By Steve Lichtenstein
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Will Mason Plumlee really be invited to the ball?
The Nets’ backup center may only be going into his second NBA season, but if he can muster another solid performance for the U.S. Men’s National Team on Wednesday versus the Dominican Republic at Madison Square Garden, all indications point to Plumlee garnering a coveted slot on the U.S.’ 12-man roster for the FIBA World Cup next month.
It’s a nice story — one that I wrote about a few weeks ago — about a hard-working and intelligent kid who has so far defied expectations after his late first-round selection by Brooklyn out of Duke a year ago.
Sure, he has had the help of his fairy godfather — Duke and Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski — and his minion in Nets general manager and Duke alum Billy King along the way, but give Plumlee credit for seizing the opportunities in front of him.
Plumlee has also benefitted from the relative dearth of available American big men for this tournament. Between injuries, fear of injuries and real or lame commitments, this U.S. team will be undersized when it faces stronger foes later in the tournament.
Still, given the current alternatives, Plumlee really doesn’t deserve to go to Spain.
You can assume that Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis is a lock and that Krzyzewski will need three centers since Kenneth Faried is the team’s only true power forward. (Krzyzewski used Rudy Gay and Chandler Parsons as “stretch fours” in Team USA’s victory over Brazil last week.)
That means Plumlee is competing with Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Detroit’s Andre Drummond for two spots.
These players make disparate salaries so they can’t be traded straight up for each other. But if they could, does anyone believe the Kings would give up Cousins for just Plumlee?
Cousins is a 20-10 player who is not only adept with his back to the basket, but is excellent when faced up with his defender. Though the Kings wish he’d limit the bad mid-range shots he likes to take, Cousins still converted almost 50 percent of his attempts from the floor last season.
From what I’ve seen, Krzyzewski has often run plays with his center at the high post. Davis and Cousins are best suited for this because they are threats from mid-range. This also has the added benefit of keeping the floor stretched, opening up lanes for the quicker American point guards. Plumlee, a developing shooter — to put it mildly — does not receive that respect.
The only question mark on Cousins’ resume has been his attitude. At times, he has exhibited some selfish behavior and his effort has lagged.
While inexcusable for a professional, if you don’t believe that a lot of that is environmental just remember that Carmelo Anthony — the poster child for me-first basketball — was lauded for playing within the team concept during the U.S.’ triumph in the 2012 Olympics.
Why can’t Cousins similarly alter his behavior now that he’s surrounded by a strong support system?
That would make Cousins miles ahead of Plumlee, even with the bum knee he banged in a practice last week.
As for Drummond, that’s a more curious case. Stapled to the bench against Brazil, Drummond may not receive more chances after Wednesday to get out of Krzyzewski’s dog house.
Many speculate that the competition is rigged in Plumlee’s favor by his former coach, but those who know Coach K best swear he would never prioritize any one player over winning.
Still, everything Plumlee gives you — energy, paint protection, athleticism — Drummond does as well, if not better.
Drummond’s the bigger body and the more effective rebounder, and he’s more fearsome when challenging penetrators at the rim. Neither shoots well, which is why both took around 80 percent of their attempts from within three feet of the hoop last season, per basketball-reference.com.
It seems that Plumlee is a little bit more comfortable working out of the high post in Krzyzewski’s system and he is a more vociferous communicator on defense (the Kevin Garnett Effect).
But again, there is no way that the Pistons would accept Plumlee in a straight-up deal for Drummond, who is over two years younger despite having an added year of NBA experience over Plumlee.
I know that Team USA roster decisions go beyond statistical measurements. There’s chemistry, roles and other intangible factors that need to be addressed. That’s why Faried is such an integral part of this team.
With all that considered, I don’t see how Plumlee makes the cut here.
Though that’s not a knock on Plumlee. This experience, playing with and against many of the best players in the world, will accelerate his development. These are not pickup games at some private gym. Plumlee has been at the center of high-level basketball training taught by some of the brightest minds this country has.
When Plumlee reports to Nets camp next month, he will have a head start in competing for a spot in the starting lineup. With his work ethic, he will continue to improve on his shooting range and ball handling, making him even more valuable to Brooklyn.
He’s just not ready yet for this grand stage.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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