Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Miles Plumlee flashes potential, but ceiling remains unknown

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.

Tags: Jeff Hornacek Miles Plumlee

  • Milich Kosanovich

    For a 26 year-old four-year collage player from Duke it is surprising how lacking his offensive game is. He has absolutely no feel for the basketball whatsoever when it comes to shooting the ball. Seventy-six percent of his shots were taken inside.and half of those were from assisted by one of the other Suns. You toss in the remaining twenty-four percent of his jump-shots and his assisted shot percentage goes up to 59%.

    What this means is he does not possess anything remotely resembling a post game. While only shooting 56% at the stripe, the more disturbing stat is he was only fouled on 10% of his shots and only took about one and a half free-throws per game.

    Despite his defensive efficiency, the Suns were only a little over plus one point with Plumlee on the floor which drops into negative numbers when projected across 48 minutes. His real-time clutch numbers are slightly in the negative which is why he usually sat in the last five minutes.

    After two years in the NBA Plumlee is the same player he was his junior and senior years, an athletically gifted player that relies heavily on an uptempo system that frees him for assisted dunks. He was a dunk machine at Duke after center Brian Zoubek graduated.

    On Duke’s National championship team, Miles came off the bench behind either center Brain Zoubek or PF Lance Thomas. Both went undrafted. Miles didn’t play any better than either of those two after they graduated. Four years under coach Mike Krzyzewski and two years in the NBA and I don’t really see his ceiling as being that high.

    Just like Gerald Green talking about working on his game this summer to correct his deficiencies. What these two guys are lacking should have been worked on years ago. The irony with Miles is that DraftExpress posts his best case scenario as Marcin Gortat. Phoenix thinks they are close to contending but both of their centers are seriously lacking while Gortat sent Joakim Noah home and has been getting the better of Roy Hibbert in the 2nd rd.

    With Phoenix saving its’ cap space for a third star, they will be facing difficult decisions with limited players like Tucker this summer and Miles, Green, and the Morri next summer. Then Dragic will have a player’s option in ’15-’16.

    People complained that McDonough should have been awarded EOY over Buford because he enabled the Suns to rise from the ashes. Well if he truly is deserving of the award, lets see where the Suns are in next season and in ’15-’16. He has set the bar high with their unexpected success and to continue to get better some of these role players will have to be let go.

    The fun begins this summer with Bledsoe. Good-luck McD!

  • Lloyd Cadle

    Suns announcer Eddie Johnson said many times that what was really hurting Plumlee was his poor free throw shooting, he was afraid to go to the basket because of that.

    Plumlee needs to work on that, and then you’ll see his game taken to another level.

    • Milich Kosanovich

      Another ludicrous and incorrect observation from E.J. His whole offensive game is predicated on going to the basket for assisted shots. The reason his game fell off in the 2nd half of the season is opposing coaches simply told their “Bigs” to keep a body on him which negates his game.

      Shaq was a career 53% FT shooter yet he scored well over 28,000 career points for 8th place All-Time.

      Karl Malone averaged 15 points per game his rookie season while shooting a dismal 48% from the stripe.

      Wilt Chamberlain was a career 51% from the charity stripe yet he scored 100 points in a single game and is 5th on the All-Time scoring list.

      Dwight Howard shoots a disappointing 57% for his career at the line but he still demands the ball on the block and has averaged eleven shot attempts per game for his career.

      The problem with Plumlee is unlike the players I just mentioned he can NOT create his own offense because he does not have any offensive skills. He shouldn’t be worried about missing his free-throws. By taking the ball to the hoop and getting fouled he is potentially sending the big defensive centers such as Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, etc.. to the bench opening up the lane for Dragic and Bledsoe.

      Plumlee currently is the splitting image of his coach Mark West. A capable rim protector without any offensive game whatsoever. West was a 57% career FT shooter. So following E.J.s logic Mark West never bothered to learn to shoot the ball because he never learned to shoot a FT. Absolutely ridiculous. Neither one can shoot the ball plain and simple. Even the other “Bigs” coach, Kenny Gattison only shot 65% FTs for his career.

      Maybe Hornacek needs to see if can can do what coach Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t, teach Plumlee how to shoot the ball because West certainly isn’t qualified to do it.