An Inside Look at Khris Middleton’s Rehab and Preparation for His Return

Khris Middleton with Bucks head coach Jason Kidd at the team's training center. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the last few months, Khris Middleton has been watching a lot of TV shows: Atlanta, Entourage and Breaking Bad. He even stores the episodes on a hard drive to watch on his laptop during Bucks’ road trips. His latest obsession for the past couple of weeks has been Ray Donovan.

“He’s a guy that goes around and fixes everybody else’s problems,” the small forward explained to the NBPA about why he likes the show. “So the stuff you see on there you can kind of imagine how it can happen in real life.”

Could Donovan fix Middleton’s current physical problem all the way back to full strength?

He laughs about the possibility, but all of the recent television viewing has been therapeutic for him. It’s been the biggest way he’s passed the time while recovering from left hamstring surgery after tearing the muscle on Sept. 20 during a preseason workout with the Bucks.

Middleton recounts the moment it happened.

“We were just playing 5-on-5. It was a week before training camp,” he said. “I did a move and I slipped on a little wet or grease spot, and I did a split. And at first, I thought I was going to be fine. I tried to walk it off and that’s when I realized I couldn’t put any pressure on my left leg. So once that happened, I kind of knew it might be a little more serious than I thought. I thought I was going to be out for maybe the longest a month, and then I got the MRI the next day and they told me the news.”

Khris Middleton at Bucks media day this season. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Khris Middleton at Bucks media day this season. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

It was the first hamstring injury of any kind in the 25-year-old’s basketball career.

“I didn’t know how serious it was and how it really felt,” he said. “All I heard was word of mouth [about hamstring injuries], so that’s why I didn’t think it was actually that bad until I got the MRI results.”

The doctors told Middleton, “Don’t try to rush. Don’t try to push too hard. Still get the work in, but just be patient with it.” Patience meant everything to him. He remembered rushing back after his meniscus tear in his right knee as a junior at Texas A&M in 2011-12. When he returned too soon, he aggravated the injury and only played 20 games that season before becoming the 39th pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

“It kind of backfired on me,” he said. “So my initial approach with my hamstring injury was just to stick with the plan.”

For about the first month after surgery, Middleton was on crutches. After, he started doing walking exercises to get his muscles firing again, which then led to the weight room and light leg workouts. Now, he’s at the point where he “can do pretty much anything,” but mostly in individual workouts.

“It’s just trying to get [the hamstring] stronger now,” he said. “I’m trying to work on my running stride and getting comfortable with that. It’s just getting my legs used to running—not full speed yet, but just to capacity to last in the conditioning of my legs. Also, I do some light one-on-one like once every two weeks.”

In those sessions, his main opponents have been Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson and Greg Monroe. With each playing a different position—point-forward, power forward and center, respectively—they’ve presented a certain type of individual defense that’s helped Middleton work on a variety of moves.

“With Giannis, he’s quick, he’s strong and he’s long as anybody in the league, so it’s just trying to figure out how to create space with him guarding me,” he said. “If I can do it with him guarding me, I can do it on anybody else—the same with John Henson. They both have that same length. And with Greg, he’s a pretty strong guy, so when I’m in the post, it’s just trying to find ways to get off his body, and use my speed and footwork around him.”

So who’s got the upper hand in those matchups?

“I would like to think I’m winning,” he said, laughing.

The key mental challenge Middleton is trying to get past in the one-on-one workouts is not hesitating about making a move; in other words, not thinking about his hamstring. He believes that will take a couple of more weeks, when he feels his body will be more up to speed. He’s building on exercises targeting his core muscle groups, with an emphasis on his quads and calves. “It’s just to keep my legs strong and my knees healthy,” he said. “That’s been the biggest thing.”

Last season, after signing a long-term contract with the Bucks, Middleton had a breakout campaign in the NBA. He averaged career highs in points (18.2), assists (4.2) and steals (1.7). It was a credit to his time spent through the years analyzing game film of Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson—less athletic players who use more of their fakes, spin moves and stronger bodies to score—combined with his penchant for one-on-one play from high school to the NBA. While also studying Kobe Bryant’s footwork, Middleton learned how to get his shot off over quicker and stronger players.

“It’s just trying to use the same moves and then trying to figure out how my body can finish over guys, which is for me not dunking,” he said. “It’s just trying to get to my spots, using footwork and little subtle jabs and fakes to really get defenses off balanced. It’s the floaters or shots out to the corner or just pulling up. So it’s just finding a nice pace, and trying to use my size and length.”

Middleton last season. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Middleton shooting one of his trademark floaters last season. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

From the increase in dishing last season, he’s continuing to learn a lot from Bucks head coach and future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd.

“The main thing from him is just how to learn defenses, learn schemes and rotations, and learn player tendencies,” Middleton said. “He’s told me once I learn those things, the game will slow down and it will make things a lot easier for myself and my team.”

From traveling with the Bucks and sitting on many sidelines this season, observing the team play, he calls the offense “perfect” for him to fit right in when he returns. Whereas he had the ball in his hands quite a bit last season running pick-and-rolls, he envisions a new role excelling off the ball.

“I’m not a really ball-dominant guy. I know how to play without the ball,” he said. “So with our offense, our cutting, our off-screens and just passing and moving, I think that’s something I learned how to do in high school and college with our motion system. And it’s kind of the same way here.”

Middleton has also been game-planning off the court, preparing for life after basketball during his additional free time. He’s been taking an interest in the business side of the NBA and thinking more about what he wants to do when he retires: coaching in the league. “That’s the No. 1 thing,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s been coaching himself well through his recovery, pacing himself with certain benchmarks. After the next two-week stretch trying to move beyond his hesitations in one-on-one workouts, the following step on his checklist will be to get through a full practice. He’s hoping to do that around the All-Star break.

As for a return to an NBA game, he said, “It’s definitely a goal of mine to get back this season.”

But, he noted, “the team is playing great, so there’s no need for me to rush back and put myself at risk or harm our team. So I just want to be smart about it and come back when I feel comfortable, instead of coming in and out of the lineup.”

While he’s not a cold-weather guy, being from Charleston, S.C., and now living in Milwaukee, he’s excited about the growing buzz inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center. And he appreciates all of the city’s fan support through his recovery. He said it’s his favorite part about being in town.

“The city is great,” he said. “It’s starting to be a packed house every night. People are telling me to get back, ‘I miss you out there, just stay patient.’ It’s been positive. I love the city.”

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