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Featherston On Mason Plumlee's Return


Sometimes I seem to be living in an alternate universe. There's got to be some explanation for the times when I see the basketball world one way and almost all of my compatriots in the media see it differently.

I know it sounds paranoid to suggest that I am right and the whole world is wrong. Maybe I need help. Allow me to talk to you about one of the most recent issues that baffles me:

Mason Plumlee.

Last week, when the 6-10 junior announced that he was passing up the NBA draft and returning to Duke for his second year, his decision provoked a flood of comment - most of it negative.

His high school coach complained about the way Duke has used his former star. Plumlee's father agreed that his son needs to be used differently next season. ESPN commentator - and former UNC big man - Brad Daugherty told the Asheville newspaper that Mason Plumlee has "regressed" under Mike Krzyzewski's tutelage at Duke. Reading the message boards at DBR and other Blue Devil sites, I see that even many Duke fans seem to think that Mason Plumlee has not become the player he was projected to be out of high school.

Perhaps the most damaging perception of Plumlee's career belongs to Duke recruiting target Tony Parker, who suggested that Plumlee's lack of a development has to some degree explained his reluctance to sign with Duke. The Atlanta big man wrote in his on-line diary:

"Mason was a monster in high school. Don't get me wrong. He's really good now, but I thought he would be much further along."

I wonder how much Parker got to see of Plumlee when the Duke big man was in high school? I assume their paths crossed at certain AAU events, but Plumlee was three years ahead of Parker, so they would have been in different age groups. I talked to Mark Watson of Blue Devil Nation, who followed Plumlee closely during his AAU days, and he can't remember Plumlee and Parker ever facing off (although he concedes that it could have happened in some minor event).

So where did Parker get the idea that Plumlee was a monster in high school who has not developed in college? Maybe from a rival recruiter? If so, is there any truth in the claim that Plumlee was a prep "monster" who has regressed or not developed at Duke? Was he so good at Christ School that his collegiate accomplishments - as a junior at Duke he was third-team All-ACC, averaging 11.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 57.2 percent field goal shooting -- should be seen as a disappointment?

Well, let's see.

As a senior at Christ School, Plumlee won some significant honors. He was a McDonald's All-American who was named North Carolina's Mr. Basketball by the Charlotte Observer. He also made the Jordan Brand All-America team and was a third-team Parade All-American.

But Plumlee never put up monster numbers. As a junior at Christ School, he averaged 12.5 points and 10.5 rebounds a game for a state championship team (in the state private school league). As a senior, he averaged 15.3 points and 10.1 rebounds, along with 3.3 assists and 2.5 blocks.

Think about that for a moment - he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds as a prep senior, playing against high school competition (and much of it coming in the greatly inferior North Carolina private school league). Is 11.1 points and 9.2 rebounds as a college junior - against the nation's second-toughest collegiate schedule - really such a disappointment?

Now, Plumlee played on a very good high school team - a team that went 99-8 in his last three varsity seasons. They shared the ball at Christ School and often routed mismatched opponents so badly that Plumlee's second-half playing time was diminished.

Of course, Plumlee has played on a very good college team - a team that has gone 94-17 in his three seasons (winning a national title, two ACC championships and finishing in the AP top 10 all three seasons). He's shared the scoring load with NBA draft picks Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Austin Rivers (I'm assuming Rivers will be drafted) and (for 11 games) Kyrie Irving.

Considering the kind of role he played in high school, has Mason Plumlee's collegiate role really been surprising? If it fair for David Gaines to suggest that he's been under-utilized when his role at Duke is almost exactly what it was at Christ School?


There's another way of looking at it.

When Mason Plumlee came out of high school, he was the No. 18 rated player in the RSCI (which averages the recruiting rankings).

Take a look at the post players (centers and power forwards) that ranked among the top 50 prospects that year (the numbers at left are their overall ranking):

1. Derrick Favors (Georgia Tech)

3. DeMarcus Cousins (Kentucky)

5. John Henson (North Carolina)

7. Renardo Sidney (Mississippi State)

10. Keith "Tiny" Gallon (Oklahoma)

12. Mouphtaou Yarou (Villanova)

13. Dante Taylor (Pittsburgh)

14. Ryan Kelly (Duke)

15. Wally Judge (Kansas State)

16. Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut)

18. Mason Plumlee (Duke)

19. Daniel Orton (Kentucky)

20. Milton Jennings (Clemson)

28. Thomas Robinson (Kansas)

31. Royce White (Minnesota)

36. Aaric Murray (Louisville)

37. David Wear (North Carolina)

38. Travis Wear (North Carolina)

43. Erik Murphy (Florida)

So who has achieved, overachieved and underachieved out of that bunch?

Let's start by suggesting that the top three post players in the prep Class of 2009 were all very successful. Favors and Cousins were one-and-done players (and deserved to be). Henson took a year to develop into a top college player, but by his junior year, he was a stud - and will almost certainly be a lottery pick in this year's draft.

It's after that that things get sticky.

In fact, you could make the case that Plumlee has become a better college player than the other seven post players ranked ahead of him. Check them out:

No. 7 - Renardo Sidney: When I saw Sidney play as a ninth grader, he was the best player in his class. Indeed, he was one of the dominant ninth-graders ever. When he was young and slender, he looked like the second-coming of Magic Johnson. As he got older and bulked up (he weighed in at 285 this season), he became more of a post player - but was still a top 10 prospect.

Sidney went to Mississippi State, where he had worlds of trouble. He was ineligible to play in 2010 and missed the first part of the 2011 season. When he did become eligible, he was suspended for behavior in Hawaii. Sidney did come back and play fairly well at times, averaging 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in about half a season. As a senior, he was able to stay eligible and healthy most of the way (missing just four games). But his production - Brad Daugherty would love this word - regressed as he averaged a mere 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds for an NIT team.

No. 10 Keith "Tiny" Gallon: Another oversized big man, the 6-10, 300-pound Gallon signed to play for Jeff Capel at Oklahoma. His presence sparked an investigation that found that Gallon had received illegal inducements to attend OU (Note: Capel was never linked to the violations). Gallon had some success as a freshman - 10.3 points and 7.9 rebounds for a losing team - then turned pro and was the 47th player taken in the 2010 draft. He played in the developmental league in 2011 and as far as I can determine, he isn't playing in the U.S. this year.

No. 12 Moupthtaou Yarou: Not a lot of drama, but nothing outstanding either. The 6-10, 250-pound Nigerian has seen a lot of action at Villanova, improving every year to the point where he averaged 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds for a 13-18 team last season. He shot 47 percent from the floor and had less than an assist and less than a block a game.

No. 13 Dante Taylor: The 6-9, 240-pound banger has never averaged six points or five rebounds in a game in his three seasons at Pitt. He had his best year in 2012, averaging 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds for team that failed to make the NCAA or NIT.

No. 14 Ryan Kelly: Hard to remember that the slender forward was actually ranked ahead of Plumlee coming out of high school. Kelly has progressed nicely in his first three seasons at Duke - going from 1.2 ppg. to 6.6 ppg. to 11.8 ppg. He's raised his rebound average every year too, coming in at 5.4 a game this season. He's actually more of an inside/outside player - Krzyzewski called him "a stretch forward" than a true post player.

No. 15 Wally Judge: The 6-9, 245-pound Washington, D.C., native played two seasons for Kansas State, averaging a career best 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds (while shooting 43 percent from the field). He sat out last season after transferring to Rutgers.

No. 16 Alex Oriakhi: The 6-9, 240 pounder was making good progress in his career through the 2011 season. He averaged 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds (shooting 50.7 percent) for UConn's national championship team. But he - here's Brad's favorite word again - regressed in 2012, averaging 5.0 points and 6.6 rebounds (shooting 46.0 percent from the floor) for a Huskie team that barely make the NCAA field. Oriakhi announced he was transferring last month and briefly considered Duke before opting to jump to Missouri.

No. 18 Plumlee - as noted, he's raised his minutes every year (from 14.1 to 25.3 to 28.4); he's raised his scoring every year from 3.7 to 7.2 to 11.1; he's raised his rebounding every year from 3.1 to 8.4 to 9.2. As a junior, he shot 57.2 percent from the field and averaged 1.6 assists and 1.6 blocked shots - better than any of the players listed above him on the RSCI (other than Henson with blocked shots).

So how is it that a guy who is supposed to be a disappointment after a "monster" high school career has actually been a more productive college career that the seven post players ranked ahead of him? Where is the criticism of Jim Calhoun for not developing the higher ranked Oriakhi? For Jay Wright and Jamie Dixon for Yarou and Taylor?

And when you look at those prospects ranked below Plumlee in 2009, it's hard to find many that have been better.

There is one - No. 28 Thomas Robinson of Kansas blossomed into a national player of the year candidate this season after two forgettable years (he averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds as a junior).

But who else?

Maybe No. 31 Royce White, the 2009 Mr. Basketball in Minnesota, who signed with the Gophers, but never played there. He was suspended for the 2010 season for an off-campus incident, then dismissed from school after allegedly stealing a laptop. He surfaced at Iowa State this season and led the Cyclones in scoring (13.4), rebounds (9.3) and assists (5.0). White has declared for the NBA draft.

I guess you could say his 2012 season was better than Plumlee's, but his career value doesn't measure up. You might argue something similar for No. 36 Aaric Murray, who had a nice sophomore season at LaSalle (15.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg.), then transferred to West Virginia (where he has been dealing with a marijuana arrest).

Beyond that, there's No. 19 Daniel Orton, who turned pro in the spring of 2010 after averaging 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds as a freshman at Kentucky. In the last two seasons, he's appeared in 10 NBA games, scoring a grand total of 17 points; No. 43 Erik Murphy, the older brother of Alex, has averaged 10.5 points and 4.5 rebounds as a Ryan Kelly-like forward for a Florida team that plays a very similar three-guard offense to Duke; No. 20 Milton Jennings, averaged 9.7 points and 5.6 rebounds last season at Clemson.

And less we forget the Wear twins, who spend a year at the big-man factory at UNC where they were part of the 2010 disaster in Chapel Hill, then transferred to UCLA, where they were actually productive players (Travis: 11.5 ppg., 5.9 rpg.; David 10.2 ppg., 6.3 rpg.) for a UCLA team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Come to think of it, they've played two years of college basketball at two of the sport's storied franchises and still haven't made the NCAA Tournament yet.

I guess my point is, that the perception that Plumlee's college development is somewhat disappointing is hard to sustain in light of the evidence. On the whole, his collegiate play has out-performed his projected performance.

He's been MORE productive that many of the players rated higher than he was coming out of high school. He's been less productive that one or maybe a couple that were rated lower.


There is one criticism that we can dismiss out of hand - Brad Daugherty's claim that Plumlee has regressed,

That's clearly not the case. Plumlee was never a big scorer against high school competition, even when he was matched against the smaller and less athletic kids he faced in North Carolina's private school league. When he went up against comparable players in AAU ball and in the postseason all-star games, he was an effective player, but he was never a scoring machine. He scored six points (of the 213 points scored) in the 2009 McDonald's All-America Game. He scored 11 points (out of 213 scored) in the Jordan Brand Classic game.

At Duke, Plumlee has improved all aspects of his game - his scoring and rebounding going up every season. His improved free throw shooting is an example of his progress - at one point last season he was under 40 percent from the line, but he finished strong and came in at 52.8 percent - significantly better than in 2011.

It's hard to argue that he has "regressed".

Now, it's a bit more reasonable to object to the way Plumlee has been used offensively and to suggest that he would have developed faster in another system. He is asked to set a lot of screens and to rebound. And he did suffer last season from the difficulty - I won't quite say inability - of Duke's guards to get him the ball. The Blue Devils had just 423 assists last season, which was the team's lowest total since 2005 … and 55 (over 13 percent) of those belonged to Plumlee.

Plumlee's offensive limitations stem from the fact that he doesn't have a go-to offensive move. If he gets the ball in the right place, he has a nice hook shot and he has nice catch and dunk skills. But he doesn't have a consistent face-up jumper and he's not polished enough to put the ball on the floor - his 74 turnovers last year were extremely high for a frontcourt player.

Still, the charge is out there - that Plumlee's biggest problem is Coach K's system. Supposedly, Krzyzewski only uses his big men to screen, rebound and play defense. He'd rather shoot 3s than pound the ball inside, so that Mason - and potential Duke big men such as Tony Parker - can never aspire to be the focal point of the offense.

That was Gaines' point when the Christ School coach told the Asheville paper that he advised Plumlee to turn pro.

"In my opinion, he should go now," Gaines said. "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."


I would argue that Krzyzewski's "system" is to build his team around the talents that are on hand.

When he had Kyrie Irving (briefly) he wanted to be a running, gunning, pressing fullcourt team to take advantage of Irving's fullcourt skills. He turned his 2010 team into a slow, halfcourt team that packed it in defensively and relied on the offensive rebounding skills of Brian Zoubek and lance Thomas in the post to get the ball.

For most of the 2001 season, Carlos Boozer was an integral part of the Duke offense - the third of a trio of scorers, along with the team's starting power forward and point guard. When he got hurt late, the burly center was replaced by Casey Sanders, a taller, thinner big man who had no offensive skills - except setting screens for the team's many shooters.

When K has strong inside scorers, he uses them - Elton Brand was the national player of the year as a sophomore. Boozer was a major offensive threat for three seasons and Shelden Williams blossomed into a high-scoring post player. When K has versatile inside-out big men - from Denny Ferry to Christian Laettner to Shane Battier to Kyle Singler -- he builds his offense around them too.

Should he build his offense around Plumlee - or at least give him more of an offensive focus?

That probably will depend on Plumlee's offseason development. Can he improve his handle? Can he become a more consistent free throw shooter? Can he develop a go-to offensive move?

It's hard to complain about Plumlee's supporting role in the 2012 Duke offense. Keep in mind that until the meltdown in the last couple of weeks, Duke had one of the most efficient offenses in the country - even with the late collapse, Pomeroy rates Duke as the No. 11 most efficient offense in college basketball in 2012.

It would have been nice to have a better Plumlee option when Kelly got hurt and both Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins went into slumps. But it's hard to rebuild an offense on the fly.

I'm sure Coach K would like to give Plumlee a bigger offensive role next season

But he's got to earn it.