It was the final minute of the first half, in what would end as a dark night in Philadelphia.
Austin Rivers took the ball and drive into the paint. One step past the free-throw line, Rivers tossed the ball into the air, where a waiting Mason Plumlee slammed it home for an alley oop.
The dunk cut Temple’s lead to 2 with 45 seconds left in the half. It was the third straight possession that Duke had gone to Plumlee, and no other Blue Devil took a shot in the final minute of the half.
Going to any Blue Devil three possessions in a row was a rarity for this season’s team—it happened about twice a game, on average. But even rarer was for Plumlee to be the recipient of such offensive loyalty. He got three straight shots about once every three and a half games, or half as often as Andre Dawkins.
It appears that’s about to change. Plumlee announced he was returning for his senior year, and comments from his father and from Coach K indicate he’ll be more of a factor in the team’s offense in 2012-13.
The decision, and subsequent reaction, raise a number of questions about whether Plumlee should have returned and whether his position in the offense needs to be elevated.
As far as coming back, it was almost assuredly the right call. It was more likely that Plumlee would have slipped to the second round of the draft than to have made it into the lottery. And more importantly, to stick in the league, Plumlee needs to have a more rounded offensive game.
As I mentioned in an article on each player’s offseason work plan, virtually all of Plumlee’s shots were in the paint last season, and the vast majority of them were inside the charge circle. The only current NBA player with a similar shot chart is Dwight Howard.
In other words, unless Plumlee is going to be a franchise-player level center, which he’s not, he can’t get away with such limited shot selection.
Andrew Bynum takes a large number of 15-20 footers from the baseline, as does 7’2” Roy Hibbert. Plumlee took very few of those types of shots last season, certainly not enough to satisfy NBA general managers. And Plumlee isn’t likely to be an All Star center, so he’ll need to show from even farther out.
Plumlee will likely play forward and occasionally drift to center. That means he needs to be able to produce a shot chart like Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, or Chris Bosh. Each of those players take, and make, shots from virtually everywhere inside the 3-point line.
That’s actually good news for Plumlee and Duke. It means that the offense may not need to change as much as expected to accommodate Plumlee’s NBA development.
The team very rarely fed the ball to Plumlee in the post. In TDD’s shot database (which covers about half of the shots taken in Duke’s season) teammates made 80 entry passes to Plumlee in the low post.
That’s nearly half of the 170 total entry passes the team threw over that span, meaning Mason was the clear choice when the team made the decision to go inside. But compared to other offensive options, entry pass was low on the team’s list of priorities. Austin Rivers drove the lane 250 times, or triple the number of passes to the post Plumlee received.
And when Plumlee did receive a pass, he rarely went up with it. The 80 passes resulted in 30 shots, of which Plumlee made 70%. He was fouled another 12 times. That means that close to half the time, Plumlee either passed it back out, or the entry pass never made it to him, due to a deflection or steal.
Plumlee took 108 shots over the 14 plus games we charted. And only 30 of them came from a pass into the post. That means that the vast majority of the time, Plumlee had to create his own offense, usually by taking a pass farther away from the paint and dribbling in.
Another number bears out that theory. Only about one in four of Plumlee’s shots were assisted (we credited potential assists on missed shots.) Only Rivers (20%) and Quinn Cook (18%), both of whom drove the lane regularly, had a lower percentage of assisted shots. Miles was assisted on 43% of his shots, Josh Hairston 57%, and the outside shooters, an even higher rate.
In other words, Mason was getting the ball in position to make an NBA-type shot. He chose to bring it inside instead. A simple change in decision on his part, and he’ll get the opportunity to develop his game—assuming he can make it consistently.
The Temple game pointed out another fact about the way Plumlee was used in the offense. The team seemed to remember him more often when they needed a basket.
Plumlee took shots on back-to-back possessions 20 times over the 14 plus games (not including putbacks and other offensive rebounds). That tied Dawkins and Ryan Kelly for third-most on the team, behind Rivers’ 56 and Seth Curry’s 25.
But more than half of Plumlee’s repeat opportunities were when the team was tied or trailing in the game, like just before the half in Philadelphia. That’s far more than anyone else on the team. The rest of the roster took back-to-back shots when the team was leading 75% of the time. 20 of Curry’s 25 instances were when the team was leading, as were 17 of Kelly’s 20 and 18 of Dawkins’ 20.
So, when the team needed a dagger, they sent it outside to a shooter. When times were tight, the team went to their big man.
Look for the team to tighten things up next year, and for Plumlee to get loose.