Lichtenstein: Plumlee Showing Nets, Team USA That He’s Ready To Make Leap
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By Steve Lichtenstein
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There’s a video posted online featuring Mason Plumlee, fresh off an overachieving rookie season as the Nets’ backup center, receiving a pass from USA Basketball Select teammate Victor Oladipo at the right elbow during Monday’s scrimmage against the Senior Men’s National Team.
Turning to face superstar Anthony Davis, Plumlee took a dribble to his right before going behind his back to the left. The move left Davis lurching at air by the sideline while Plumlee took one more dribble and then threw the ball down through the hoop with his left hand.
I needed to see the video five times before I could confirm that the roles weren’t reversed. Where did that come from? It was downright Andray Blatche-ian.
If that wasn’t shocking enough, Team USA headquarters raised the voltage on Tuesday when it announced that Plumlee had been promoted to the elite squad.
Now, there’s a long way to go from placement on the 20-man tryout roster to standing at the podium listening to the national anthem with a medal around Plumlee’s neck. But let’s not discount what this means: The NBA has taken notice of Plumlee’s development.
Either that or the talent pool for American big men has virtually dried up.
I’m going with the positive for a change.
Plumlee, who will compete against Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond for final spots on the team that will play in the FIBA World Cup in Spain at the end of August, has come a long way since his selection by Brooklyn at No. 22 overall in the 2013 NBA draft.
Back then I fumed, feeling that Nets general manager Billy King reached for a marginal player who happened to attend Duke, King’s beloved alma mater. After watching Plumlee struggle in summer-league games, I assumed he would be D-League-bound by Thanksgiving.
But to Plumlee’s credit, he worked his tail off and stuck around. Plumlee was a sponge, according to King, particularly those times when he sought the counsel of future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett.
Plumlee also was keenly aware of his limitations. To put it mildly, his shooting is not very good. So 78.5 percent of Plumlee’s field-goal attempts last season were from within three feet of the rim, per basketball-reference.com. 116 of his 199 makes were dunks.
Oh, Plumlee loved to dunk. No one on the snail-paced Nets was better at sprinting down the floor for an alley-oop than Plumlee.
Former coach Jason Kidd admired both Plumlee’s athleticism as well as his intellect, which resulted in increased playing time as the season progressed. Further opportunities arrived when starting center Brook Lopez went down in late December and was lost for the season, and then Garnett missed 19 straight games with a back injury.
For the Nets to secure a playoff slot, they needed Plumlee to grow up fast.
He did, helping the Nets go 14-5 in those 19 games sans Garnett.
Plumlee’s biggest leap came on the defensive end, where he slowly learned how to avoid getting into foul trouble. Much of Plumlee’s defensive activity early in the season was really hyperactivity. He would run around flailing his arms, often putting himself out of position.
As the Nets morphed into their small-ball identity following the Lopez injury, Plumlee started to get it. He improved at blitzing high pick-and-rolls without forgoing his rim-protecting and rebounding responsibilities.
Plumlee’s biggest play of the season, of course, was his last-second rejection of LeBron James to preserve the Nets’ one-point win in Miami in April.
The whole package was on display: Plumlee busting down the floor to make up ground as the Heat took off on a potential game-winning fast break; staying on his feet to avoid fouling Rashard Lewis underneath, forcing an extra pass; and finally the standing vertical leap to deny the King at the rim.
Unfortunately, Plumlee’s game fell to earth soon after when the playoffs arrived. First the Raptors and then the Heat figured out how to leave Plumlee open to double the Nets’ more imposing scorers without being susceptible to back-door lobs. Plumlee barely saw the court after Game 5 of the Nets’ first-round series versus Toronto.
Evidently, however, that was just a minor detour. Plumlee has been in the gym ever since working to diversify his offensive skill set, including expanding his shooting range and, as noted above, improving his ball handling.
Even if Plumlee gets cut, as expected, prior to the World Cup, this experience — playing with and against many of the league’s top players every day — can only enhance his value to the Nets.
With the Nets bidding Blatche adieu, Garnett a shell of his former warrior self and Lopez a misstep away from ending his career, Plumlee might actually be untradeable right now.
Considering where Plumlee was a year ago, that’s as mind-boggling as the video.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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