Through nine games, Mason Plumlee is having a career year. So far, the Blue Devils’ center is averaging 19.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. In doing so, Plumlee has established himself as a reliably dominant force on a Duke team that has beaten high-caliber opponents.
So it’s worth asking, is Mason Plumlee the best Duke big man since Sheldon Williams?
Josh McRoberts, my least favorite Blue Devil of all time, offers the first bit of competition for the title of best big man since "The Landlord."
McRoberts was a freshman during Williams’ senior year. But Josh McRoberts was no backup to Williams during the 2005-06 season. Even as a freshman, the talented but frustrating McRoberts earned 31 starts for the Blue Devils.
Playing in the post alongside Williams, McRoberts averaged 8.7 points per game. While that doesn’t seem too impressive, it was good enough to make McRoberts the team’s third leading scorer behind Williams and J.J. Redick.
In the following season, McRoberts was meant to take the reins from Williams and serve as a team leader. While McRoberts did average 7.9 rebounds and 13 points, second on the team behind DeMarcus Nelson, it was an altogether uninspired season with Duke finishing sixth in the ACC and losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
After two seasons as a Blue Devil and a career average of 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds, McRoberts left for the NBA.
While McRoberts certainly had a better freshman year than Plumlee, who averaged only 14.1 minutes his first year, McRoberts benefited from playing alongside Williams. It can be argued that Plumlee—even with less playing time—has outperformed McRoberts when their sophomore seasons are considered.
In his sophomore season, McRoberts played about 10 minutes more than Plumlee each game. And even though McRoberts outscored Plumlee by averaging 13 points compared to 7.2, Plumlee was better on the boards. As a sophomore, Plumlee averaged 8.4 rebounds compared to McRoberts' 7.9.
This is especially interesting because both Plumlee and McRoberts were 6’10” and about the same weight. So on equal footing, Plumlee out-rebounded McRoberts.
And the points-per-game average can be dismissed to a certain extent because Plumlee wasn’t asked to be a scorer as a sophomore, whereas McRoberts had that role. Even playing as a rebounder, Plumlee was more efficient on the offensive end than McRoberts.
As a sophomore, Plumlee shot 59.3 percent from the field compared to McRoberts’ 50.2 percent.
The point is that the stats aren’t overwhelming in favor of McRoberts. Even if they were, anyone who watched the two men play would favor Plumlee.
As a Blue Devil, McRoberts was lackadaisical, took bad shots and appeared generally disinterested. The result was a subpar 22-11 season with McRoberts serving as a key player.
Meanwhile, Plumlee may have never been perfect, but his mistakes are not the result of a lack of effort. He hustles to run the floor, enthusiastically plays help defense and has proved to be a good leader and teammate.
Without question, Plumlee is superior to McRoberts in both the tangibles and intangibles.
The next big man to compare to Plumlee is Brian Zoubek.
Zoubek was a freshman during McRoberts’ second and final year at Duke. Through his first three seasons, Zoubek battled injuries and outright ineffectiveness, but then it all somehow came together for the big man.
The seven-footer played 7.3, 10.5 and 11.9 minutes per game in his first three years and looked to be a more of a liability than an asset. However, in his senior season, Zoubek found his stride. In February of that year, he was inserted into the starting lineup against Maryland and produced 16 points and 17 rebounds. He started every game after that, and Duke went on to win the national championship.
As with McRoberts, the statistical comparison between Zoubek and Plumlee only tells part of the story. Unlike McRoberts, Zoubek had a four-year career and played hard every game, which lines up nicely with Plumlee. However, until the Maryland game, Zoubek’s stats and role on the team were fairly anemic.
Even with a great senior year, Zoubek averaged just 5.6 points and 7.7 rebounds that season. Both of those were career highs, reaffirming that his three previous seasons were even less statistically impressive.
Of course, Zoubek’s case for best big man since Williams doesn’t rely on career stats.
Instead, it relies on the fact that over the last 16 games of his senior season, which included seven regular season games, three ACC tournament wins and six NCAA tournament games leading to the championship, he was an integral part of a winning team.
During those 16 games, Zoubek averaged 6.6 points per game and 10.1 rebounds (game log).
On one hand, Plumlee through nine games looks prepared to blow that scoring average out of the water and should be able to maintain a double-digit rebounding average as well.
On the other hand, Zoubek accumulated his stats during conference play (although there was one game against Tulsa) en route to ACC and NCAA tournament wins. Hence, Zoubek made up for a less-than-stellar career by coming up big when it mattered most.
In terms of career stats, Plumlee beats Zoubek hands down. But Plumlee hasn’t proved he can maintain this pace. Even though he’s played well against top-notch teams, he hasn’t faced the pressure of an ACC or NCAA tournament.
Even still, Zoubek’s success was founded on him more or less performing a single task: rebounding. Zoubek was capable of scoring on occasion, but his primary role was to clean up on the defensive glass and steal a few offensive rebounds to give scorers like Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith another opportunity to put up points.
As adept as Plumlee is at rebounding, he also has to score for this Duke team to be effective. Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon and Ryan Kelly are good scorers, but they don’t stack up against Scheyer, Singler and Smith. Therefore, Plumlee has to be more than a one-dimensional player.
So far, Plumlee has proved that not only is he more than a one-trick pony, he’s a genuine thoroughbred.
There has been a nice continuity at Duke in terms of its big men. McRoberts was a freshman in Williams’ final year, Zoubek was a freshman in McRoberts’ final year and Plumlee was a freshman in Zoubek's final year.
But as Duke’s leading scorer and rebounder, Plumlee is outperforming his two predecessors. His presence on the scoresheet and on the court are evidence that he is, in fact, Duke’s best big man since Sheldon Williams.