaukee’s defensive rating rises from 105.8 to 108.2. Over a full season, that means Middleton is roughly worth the difference between 24th ranked Nets defense at 106 points per 100 and the 30th ranked Lakers at 108.2 when he plays.
The obvious response in Giannis’ favor is that he’s only 21 and he still has plenty of room to improve. But why doesn’t Middleton get the same credit? He only has one extra year of service time to his name, has seen his scoring improve every year and has actually only played 32 more total games in the NBA. They’re both going to get better, not just the younger foreign dude. But one is already a complete NBA player and borderline All Star. The other is judged entirely on what he might one day be. That’s unfair to Middleton, the best player Milwaukee has by a comfortable margin.