Bucks preached patience with Khris Middleton but looming return is an ‘exciting prospect’

After being listed as out for the first 20 games of the 2022-23 season, Bucks forward Khris Middleton appears close to making his return to action. According to The Athletic‘s Shams Charania, Middleton is nearing his season debutpotentially as soon as Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers at Fiserv Forum.

Middleton missed the start of the season recovering from offseason surgery to repair a ligament in his left wrist. He hasn’t played since Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round series against the Chicago Bulls in last season’s NBA playoffs.

In the fourth quarter of that game, Middleton slipped on a drive when trying to complete a spin move and hobbled off the floor shortly after. The misstep caused a left MCL sprain, and that injury kept him out for the rest of the Bucks’ postseason run. There was hope Middleton could have returned in a later series, but the Bucks’ defense of their 2021 championship came up short after being eliminated by the Celtics in seven games in the second round.

The Bucks are 14-5 this season without the three-time All-Star, but they have missed his contributions, especially on the offensive end. While the Bucks have the league’s best defense through the first month and change of the season, their offense — regularly a top-five unit under head coach Mike Budenholzer — has struggled to score, averaging just 111.1 points per 100 possessions, the 18th-best offensive rating in the NBA before Tuesday’s games.

Asked about Middleton’s potential return on Monday, Bucks center Brook Lopez explained just how valuable Middleton is to the team going forward.

“It’s wild, you know, it’s wild,” Lopez said. “We’ve been playing the way we are, and we have n’t had an All-Star, All-NBA guy like that, just tops at his position than him. That’s scary. Obviously, we want Khris to take his time from him, make sure he’s healthy, get right and everything, but that’s an exciting prospect to think about.”

Middleton’s value has become more clear to outsiders in the last few years. Last season, he was one of 17 NBA players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, and the Bucks desperately missed his offensive contributions against the Celtics.

While some of the Bucks’ role players might need Giannis Antetokounmpo to create good looks for them, only 44 percent of Middleton’s makes were assisted last season. Middleton doesn’t just put up big numbers; he creates his opportunities rather than relying on others. Creating shots ended up being the Bucks’ biggest problem in their season-ending series against Boston.

While some fans were impatient with the team’s murky timeline for Middleton’s return, his teammates were clear about the expectations, knowing that Middleton’s return will help the Bucks reach their full championship potential.

“Our players and staff, they understand the situation. They’re very understanding in that regard,” Lopez said. “I think we’ve all had guys telling Khris, you know, ‘Take your time.’ ‘Get right.’ We’ll try to handle things while you’re gone, but we need you for May, June … that stretch, so just make sure you’re right, and everything will be all right.”

No one on the roster understands the frustrations of missing time on a championship-contending team better than Lopez. He missed 67 straight games last season with a back injury that required surgery. Similar to Middleton, Bucks fans wondered when Lopez would return, but the big man’s best advice for Middleton has been clear.

“Not to rush it. As tough as it is, just make sure you’re fully right,” Lopez said Monday. “We’ve got the best group of PTs (physical therapists) in the league. They’re working him just where he should be. They got a whole schedule figured out. They’ve had a schedule figured out the whole time. Before it even happened, I’m sure. They had all their graphs and charts and everything figuring stuff out, likelihoods and everything.

“So, he’s being managed by a great team. He’s a smart guy himself, he’ll handle it right, but he just take your time. Don’t make anything worse.”

There has never been any doubt about how much Middleton’s teammates miss his contributions. Almost every week, Antetokounmpo has mentioned how much the team will change once it gets its players back and healthy, specifically mentioning three key players — Middleton, Joe Ingles and Pat Connaughton.

After the Bucks edged the Hawks on Oct. 30 with Jrue Holiday and Antetokounmpo making big plays down the stretch, Antetokounmpo explained how close games have been different for him without Middleton.

“You kind of feel that feeling and have that comfort that, ‘OK we’ve been here before,’” Antetokounmpo explained. “We know who’s going to have the ball, what plays we’re gonna go with, what spots we’re gonna get ourselves into. It’s kind of hard missing Khris. I think usually down the stretch we all three have the ball in our hands the most, and we just try to play off reads. Now, it’s just me and Jrue.”

If Middleton returns on Friday, the Bucks’ big three will be on the floor together for the first time in more than six months. Then, the team can start to work toward preparing for another deep postseason run and the opportunity to pursue its goal of winning two championships in three seasons.

(Photo of Khris Middleton: John Fisher/Getty Images)

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