Seizing Opportunity

Middleton intends to build off strong rookie finish in 2013-14

Khris Middleton
Rookie Khris Middleton averaged 7.1 points and shot nearly 50 percent over the Pistons' final 19 games of the 2012-13 season.
Dan Lippitt (NBAE/Getty)
Down the stretch of the season, when some Pistons fans were debating whether it was better to win games or lose to better their lottery odds and the media focused on Lawrence Frank’s job security, Khris Middleton savored every minute of every opportunity granted him to establish his NBA future.

After appearing in just eight games over the season’s first four months, Middleton joined the rotation for the season’s final 19 games, nearly one-quarter of the season. He averaged 20 minutes a game as Kyle Singler’s backup at small forward and showed in increasing glimpses his innate scoring gifts. Middleton averaged 7.1 points and shot nearly 50 percent.

Especially encouraging was his improvement from start to finish of that six-week stretch. Over the season’s final five games, Middleton averaged 9.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists while making 18 of 37 shots, 4 of 10 from the 3-point arc.

“It was huge for me,” Middleton said Wednesday after a workout at the team’s practice facility and a consultation with Arnie Kander, who told me earlier this month that continuing to build strength will dominate Middleton’s off-season agenda. “I just know what to expect from day one next season. I fought my way toward getting in there and proved what I was capable of doing, but now I want to take the next step next year.”

Middleton has put on nearly 10 pounds since the Pistons drafted him with the No. 39 pick last June, all of it muscle. His body fat percentage has declined sharply in that time and the definition in his chest and arms over the player who showed up for Orlando Pro Summer League last July, still gimpy on a knee surgically repaired in December 2011, is readily noticeable.

“Right now for me, I’ve just got to get stronger,” he said. “Just be able to do more things on the court that I want to be able to do. I think I’ve passed the knee phase where now I just want to get stronger and as explosive as I can be. I think I’ve gone from zero to probably a 30, but now I want to get to 100 this summer. I felt like during the season I made some strides, but I couldn’t go all the way because of all the running and playing and traveling we were doing. During the summer, I’ll be able to put a lot more focus in to it.”

Middleton took a few weeks off after the April 17 season finale, visiting old friends around Texas A&M and seeing his sister in Los Angeles, but he’s back in the gym five mornings a week and returning often for nighttime weight-lifting sessions. The Pistons weren’t sure what they had in Middleton after a shaky Summer League last season, though they understood the knee injury prevented showing his best, but they soon found out they wouldn’t have to worry about his passion for the game or his dedication to hard work.

Even when he was out of the rotation, Middleton was never anything but eager and attentive in pregame and post-practice drill work and videotape review, most of his time spent with assistant coach Steve Hetzel, who is still putting him through the paces. Once he convinced Lawrence Frank he was ready for a shot at rotation minutes, all his hard work behind the scenes paid off.

“I just learned how I can get my shots off in certain ways and how to play my style of game inside the offense,” he said. “I felt like I was able to do some things I wanted to do. Now I feel I can take the next step and be able to create more space off the dribble and just be able to make plays.”

You couldn’t mention Middleton to Frank without hearing him marvel about the rookie’s artistry in the mid-range game – or without him cautioning that a broader role would depend on his ability to get stronger to be able to maximize his feel on offense and battle pick-and-roll attacks defensively.

Middleton studies the NBA’s great wing players similar in size to him – he mentioned Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Paul George, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, even LeBron James – as he tries to incorporate the best of the best into his repertoire. Especially over the final handful of games, as the game seemed to slow down for him, Middleton displayed a flair for setting up teammates that should serve him well.

“Just knowing how to get to my spots – that’s the key,” he said. “Once I get to my main spots, I feel like I have a lot of options I can go to – keep on driving, pass or shoot. I just feel like if I can get to those spots, I can play my game.”

In addition to gaining strength to further that cause, Middleton said an additional focus will be working to further improve an already-solid ballhandling ability.

“You can always get better with your ballhandling. I’m not a guy who makes five or 10 moves. I’m just more of a simple, straight-line driver, just try to be crafty with my dribble and keep it tight.”

Middleton doesn’t have any exotic summer trips or workout plans other than staying in Auburn Hills. He’ll return to Orlando for Summer League, a year older, stronger and wiser than he was 12 months earlier. He still has four months before his second training camp opens. And if Khris Middleton has proven anything to the Pistons in his first year, it’s that he knows how to put his time to great use.