Team USA's Khris Middleton hungry for Down Under showdown

MILWAUKEE - The much-publicised pair of warm-up contests between Team USA and the Australian Boomers are still eight months away, yet the excitement from both camps is continuing to bubble away.

With Game 2 of the slate already sold out, basketball fans across Australia have begun discussions on just who should expected to play for the world's most dominant basketball nation.

More than 90,000 tickets have been sold for the two games according to Basketball Australia, with each game looking at having an attendance of approximately 55,000.

Despite being in Milwaukee, Boomers talk is never too far away for me, with Bucks player Thon Maker set to form an integral part of Australia's World Cup squad next year.

A likely inclusion to Team USA's World Cup squad is Milwaukee star Khris Middleton, who received his first invitation to workout with the American roster in an off-season camp in Las Vegas.

Having dipped his toes into the national team scene previously, Middleton responds without hesitation, when asked whether the Australian tour is on his radar.

“Definitely,” Middleton said. “If the opportunity presents itself where I’m going to be on the World Cup or Olympic team, that’s going to be something I couldn’t turn down. Any time you get a chance to participate in one of your country’s events, it’s definitely an honour.”

Middleton has flown under the radar among casual fans over the years. Within the NBA he’s always been a respected high calibre talent, continuing to grow each season. During the Bucks' November trip to Oakland, The Pick and Roll asked Team USA assistant coach, Steve Kerr, for his thoughts on the 27 year old forward, who is expected to enter unrestricted free agency this summer.

"I think [Middleton] is always been respected around the league. Maybe not as well-known as other players in his class, but he's an excellent player," Kerr said.

"He fits the modern game, the way he shoots the ball and his own defensive abilities with his length and ability. He's a key part of the [Milwaukee] team."

With the Bucks boasting the best record in the NBA at 26-10, Middleton is piecing together a stellar performance so far. He joins Olympic gold medallists Steph Curry, Paul George, James Harden and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Luka Doncic as the only NBA players to average 17.5 points, five rebounds and four assists per game this season.

Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich also spoke of the mental challenges Middleton faces in transforming from underrated star to headline act, revealing a conversation he had with Middleton at the off-season camp.

"I told him, ‘I want you to act and play here like you belong.’ It’s what he needs and it’s what he’s showing," Popovich shared.

"It sounds simple, but it’s not. There’s a lot of great players out there and when you look around and there’s all these guys that have been on an Olympic team before and they’re the best players in the league and you’re a young guy, you might feel a little bit like, where am I?

"I feel that as a coach when I walk out there, so I wanted him to feel comfortable as much as I could so that’s why I told him to understand you belong, if you didn’t belong you wouldn’t be here, and I think he appreciated that."

It's clear Middleton is highly appreciated by figures around the NBA, and a $30 million dollar per year extension isn't out of the question for the Texas A&M product.

Middleton is a veteran, when it comes to playing in front of thunderous NBA crowds. The opportunity to play at Melbourne's Marvel Stadium (formerly Etihad Stadium) however, would be an experience on a completely different level.

“I’ve never played in front a 60,000 thousand people. I mean, that’s just enormous, it’s like playing in a football stadium,” Middleton said. “I definitely want to get a chance to play in something like that.”

Having worked alongside two proud Australians in Dellavedova and Maker is adding to the excitement for Middleton, who admits national team play has been a topic of discussion.

“They’re always talking about [playing for Australia]. They definitely have pride in Australia and where they’ve come from,” Middleton revealed.

“There’s definitely a little bit of talking that goes on, especially between Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and them, when they’ve played each other or when they could play each other. Of course if I get the chance to be in that, Delly has already mentioned playing against me and talking s***, so it would be fun,” Middleton says with a laugh.

When asked, Dellavedova grinned at those claims of early trash talk.

“I don’t know if I was talking s***, but if he keeps playing the way he’s playing I think he’ll be making the trip.”

“He’s playing at a really high level and he just continues to get better, I can’t really speak highly enough about him. Last year he had a massive playoff series for Milwaukee and he’s just continued to go from there. I’m excited for him, he works hard for it and I definitely hope he’s in Melbourne in August.”

Projecting ahead, it's hard to disagree with Dellavedova's assessment of the situation. Middleton does appear destined to be hitting the floor in Melbourne next August, in what would be his second time visiting Melbourne. He garnered fond memories of the city from his 2016 trip, where he headlined the first Basketball Without Borders camp.

“It was a really cool city, but I went at the wrong time, when it was winter time," Middleton said.

(Despite being a native Melbournian, I decided not to defend my hometown, and let that comment about Melbourne's winter weather slide.)

"It was summertime for us being the off season so it was bad timing, but I still had a great time. It’s a great city, it’s a different city and they actually got me to try kangaroo, which was obviously something I never thought I would try.

"Overall, It’s just a great city and hopefully I can go back when it’s warm in August next year and enjoy it even more.”