First Step

Middleton’s strong finish builds confidence heading into camp

(Editor’s note: continues a six-part series profiling the players who participated in Orlando Pro Summer League and project to be a part of the 2012-13 regular-season roster with a look at Khris Middleton. Coming Wednesday: Kim English.)

When Kim English’s playing days are over, there’s a future in coaching or personnel evaluation awaiting him if he desires. English is a video addict and a basketball devotee.

So when English speaks of fellow rookie Khris Middleton, a player he got to know over three years of head-to-head competition in the Big 12 Conference, it’s worth more than a casual listen.

“Super smooth, big-time jump shooter, really long and athletic,” English said of Middleton, who was taken five spots ahead of him in the second round by the Pistons. “He played his last year hurt – that’s why he slipped a little to 39. Khris is actually a top-20 talent. I always told him, even at USA Basketball last summer, he should have left after his sophomore year. He came back; unfortunately, he got hurt. I’m happy he’s on our team and not playing against us.”

Middleton didn’t make the same splash as fellow rookie wings Kyle Singler and English at the Orlando Pro Summer League, averaging 6.0 points and 2.8 rebounds in 23 minutes a game. But he got better as the week unfolded, starting the last two games when the Pistons shut down Singler.

Middleton, a 6-foot-8 small forward who also can give the Pistons minutes at shooting guard, averaged 10 points over the last two games. He made all five of his shots in his first start, two from the 3-point arc, and hit a tough shot in the final minute of the Summer League finale to help the Pistons win on a day they played without not only Singler but point guard Brandon Knight, as well.

“I came here and I wanted to get better each day and I feel like I did,” Middleton said. “Each day I wanted to come out there and gain confidence and just try to get better and I feel like I did that.”

Middleton is young for his draft class, not turning 21 until August 12, while Singler turned 24 in May and English will be 24 when the season starts. He also suffered a partially torn meniscus early in his junior season at Texas A&M that was partly to blame for a downturn after an impressive sophomore year in which Middleton averaged 14.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 36 percent from the 3-point line. The coach who recruited him to A&M, Mark Turgeon, left for Maryland after that season, replaced by Billy Kennedy. English saw that, too, as a reason for Middleton’s relative struggles last season, feeling the structured system of Turgeon was a much better fit than Kennedy’s freelancing.

“Twenty-year-old kid that was hurt all year,” Joe Dumars said of Middleton. “Talented, still not 100 percent. Everybody is not going to walk in the door like Kyle Singler and everybody’s not going to walk in the door like Kim English. Some of these guys are younger. Just as we have to be patient with Andre (Drummond), we have to be patient with Khris Middleton, as well. But make no mistake about the talent of Khris Middleton. This kid can play. He’s just young and he has to grow into it.”

Middleton had another complicating factor that Singler and English didn’t have to face. While Singler played exclusively at small forward and English almost exclusively at shooting guard, Middleton swung back and forth through five games after just six practices to learn a rudimentary playbook, completely new terminology and defensive principles far different from what most rookies were taught in college.

“It’s a learning process,” Pistons Summer League coach John Loyer said. “We’re having him play two spots, both the two and the three. He’s a good shooter.”

The Pistons saw clear evidence of Middleton’s shooting stroke in scrimmages and shooting drills.

“He can defend, knock down shots when he’s open,” Brandon Knight said. “He’s a good shooter and he can rebound as well. He can do a lot of things. He’s very versatile, just the way Kyle Singler and Kim English are.”

“Really smooth,” English said of Middleton’s shot. “Really quick. High release. Really good shooter.”

Pistons assistant general manager George David thought highly of Middleton during his sophomore season and was on hand later that summer when he admired the way Middleton competed in a head-to-head pairing with Kevin Durant at the NBA scoring champion’s skills camp in Chicago for high-level college players.

“What you saw in Khris was the normal evolution of what a true rookie is going to go through in a Summer League,” David said. “There’s an adjustment to the pace of the game, an adjustment for any shooter in how you’re going to be able to get your shot off.”

In his 5-of-5 shooting performance against Boston, David felt Middleton made a significant first step.

“That was a big moment,” he said. “He was able to walk away from that game and say, ‘OK, I see how to do it now.’ For any rookie, you hope that moment comes when you’re at Summer League. Sometimes that moment might not come until January of his rookie season or the end of his rookie season. The No. 1 positive Khris got out of Summer League was he understands how that transition, how that adjustment is going to work for him in terms of how hard you have to work to get an open shot.”

That’s what Middleton, a native of South Carolina, planned to do with the rest of his summer: work hard. He left Orlando to head home for a few weeks, but plans to come to Detroit in late July or early August to find a place to live and start working out under strength coach Arnie Kander and with his future teammates at the team’s practice facility.

“Get better, get bigger, get stronger,” Middleton said. “Work out a lot and just try to improve my game.”

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