The national perception of some of Wisconsin’s most-popular athletes often doesn’t square with how they are viewed locally. Khris Middleton has been so damn good for the Milwaukee Bucks, and it goes largely unnoticed beyond the Wisconsin border. Now that they are in the NBA Finals, he’s finally getting his due.
Aaron Jones is as dynamic as they get at the running back position, and Green Bay Packers fans know it. Yet, nationally, he’s never discussed even in the top five of most running back rankings. That’s because Aaron Jones is the Khris Middleton of the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers gets the majority of the attention when it comes to the Packers, and rightfully so. Even before the ongoing will-he-won’t-he saga this summer, Rodgers was almost always part of the headline about Green Bay. It’s the nature of playing quarterback. Even within Wisconsin, Rodgers is more recognizable than just about any other professional athlete in the state. But, as we all know, it isn’t and never will be a one-man show.
For the Bucks, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is the main attraction. He’s the reason people tune in to watch Milwaukee outside of this NBA Finals series. Like with Rodgers and the Packers, Antetokounmpo is praised when the Bucks play well and carries a lot of the blame when they struggle. It comes with the superstar label. But it’s the stars around the superstars that make all the difference. That’s where players like Middleton and Jones come in.
Jones was a fifth-round pick out of UTEP back in 2017. That’s not exactly a glamor spot in the draft where teams are trying to land superstar, franchise-altering talent. Yet Jones has already shown how critical he is to the operation in Green Bay.
It’s en vogue to say running backs are a dime a dozen and that almost all of them can be plugged-and-played anywhere. Perhaps there’s a sliver of truth to that. But in Matt LaFleur’s offense, there is no better fit for the Packers than Jones. Fans and those within the organization know this, but Jones remains fairly under-appreciated nationally even though the reality is that sometimes Green Bay’s offense rides him to victory.
When the Packers need to close games out, they rely on Jones to melt the clock and chew up yards while keeping the chains moving. It’s much of the same with Middleton in Milwaukee. The Bucks go to Middleton a whole hell of a lot in crunch time. In Game 4, with the chance to either tie the series at 2-2 or go down 3-1, it was Middleton who exploded for 40 points and carried Milwaukee to the finish line. Because he’s on the grand stage right now in the NBA Finals, he gets a pat on the back from the national media. But Bucks fans have long known he’s a star in his own right.
Like Jones, Middleton was overlooked in the draft. He was a second-round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and arrived in Milwaukee via trade. Second-round picks aren’t guaranteed a roster spot in the NBA, much like fifth-round picks in the NFL. Yet Jones and Middleton have both come out the other side as impact players for their respective squads.
The Aaron Jones extension this offseason was bulldozed over once the Rodgers news started to surface. When he first signed, many fans were surprised the Packers found a way to make it work financially. Yet the networks pondered whether it was the right move considering Green Bay had to let All-Pro center Corey Linsley walk. Ironically, Jones’ return could help salvage things for the Packers if the reigning MVP decides to move on. Jones’ usage in LaFleur’s offense will skyrocket if there is no Rodgers under center this year.
It’s interesting how perceptions in sports, both for franchises and individual players, differ from one outlet to another. Bucks fans know they aren’t in these NBA Finals without the fabulous play of Khris Middleton. The Packers know they don’t have the offense they do without Aaron Jones’ 1,000-plus-yard rushing seasons and league-leading 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019. Rodgers and Antetokounmpo will continue to get most of the attention. To an extent, it should be that way. That’s fine with Packers fans — Aaron Jones can keep flying under the radar as the Khris Middleton of the Packers.