PHOENIX — Team success and personal success have never quite been in alignment for Phoenix Suns center Miles Plumlee.
As a sophomore at Duke in 2009-10, he started 24 games for Mike Krzyzewski, but his 5.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game were not exactly pivotal to the Blue Devils’ road to a national championship.
As a rookie for the Indiana Pacers in 2012-13, he had even less of an impact on Frank Vogel and Co.’s ride to the Eastern Conference Finals, playing in just 13 total games after being selected with the No. 26 overall pick.
In fact, even as the Suns and Pacers exchanged players in a deal last July, it wasn’t exactly Plumlee’s inclusion that got the former’s fan base all that exited.
No, the object of affection in that transaction was the player-to-be-named later, also known as the Pacers’ unprotected first-round pick.
But as it turns out, the player-to-be-discovered later, Plumlee, wasn’t too bad of a throw-in — one Suns general manager Ryan McDonough coveted after scouting the 2013 Orlando Summer League.
And not only did Plumlee and his team sync up to find collective success, but he was a key reason why — at least at the start.
Thrown into the starting lineup on Opening Night after the Suns shipped Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards, Plumlee dazzled with a career-high 18 points and 15 rebounds in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Over the next two months, those type of performances were quite frequent. The beneficiary of Phoenix’s two-point guard lineup, Plumlee made a living around the paint.
The 25-year-old finished off passes from Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe with regularity above the rim, and occasionally showed progress with a little hook shot not far removed from the basket.
During the Suns’ surprising 19-11 start, Plumlee recorded eight double-doubles, posted efficiency field goal percentages of 49.6 (November) and 55.2 percent (December) and quickly erased any short-term uneasiness surrounding the team’s other center, first-round draft pick Alex Len.
And then came the night of Dec. 30 and Bledsoe’s torn right meniscus.
If there was a primary victim of Bledsoe’s 33-game absence it was Plumlee, a center whose offensive game remains predicated on a willing and able penetrator.
Gerald Green certainly picked up the slack offensively, but his skill set lacks a certainly distribution quality to it. And while Dragic statistically-speaking finished the season with more assists (69) on Plumlee’s made baskets than Bledsoe had (41), it was clear Phoenix’s starting center wasn’t the same guy without No. 2 on the court.
From Jan. 1- March 10, the former Blue Devil averaged a measly 6.5 points per game, shooting just a shade over 46 percent in the process. The bottom officially fell out during a 13-game start lasting from the end of February to the middle of March, in which he failed to reach double-digits even once.
“He’s doing fine with what we ask him to do in terms of setting picks and rolling to the basket,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said in the midst of the skid. “Some nights, he is going to get those dump-off passes and score 10, 12 or 14 points. Other nights, they may take that away and he only gets six or eight.
“We don’t go to him a lot in the post. But, we still want to the ball inside on early offense with the couple plays that we run to get him the ball and have him score inside.”
Hornacek wasn’t exaggerating either, as Plumlee’s touches and subsequent shot attempts went down every month of the season from October to March.
When Bledsoe returned, the production improved slightly, but Plumlee wasn’t nearly the same factor — both on the boards and above the rim — as he was during the early portion of the campaign.
In Plumlee’s eyes, that had less to do with reintegration and continuity and more to do with teams slowly but surely game-planning to limit his effectiveness on offense.
“You start out doing so well and then teams take you seriously, scout you and start taking away all the easy stuff,” Plumlee said. “That’s where you kind of got to, not reinvent yourself, but that’s what makes a good player great. You got to start doing the other things they don’t take away. I think that was the adjustment.”
The problem was, however, his rather unpolished game didn’t feature any other facets. If it wasn’t a dunk, a putback or a little post move in the key, Plumlee couldn’t find other ways to score against opposing big men.
Which is why during the fourth quarters of hotly-contested games down the stretch, he was often the odd man out in the front court — as Hornacek opted to pair the Morris twins together or some combination of P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Channing Frye.
In fact, Plumlee, who shot a team-worst 56.1 percentage from the charity stripe, was only used in 24 games where the Suns found themselves ahead or behind by five points or less with five minutes remaining.
With the book on him pretty much out there and studied by the other 29 teams, the next step in his professional evolution is a simple one: he must develop a mid-range jump shot.
Case point, of his 59 attempts from 10 to 19 feet in 2013-14, Plumlee connected on just 20.3 percent of them.
“I know I can shoot a jump shot so I just got to incorporate that, get my confidence up and kind of expand my game,” said Plumlee. “I’m quick enough I can always get at the rim. I want to be someone you can throw the ball down to and expect a bucket or a foul. All year long we were a special team with a two-guard front and running around and all that, but Kenny [Gattison] always calls it ‘doing big man things.’ There’s always little things, tricks of the trade that you kind of got to make habits. Some of them I did but some of them I didn’t quite grasp yet.”
A large part of that stems from his inexperience, both on the court and off it. But Plumlee has every intention of making up for lost time.
“There’s a lot of ways I can improve just being a little more intelligent,” said Plumlee.” I think that sometimes I’m too much of a help defender and you got to realize when you can get to something and when you can’t. And when you can’t, don’t give up rebounding position going to block shots.
“If you go to block everything, you’re not going to get all of them, they’re going to know it. That’s just one part of defense. I think I really need to be more vocal and be the anchor to our schemes, because the guards can’t really see what’s going on up there so it’s up to me to let them know.”
Last spring, he was a mere bystander to his teammates’ magical run through the postseason. This spring, he’ll be an active participant in determining how magical his own career can be.
The secret might temporarily be out on Miles Plumlee, an asset brimming with athleticism and potential, but it’s up to him to find a new one.