Sitting at the scorer’s table at Toyota Arena in Houston, Detroit Pistons guard Khris Middleton could hear his heart beating through his chest.
Team: Detroit Pistons
Weight: 215 pounds
High School: Porter-Gaud
College: Texas A&M
Draft: Taken by Detroit in 2nd round with 39th overall pick
Stats: GP: 27. MPG: 17.4. PPG: 6.1. RPG: 1.9. APG 1.0
After sitting on the bench for the first five games of the season, Middleton realized that his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA was finally about to come true.
“It’s hard to explain what you’re feeling at that moment,” the former Porter-Gaud star said. “You’re nervous, you’re excited. You’re trying to remember everything that the coach said to you. There was a lot going through my mind.”
Watching the game on TV in their living room in North Charleston more than 1,100-miles away, James and Nichelle Middleton could barely contain their excitement.
“I was excited, not really nervous, and very proud like I think any parent would be at that moment,” James said. “I knew how much work and what kind of sacrifices Khris has made to get to this point in his life. It was a great moment for all of us.”
Middleton played nine minutes that night against the Rockets. He finished with four points, scoring on a strong baseline move to the basket, and had two steals.
It was a solid start to what he hopes will be a long NBA career.
About 20 minutes after the game was over, Khris called his father to celebrate the milestone.
“He’s been there from the very beginning,” Khris said. “In a way, I felt like we both made our NBA debut that night.”
It was a roller-coaster season for the former Texas A&M standout. He played in 27 games, averaging 6.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and one assist per game. But like a lot of rookies drafted in the second round, Middleton spent most of the early part of the season on the bench, learning the pro game and waiting for his opportunity. He went more than two months without getting into a game, and at one point he was sent to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the NBA’s Developmental League.
“I had some ups and downs throughout the season, but I thought it was a great learning experience for me,” Middleton said. “It’s definitely something I can build on for next season.”
Middleton said he never pouted about his playing time. He realized that the only way to get on the court was to improve his game.
“You can’t get down on yourself when you’re playing at that level,” Middleton said. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself and stop working, because that’s the quickest way out of the league. When I wasn’t playing, I was constantly working on my game so when I did get my chance, I’d be ready.”
When Detroit went on a long West Coast road trip in December, the Pistons sent Middleton to Fort Wayne for three games. He made the most of his time in the D-League, gaining some much-needed game experience and confidence. He averaged 11 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3 assists and 26.3 minutes in three games, including a 19-point, nine-rebound performance against the Maine Red Claws. Playing in the D-League no longer means the end of an NBA career for a player. San Antonio’s Danny Green played in the D-League as recently as 2011.
“Playing in the D-League isn’t like it was before,” Middleton said. “You don’t have that stigma of playing in the D-League and teams don’t want to look at you anymore. It’s an opportunity to work on your game. Every team is watching, so it’s like you’re trying out all over again.”
By the end of February, Middleton had impressed the Pistons coaching staff enough during practices to start getting regular minutes. With veteran guard Rodney Stuckey struggling, Middleton averaged nearly 20 minutes a game over the final two months of the season. His best game came in early March when he scored a career-high 14 points against Dallas.
“Khris is a good offensive player. He can make shots and he can also attack off the dribble,” Pistons assistant coach Brian Hill told the media.
Middleton said the toughest players for him to guard this past season were Boston Celtics All-Star Paul Pierce and Indiana Pacers forward Paul George. Like Middleton, both Pierce and George are 6-7 or 6-8 versatile swing players, capable of shooting the 3-point shot and taking a defender off the dribble. Middleton said the insight he gained from defending each player helped his own development as an offensive player.
“Both of those guys are great players and know how to play the game and get their shots,” Middleton said. “I learned a lot playing against those guys. You see how they move and can create opportunities for themselves and their teammates.”
Going into his second season, Middleton has already started working on his game, including hitting the weight room. At 6-7 and 215 pounds, Middleton said he needs to add some strength to compete over the grinding 82-game season.
“There’s no doubt I need to get stronger,” Middleton said. “You don’t realize how big and how strong everyone is in the NBA until you play in a game. I think getting stronger will allow me to take my game to another level. To get where I want to be in this league, I have to get stronger.
“I think I know what’s expected of me, so I know what I need to work on. Now, it’s just a matter of working on my game so I can accomplish your goals.”
Former Porter-Gaud High School star Khris Middleton played in 27 games, averaging 6.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and an assist per game for the Detroit Pistons this past season (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)×