Everything that happened before the shot, though, gave the Pistons optimism that what they saw in Middleton when they grabbed him with the 39th pick in last June’s draft can translate to the NBA.
“He’s got a good, tight mid-range game,” Lawrence Frank said. “The more he plays, the more confidence he has, the more shots he’ll make.”
His versatility of scoring is what put Middleton on the radar of NBA teams. He can come off screens and get his shot off quickly, he can be effective as a catch-and-shoot scorer and Middleton also has shown a knack for using the dribble efficiently to create space and either get off a shot or draw the defense and pass.
“He’s made some good passes, too,” Frank said. “He made a real good pass to Slava (in Monday’s loss to Atlanta) that we didn’t come up with, but that was the right intent.”
Middleton’s path to playing time was blocked for most of the season because the Pistons were stacked at his natural position, small forward. But the late January trade that sent Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye to Memphis for Jose Calderon broke the logjam. Kyle Singler moved from shooting guard to take Prince’s spot as the starter and Jonas Jerebko and Rodney Stuckey got first crack at backup minutes.
But Jerebko now is back at power forward, it appears, giving Middleton a shot to claim minutes behind Singler. With Will Bynum’s one-game suspension served and Knight likely to return soon, Frank will have the option to again give Stuckey the minutes at small forward that Singler doesn’t soak up, but Middleton’s length gives Frank another tool in any case. If those shots start falling, as Middleton remains confident they will, he could give the Pistons some second-unit punch missing without Andre Drummond’s rim-finishing wallop while Charlie Villanueva’s shooting slump endures.
“I feel like it’s gone pretty well,” Middleton said of his first foray. “I just wish I could’ve shot the ball better, but I think my performance has been pretty good so far. They’re all shots I can make. They’ve been situations where I know I can make a play. I’m trying to play my game. They’ll fall eventually.”
Middleton and Kim English, especially, have been the special project of assistant coach Steve Hetzel this season. They spend a solid hour with him before every game, usually along with Singler, both working on the package of shots they’re most likely to get in games and participating in video tutorials. While Middleton is working off the inevitable accumulation of rust that comes from limited five-on-five basketball exposure over the past four months, he’s put the time to good use in every other respect.
“I got to work on my body, kept working on my game and also just got to learn out there from the guys who are playing,” he said. “Getting stronger, working on my upper-body strength, lower-body strength, just trying to get stronger. Before practice, after practice and then again sometimes at night, just always trying to find a way to get stronger.”
Hetzel has spent a great deal of time helping Middleton learn to compensate for average quickness by better understanding defensive angles and tendencies of NBA personnel and making sure he is vigilant about maintaining proper leverage and positioning. Frank was impressed with the way Middleton battled two high-octane offensive players in Indiana’s Paul George and Danny Granger in the weekend set with the Pacers.
“He’s had some real good defensive possessions,” Frank said, “and then he has other possessions that he’ll just have to continue to improve, like all our guys.”
“I just try to take the challenge,” he said. “Coach has challenged me many times, telling me that I’m not going to be able to play for long if I don’t play defense. I’m also learning how these guys play. There are certain tendencies you’ve got to pick up on and that’s what I try to do – and use my length. I try to use my instincts, try to figure out where guys want to go, just try to be a step ahead of them when I know they might have a quickness step on me.”