Suns unexpectedly find their center of the future in Miles Plumlee


PHOENIX — In his first summer as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, Ryan McDonough set his sights on finding the franchise’s center of the future.

 Miles Plumlee #22 of the Phoenix Suns slam dunks the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of the NBA game at US Airways Center on December 23, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 117-90. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Miles Plumlee #22 of the Phoenix Suns slam dunks the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of the NBA game at US Airways Center on December 23, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 117-90. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

But for all his wheeling and dealing and a top draft pick to boot, the answer as it turns out came in a secondary move not the one that splashed its way onto the front page of every local sports section.

McDonough was responsible for drafting Maryland center Alex Len with the No. 5 overall pick in June’s draft. And although that selection has fallen flat on its face at least in the short-term — as Len has played in only four of Phoenix’s first 27 games in 2013-14 — it’s gone largely ignored given the transaction the first-year GM pulled off less than a month later.

Believed to be an afterthought by most outside the Suns organization in the multi-player trade that sent Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers for a 2014 first-round pick and swingman Gerald Green back in late July, Miles Plumlee has been anything but.

Pushed to the forefront of the Suns’ big man rotation following Marcin Gortat’s departure to the nation’s capital, Plumlee, who played in 14 career games with the Pacers in 2012-13, has not only surprised, he’s thrived.

The former No. 26 overall pick has infused a level of interior stability — at both ends of the court — for a Phoenix team most expected to contend for a top 5 pick rather than a place in the Western Conference playoff picture. He’s part shot blocker, part rim protector, part glass eater mixed with an above-the-rim athlete and space opportunist. And as the Suns have raced out to an eye-opening 17-10 clip to begin the campaign, Plumlee has found himself literally at the center of it all.

Monday night, in what the former Duke standout said “the stat sheet shows” as his best career game, Plumlee manhandled a less-than-healthy Pau Gasol and a less-than-able tandem of Robert Sacre and Chris Kaman to the tune of 17 points, a career-high 20 rebounds and two blocked shots, as the Suns won convincingly over the Lakers 117-90.

“He’s always there blocking shots,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Defensively, if our guards and forwards can put pressure on, then Miles is there to block shots. The game was getting in teens in terms of the difference, and he had that block on Jodie Meeks [in the third quarter]. He’s long, athletic and protects the rim for us.

“Teams worry about him when they drive the ball to the basket because they know he can his hands on the balls. He may not have the amount of blocks but the amount that he alters is there. It’s big for us, he gives us a lot of stuff.”

In addition to his defensive prowess, Plumlee has provided Phoenix with something it couldn’t seem to consistently get out of his predecessor: a center who not only plays through contact but who can thrive moving to open spots in the paint without the basketball.

With two more dunks in the 27-point win Monday, including one on a beautiful alley-oop pass from Eric Bledsoe in the second quarter, Plumlee finds himself just three behind LeBron James this season — good for ninth-best in the league.

His standing on the dunks list might not speak to the most versatile offensive skill set the game has ever seen from a big man, but Plumlee’s knack for scoring around the basket has been a huge plus for Phoenix’s probing guards, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic.

“It’s much easier to play [with a guy like Miles],” Dragic said. “I just go to the middle of the paint and try to keep my head up to see who is going to cut. Miles does a great job of finding that open spot and open space. If the pass is open, we can throw him a bounce pass. If it’s not, we can throw him a lob because he is so athletic.

“He’s got very nice touch. No one gives him a compliment about that. He’s so athletic that he can really get any shot he wants. Miles is still young. If he continues to improve and work hard, he’s going to be one of the top centers in this league someday.”

In less than a year’s time, Plumlee has essentially gone from a cheerleader on a contender to a throw-in trade piece to front-court insurance to starter out of necessity to being spoken about in tones not usually befitting of a 25-year-old with 41 games of career experience.

Is it just a matter of Plumlee finally get some much-deserved playing time?

Plumlee’s teammate in both stops seems to think so.

“We knew it,” Green said. “You could see the potential. It’s like this, you would never know if someone is good if they don’t play. You could sit Michael Jordan on the bench for his career, and you would never know he’s that great. I’m not comparing the two. But Miles has been absolutely fantastic for us. He does the little things for us as far as protecting the basket. He’s always here working out. He’s dedicated to his body and to his team. He’s so focused right now.

“He wants to be the premiere big in the league, and he’s on his way. Right now, he’s learning every day. Every practice he’s dominating. Every game he’s dominating. Even when he’s not scoring, he’s still dominating. He’s a true center in this league, and I’m just glad to be playing alongside of him.”

Despite filling up the stat sheet against the Lakers, Plumlee finished with only one assist. But he made sure to dish an one extra out to his former team when explaining his on-court success so far this season.

“[Playing time] is definitely a huge part of it,” said Plumlee, who is leading the team in rebounds (9.1) and blocks (1.8) per game. “You can’t do anything, if you aren’t playing.

“On the other hand, they were so good last year and I learned a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am without the Pacers. I loved it there, it is a great fit and I just have been working really hard. I couldn’t have foreseen all the moves that they were going to make and that the roles that we were going to be so large. I know what Gerald is capable of and his ceiling is as high as he wants it to be. I think the same thing for myself, so things kind of worked out.”

That they did for both Plumlee and the man who traded for him, McDonough.

Though McDonough might not have taken the straightest path to land a true franchise center, the Suns general manager seems to have found one nonetheless in the form of a cast-off named Miles Plumlee.

  • Al

    Plumlee is having a season similar to Vucevic’s last year. Plumdog is a better center for this team than Gortat. Polish Pillow had already reached his ceiling; but Plumlee is getting better post game and just needs to improve his Free throws.

  • HankS

    MIP! MIP!

    How could he fail to win the MIP award, given that his season averages are better than his last-season totals pretty much ACROSS THE BOARD?

    If Miles doesn’t win the MIP, then the league should institute an award for the player that actually improved the most!

  • Scott

    When the Suns got Plumlee back in the trade, I thought he might be able to man the C spot till Len was ready, knowing due to Len’s age it could be a few years.

    That plan is looking better by the game. :)

  • vtsunrise

    Nice profile. Miles should be a career Sun. He’s like Lou Amundson with talent. I loved Lou’s hustle, but Miles has a full set of skills. And he’s young and will improve.

  • vtsunrise

    I was thinking about Lou and wondering where he is and then saw him playing earlier – I had no idea he was with New Orleans. I watched for the whole stint that he was in – 4:57 the box score says. The box score shows nothing except 2 fouls, but on every play, he hustled and set picks, constantly. He caused turnovers, broke up plays, boxed guys out, got in the way of SAC players and harassed them, and they stepped out of bounds or had the ball go off their hands. He had an impact on at least 5 plays. An unsung lunch-bucket player who doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.

  • JK

    PLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE!!!!!!

  • vtsunrise

    Funny stuff, JK.

  • Rengaw

    Miles Plumlee is the Sun’s MVP in my opinion. Without his hustle and toughness at both ends of the court, the Suns are a considerably weaker team.
    The guys in the know in the NBA say it usually takes a big man 4 years to find his stride…..and a good part of this education in developing the players footwork. Plumlee has amazing foot work, not only for a young player but compared to veteran big men as well.nn

    When the Suns add or develop another lane clogger/rim protector big man, they will really be a team to fear.

  • desertswo

    There are nights when he won’t score a point, and he’s still contributing. You can’t say that about every player. He’s learning, and in the process, changing games simply because the other team has to think of that big cat roaming the paint. A great “get” on the new GM’s part, and a guy you can pencil in there for a long, long time.

  • http://COX SOUTHPHILLY

    WE NEED A BACK UP WHEN PLUMDOG IS RESTING. I HATE WHEN FRYE PLAYS THE 5.OKAFOR I AM HOPING IS THE ANSWER.AT ONE TIME IS WAS A PRETTY GOOD CENTER

  • BCrayZ

    What did Miles (our biggest) & Eric (our smallest) have to eat before last night’s game?

    Both of them were chasing down every long rebound with the kind of energy normally only seen in Gogi. Could it have been something that Jeff said to them? They need to isolate it & feast on it with a steady diet. By the way, having climbed into the playoff race, first as an 8th seed, then continuing to work our way up to the West’s 7th seed & then the 6th seed & then achieved some separation from our closest competitors for the 6th seed (both in overall record & head to head tie breakers) with back to back wins over the Nuggets & the Mavs, last night’s win (plus a Rockets loss) now moves our Suns up to the 5th seed. Suns own the head to head & conference record tie breakers not only vs. the Dubs, Nuggets & Mavs, but vs. the Rockets also, with that first back end of a back to back win, on the road. We have yet to play them at home. 4th Seed will be hard, with the way the Clip are playing, but it is a good goal to have. They (the Clip) have some hard games coming very soon. We still have lots of games & can have hope.

    @ VT Sunrise – Glad to know that Louis – he does not like to be called “Lou” – passes your eye test & then some. Have you been reading what I have been saying about Louis? They have been reducing his minutes in The Big Easy. This is most likely because of his limited offensive skills & scoring. Over the time he was getting 15 or more minutes, he was averaging a consistent 14 plus (per 36 minutes) rebound rate. Suns have some good young energy guys but there is no one that rocks the US Airways Center crowd like Louis does. Then, his intensity & passion become contagious, not only to the home fans but, even more importantly, to the other four guys. This is both a product of Louis’ direct connection with his team & also the indirect energy & inspiration the other guys get from the fired-up crowd, when they play at home. Let’s get Louis back. He will be as important to us as “Birdman” is to the Heat. His constant focus & intensity will set a very good example for our young guys. Gogi (Dragic) & Chinga (Frye) will be ecstatic to have their former “killer bench unit” mate back on the team. This will be an easy move &, just like signing rehabbed free agent LB (Barbosa), will have near zero cost. They may even (if we send them our defensively challenged twins) send us Ryan Anderson to back up Chinga (Frye) plus, because of their freeing up cap space (which we can handle), toss us an unprotected first round draft pick. This will leave that last roster spot open. That is just what we need to sign & welcome back our Brazilian Blur. Make it so Ryan.

    MUST reunite “that killer bench unit.” Let’s go SUNS!!!!

  • Foreveris2long

    Talk about a jewel, that is Plumlee. This will likely be the signature move for McD getting Executive of The Year Award especially when you consider he also got Green and a first round pick. Are you kidding me? There are people in prison for orchestrating a heist like this. Are we sure there is not an arrest warrant for McD? While I think getting Bledsoe for Dudley was a great deal,this Plumlee, Green and a first round pick for past his prime Scola, was a breath taking steal.

    When you hear about Plumlee’s work ethic, it is not surprising he seems to get better every week. Oh he will have games that give the appearance of taking a step back but that is just the learning curve young ballers experience. This guy is a keeper. Exceptional move McD.

  • http://none Go Phx

    Plumlee was a great deal but Bledsoe was definitely the greater heist. Two steals in one summer is amazing.

  • Jim3K

    Looks like Duke can develop big men pretty well. Miles’ brother Mason is getting minutes with the Nets and teammate Ryan Kely has started to appear in Lakers games.

    And Josh McRoberts and, going back, Carlos Boozer.

    Hooray for Coach K’s success stories.

  • Jim3K

    Uhh,,,Ryan Kelly

  • Oz

    I love Miles “Big Cat” Plumlee!!! This cat pumps! I haven’t been this excited about a team since the days of the Lakers with Magic!

  • StevieMac

    From the first game I saw him play in a Sun’s uniform I knew he was not your stereotypical “big white stiff.” He is not just a tall piece of meat to fill a space. He is something special. His footwork is phenomenal. He can handle the ball and is very athletic. In a couple years he is going to be a complete center, with skills on both ends of the court. He will be a top 5 center, maybe even top 3, in the NBA. I would take Plumlee and his upside over Brook Lopez or either Gasol brother right now. Go Suns !!!

  • Solarion

    I echo what everyone has said about Plumlee, what does this mean for Len? Do they try and showcase him when he returns? I hated that pick for him then, I despise it now. I love Ryan, don’t get me wrong, but even me with my limited NBA knowledge I would have taken at least 10 other players before Len.

  • Rengaw

    If Len can develop into a quality backup for Plumlee, that is good enough for me…..always having a better than average rim defender in the game is critical for success.
    Case in point, look at the Portland Trailblazers. Last year they had JJ Hickson in the middle who is an excellent rebounder but didn’t intimadate shooters coming into the paint. This year they replaced him withRobin Lopez and look at the difference .

  • Zak

    I think Plumlee’s rate of progress is partially due to his playing 4 years of collage ball before coming to the NBA (plus playing at a quality program at Duke). I’m all for players being able to declare for the NBA when they decide to do it but a lot of them would be much better prepared for the NBA if they spent more than one year playing collage ball.

    And if Len can ever get on the court and just develop into a good backup, the Suns could be set for a few years at the 5 with relatively cheap rookie contract players which would allow them even more financial flexibility to go after free agents.

  • Solarion

    A 5 pick as a backup? You’d be okay with that? Wasted, wasted pick……

  • Luka

    I hope the Suns can keep Plumlee around for years to come. I don’t even care that he can’t shoot, he does everything else so well.

    The Suns should just stand pat for the moment, and see if they can get Okafor or Len back to full strength.

    Okafor is probably another month away at best. Being a free agent, he’s going to have all the incentive to play hard and fills a much needed role as a shot blocker and rebounder.

    Len meanwhile, I’m not sure what’s going on with him anymore. They’ve sat him out for “ankle soreness” since Nov. Yet, I think he’s just not part of the rotation anymore.

    My belief is McDonough knew this draft sucked and just took a player he thought had the most upside. Nerlens Noel’s injuries were more severe at the time so Len seemed a safer pick.

  • john

    @Solarion – Do you know how many players from last year’s draft have an above average PER or WS48? Get back to me with someone you would have taken at 5 that would have been SO MUCH better?

    There wasn’t a realistic option in the top 10 of this past draft that was immediately going to live up to top 10 expectations. You whiny fans need to grow up and grow a pair.

  • Zak

    @Solarion – What’s done is done and YES, at this point I would be happy if Len turns out to just be a quality backup for Plumlee. If he eventually turns out to be better than Plumlee, great! If he turns out to be a complete bust, compare him to everyone else in his draft class before just saying he was a #5 pick and should have been better. Last year’s draft class wasn’t exactly a dream class. It was weak. There weren’t any players in it that anyone expected to be game changers.

  • azbballfan

    I hope Len can come back soon and get some quality playing time, hopefully along side Plumlee. The Suns got rid of Robin Lopez, and he did well in New Orleans, but he has taken his game up a notch in portland, one of the many reasons they are doing so well this year

    his per 36 numbers this year are something around 12 points, 10 boards and 2 blocks

    i never thought he would turn into a quality rebounder, but here he is averaging 8.6 in 30 minutes a game

    i am so happy for Plumlee, he is doing great, and if we get Len some quality time in there, we will have two young, inexpensive centers with a ton of potential on our hands

    McMiracle has done it again, how long has it been since this team had serious potential at center?

    been over 10 years since we had Stoudemire, and he wasnt a true center in my opinion.

    i hear Len is progressing in practice and has been pain free for a week or so

    that is great news, i just wish this team this team could lock up its players before they hit restricted free agency.

    thats the one thing about a team defying expectations, its great when it happens but we are gonna have to decide who is gonna get paid this summer

    We are going to have to pay bledsoe big to keep him, we got one more year on plumlee i think he is still on his rookie deal

    we have four draft picks in this next draft if everything works out and we need to hit on some of those, we got a big long term hole at the 3. I love PJ Tucker dont get me wrong, but the ultimate goal is a title and we need more talent then we currently have to do that

    Goodwin and Len need quality minutes no matter what, you are going to need to replace Bledsoe if the Suns dont match a mega deal in RFA

    i think the Suns want him to stay, but if they wanted him to stay and become their star, they could have just signed him back in October to a deal.

    I still see this team as a borderline playoff team, maybe if we get really lucky we pull an upset and make it to the 2nd round.

    Thats great in a year we were supposed to rebuild with young guys, but if that happens arent we taking two steps forward and one step back? to the post amare pre nash leaving era where we had a marginal playoff team that went nowhere?

    The Suns gotta figure out who they are going to pay, because everyone is playing well and, well you cant pay all of them at the same time