Closing Rush

Middleton making the most of late-season audition in Pistons rotation

Khris Middleton
Khris Middleton has embraced his opportunity.
B. Sevald/Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The front office that scouted Khris Middleton for three college seasons and saw him hold his own against NBA players in summer camp pickup games wasn’t fazed by his performances in Orlando’s Summer League. But the coaching staff that didn’t have that history with him? Well …

“In Summer League, look, there were a lot of questions,” Lawrence Frank said as the season headed to its final week with Middleton now in the rotation as Kyle Singler’s backup. “Part of it is him getting healthy with his knee. I think he has a lot more confidence in his legs. A lot of work he’s put into his game. He’s very studious. He knows that he has to continue to work and get stronger. He’s in the weight room. He watches film every day. At the end of practice, he’s working on his individual skills, one on one.”

When Joe Dumars huddles his inner circle at season’s end and plots a future that includes the opening that an estimated $25 million or more in cap space this summer provides, he’ll write the names of his last three No. 1 draft choices in ink: Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond. He’ll have Kyle Singler on that list, too, and now Rodney Stuckey and Jonas Jerebko have grown into the class of young veterans, both putting strong finishing kicks onto disappointing seasons.

If there’s a next name to be added, Middleton is making a strong case it should be his with his close to the season. In the last 20 games since becoming more or less a rotation staple in late February, Middleton has played 15 minutes of more 17 times, including a season high 33 in the April 7 win over Chicago. As his role has stabilized, Middleton’s calling card – his ability to score efficiently and in a variety of ways – has come to the fore.

“When you’re looking at all players,” Frank said, “the thing you have to say is, ‘What is his NBA skill?’ His NBA skill is, Khris is going to be able to score the ball.”

The question about what he can eventually become – the backup he is today or something more than that, perhaps – revolves around how he handles everything beyond scoring. The Pistons have been pleased with his progress in those areas, as well, and Middleton feels more confident today in his ability to hold his own defensively than he might have coming into the season.

“I think I’ve taken a step,” he said. “I feel like I have to take more steps in certain areas, but I think during the summer I’ll be able to work on those things and be prepared for next season. I’ll be spending a lot of time in Auburn Hills with Arnie (Kander, strength coach) working on trying to get my body strong and where it needs to be.”

Frank cited the need to grow stronger, as well, especially as it applies to battling on pick-and-roll defense that increasingly is a staple of NBA attacks.

“He’s had some good individual defensive moments,” Frank said. “The key is dealing with screening action, both on and off the ball. He’s only 21. As he gets stronger, he’ll continue to be more effective with it. The challenge for him is to continue to get stronger so you can make those contact plays that are essential in this game. He’s a low-turnover guy. He’s a very effective player. I think he has a very good offensive feel and he’s got good size. He plays with poise. It’s really a credit to him and to (assistant coach) Steve Hetzel, the work that he put in.”

Middleton has relished the opportunity playing time has provided to both apply all the laboratory work he’s put in with Hetzel and to solidify his status as a part of the team’s core.

“Me not playing at the beginning of the season, now I’m playing so I just try to take advantage of my minutes I’m getting now. I’ve always felt I could play. I just wasn’t getting the opportunity. Now I’m getting the opportunity, I just want to take advantage of it and try to make the best of it.”

  • Andre Drummond, who sprained his right ankle late in Friday’s win over Charlotte, will be a game-time decision, Frank said after Sunday’s practice. Jose Calderon, still nursing a triceps injury on his shooting arm, will miss Monday’s home finale against Philadelphia. Frank called it “unlikely” he would play in Wednesday’s finale at Brooklyn, but wouldn’t rule it out.