Earlier in the year I wrote that Mason Plumlee was the leading candidate for Player of the Year. At the time I wrote it, Plumlee was the best player on a team that had just beaten Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State. Against that tough slate of opponents, Plumlee was averaging 19.6 points, 11 rebounds per game and playing for an undefeated Blue Devils team.
Over a month later, though his stats aren’t much different, Plumlee’s chances in the Player of the Year race have taken a huge hit. With the Ryan Kelly injury, Mason Plumlee might have gone from favorite to long shot in the POY race.
When the calender flipped to 2013, Plumlee struggled for the first time all season. Against Davidson, Plumlee had his worst game of the season. He only put up seven shots and finished with just seven rebounds to go with 10 points.
Then, against Clemson, Plumlee finished with fewer than 10 points for the first time all season. While he did have 13 rebounds, his scoring struggles against lesser opponents highlighted the fact that points weren’t coming to him as easily as they were earlier in the season.
Of course, struggling is a relative term for Mason Plumlee. He is still averaging 17.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. So it isn’t as if the big center has fallen off a cliff in terms of production.
Still, what has become apparent is that teams are keying in their defenses on Mason Plumlee. This is atypical behavior given that Duke is usually guard-centric. Opponents are used to emphasizing perimeter defense and closing out on shooters. Now, however, Mason Plumlee is the primary object of defensive attention.
In the three games where Mason Plumlee struggled, Duke’s other scorers picked up the slack. Ryan Kelly carried the load in the Davidson game, Seth Curry shot down the Demon Deacons and Quinn Cook dribbled circles around Clemson.
Unfortunately, with the loss of Kelly and with Curry’s health more likely to get worse than better, the dynamic of Duke’s offense is going to change significantly.
Previously, if teams opted to close their defense in around Plumlee, then Ryan Kelly or Seth Curry would simply shoot over the defense until it was forced to extend out. At that point, Plumlee would have enough space to work in the post.
This was particularly evident in the Davidson and Wake Forest games, when Plumlee started slow but picked up his point production later in the game.
Additionally, Quinn Cook’s ability to penetrate further opened up room in the paint for Plumlee, as opponents switched and hedged over to play help defense.
What Duke’s injury problems do is take away that ability to spread the defense.
No matter who Duke inserts into the lineup spot vacated by Kelly, they won’t replace his ability to shoot from the outside and draw defenders out to the perimeter. In fact, if Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson are on the floor, they’ll join Plumlee in the post because that’s the extent of their offensive range.
The result is that defenses can collapse down into the paint. Opponents don’t have to fear Duke’s outside shooting as much with Kelly out and with Seth Curry at less than 100 percent.
This claustrophobic post-area problem was on full display during the NC State game. The Wolfpack sunk down under the basket in the second half. Though Plumlee finished with 15 points, only five of them came after the break.
Once NC State jammed up the paint, Duke lost the rebounding battle and Mason Plumlee found himself constantly surrounded. The confluence of players around the basket also prevented Quinn Cook from getting into the lane effectively, so his penetration failed to create the sort of defensive scrambling that opens up space for Plumlee on the low blocks.
The takeaway from the NC State game is that Duke is going to play offense differently. Even though the Blue Devils are capable of successfully adjusting as a team, Mason Plumlee is going to find it much harder to score.
As long as Ryan Kelly is out, Mason Plumlee’s days of posting up defenders one-on-one in the paint while the other defenders are extended out to the perimeter are over. He can bang and scratch and claw under the boards with the best of them, but that’s not only a difficult way to rack up high point totals, it’s also not an attractive brand of basketball.
Cody Zeller and Doug McDermott, meanwhile, will have an easier time putting up the sorts of stats and playing the visually pleasing style of basketball that POY decision-makers enjoy.