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Thoughts On Plumlee's Return

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On Tuesday, Mason Plumlee decided that he would return to Duke for his senior year. On balance, it was a good decision for both parties: Plumlee gets more time to develop an NBA game and gives Duke some stability in the frontcourt.

It had a pretty immediate effect as UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi quickly eliminated Duke.

But back to Plumlee. An NBA scout told the Fayetteville newspaper this: "To see what he's done in three years, to see him get better, I'm happy to hear he's going back to Duke and have a chance to improve. When I watched him this summer when they were playing overseas, he kind of caught my eye, and his brother was playing a little bit more than him. During the year, he started getting better and stronger and played a little bit more tough. I would want to see him continue to do that. He has the athleticism, but he's got to give me more of the skill set to be able to bang every night in the NBA."

He had him pegged as a second-round pick.

David Gaines, Plumlee's high school coach, said this: "He's gotten pretty good (information) from Miles' agent, and all but one source said he would be a first-round pick. Last year I told him he shouldn't go, (but) in my opinion he should go now. I disagree with how (Duke) is using him as a screen-setter, shot blocker and rebounder. . If they are not going to develop him more as a total player, I think he should go to the NBA and learn that as a pro."

This brings up two interesting points of discussion: the ongoing if quiet debate about how Duke uses big men and Ryan Kelly.

The meme currently, is more or less what Gaines said: Duke uses big men as screeners, rebounders and defenders. This was alluded to by Mitch McGary when he chose Michigan and by Tony Parker as well in some recent comments.

The addendum to this is that Duke doesn't develop big men very well.

But you can refute all of that fairly quickly by simply saying: Ryan Kelly.

Kelly started off as a skinny freshman who has carved out a consistently bigger role as his career has moved on. He is a solid shotblocker, a fair rebounder, and this season unveiled an ability to drive to the basket.

You can point also to Brian Zoubek, who became a towering figure in his senior year, literally and figuratively. Zoobs never had overwhelming physical talent, but he milked it all and won a national championship.

He was a highly rated player coming in as was Lance Thomas, but neither was fully ready for college. Thomas had immense energy but minimal offensive skills for a higher level (he had one assist his freshman year!) Yet he too evolved into a vastly improved player and during the NCAA championship run, he was superb.

For a player to become great though isn't necessarily straightforward. Zoubek showed signs early - he was a fantastic worker and had great hands. Still took awhile.

Shelden Williams came in very rough offensively, but developed into a fine post player.

And the Plumlees?

Miles first: it's been generally understood that one of his biggest problems was confidence. You can have all the talent in the world and great coaching but if you lack confidence the road gets harder.

And Mason? From an observant fan's perspective, he's more confident than his brother and more aggressive. Last season he showed off a jump hook that he could do with either hand.

Yet throughout his career, he's been tentative around the basket. You could almost call it one area where he lacks confidence, perhaps along with the free throw line.

But it separates him from greatness.

He's highly mobile, can be a dominant rebounder and shotblocker and is, for our money, the greatest dunker with his back to the basket we've ever seen.

Seriously, go back and watch: he has an amazing knack for that.

Taking the ball straight up is a basic big man skill. If he can do that consistently, well, it's worth millions to his future.

A coach can teach technique, but courage comes from within. Individually, Mason needs to dare to be great, and not to jus so that he'll be a high NBA pick. That will happen if he does what he needs to do.

He needs to do it for himself.

He's had a lot of doubters, still does. Aside from maximum reps over the summer, the best advice anyone could give him would be to just put it all out there. If he plays with courage and confidence, the sky's the limit for Mason Plumlee.


Plumlee's return adds a lot of stability for Duke, but overall, what to expect?

Well, let's look.

Plumlee and Kelly are certain to start. Mason's return gives the third Plumlee, Marshall, more time to mature.

Though we didn't see him this year Marshall is said to be not as gifted as his brothers but a more natural post presence. If he can mature into at least a reliable substitute as a redshirt freshman, the inside game is set. Where he goes after that is really intriguing - and largely up to him.

The biggest change though is likely to be defense.

Duke had some real issues this past year on the defensive end. As much as we admired Austin River's ability to dominate offensively, he was never a great defender.

Duke trades him for Rasheed Sulaimon, who may not be as dynamic offensively, although he's plenty good. But he's a better defender, as he showed at the Nike Hoop Summit.

Earlier we spoke of confidence. That was an issue for Alex Murphy as well. Word is though that he's gotten much bigger and stronger and that he has the potential to be the best player on the team.

Sophs Michael Gbinije and Quinn Cook will have a chance to really step up. Both had limitations as freshmen.

In Cook's case, it was the lingering effects of his high school knee injury. We expect that will continue to get better as he gets more rehab and reps. You'll recall that as recently as the China trip, his knee was considered too risky to go.

Yet at times during the season, he was clearly brilliant. He has the soul of a point guard and the potential to make both the offense and defense vastly better.

Gbinije, who Rivers recently called a "freak athlete," has yet to make a major impact. We would put this down to simply being a freshman. He'll improve as a sophomore and between Gbinije, Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton, Duke will have some major defenders to throw at opponents.

In a lot of ways, it could be a much better team.

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