Suns unexpectedly find their center of the future in Miles Plumlee

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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.

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