The "What Ifs" of Duke Basketball: Miles Plumlee

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(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

This Duke offseason is shaping up to be one of the most interesting, and important, Blue Devil offseasons in years.

It's one that has already seen a surprise transfer to Duke compliments of Seth Curry, younger brother of Davidson's Stephen Curry and the nation's top scoring freshman.  

John Wall, the best uncommitted player in the 2009 class, has gone from a long shot recruit to a player who may have Duke as one of his final choices thanks to Coach K's aggressive recruiting (and coach John Calipari's move to Kentucky).

To top it all off, North Carolina has gotten involved with two high-priority Duke targets—Wall and Harrison Barnes (potentially the best player in the 2010 class).

Compared to everything happening now and all the potential developments (and drama) waiting to unfold, last year's offseason seems uneventful.

That's not to say nothing big happened last year. Duke secured three commitments for the 2010 class in Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton, and Josh Hairston. Ryan Kelly joined Mason Plumlee to make up Duke's 2009 class. Coach K won the gold medal (even though he didn't actually get a medal) in Beijing. Taylor King transferred to Villanova, Johnny Dawkins took the Stanford coaching job, and Nate James was added to the coaching staff.

Yes, a lot of things happened in the downtime leading up to the 2008-09 season; it just doesn't seem as exciting as the made-for-TV movie that's developing before us now.

If there was anything particularly interesting that happened in last year's offseason, anything comparable to what's going on now, it was the surprise (and somewhat strange) addition of Miles Plumlee to the Blue Devils lineup.

J.J. Abrams couldn't have come up with a more complex series of intertwined events than those that led to Plumlee's arrival in Durham.

Miles had committed to Stanford's Trent Johnson and was viewed as the Cardinals' most important 2008 recruit. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Mason, became Duke's first 2009 commitment about halfway through the 2007-08 season.

When the season ended, Johnson took the vacant job at LSU, and Stanford hired none other than Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins to take his place. Miles asked for a release from his commitment to Stanford, and no more than an hour after it was granted, he committed to Duke.

It was big news for the Blue Devils, who badly needed a big man who could contribute offensively.

Early reports from practices and scrimmages were that Plumlee was going to be Duke's best option in the post. He started in the first game of the 2008-09 season, but by the end of the year, he was lucky to see a single minute of playing time.  

His recruitment and freshman season has to be one of the strangest developments in recent Duke history.

Believe it or not, he could still be one of the most important players for Duke in the coming years. Will he begin to show signs of his promise next season and become a consistent contributor, or will he be merely another rarely used reserve?

 

What If Plumlee Develops into a Contributor?

Steve Wojciechowski, Duke's big man coach, spoke highly about Plumlee in last year's preseason.

He told reporters that Plumlee was going to be a key part of Duke's lineup, possibly the key.

After starting the first game of the season against Presbyterian, he would only start one more game for the rest of the year.

It's not entirely clear why Plumlee dropped so quickly in Duke's rotation, but the bigger question might be why he was so high in the rotation to begin with.

Plumlee had enough size, length, and athleticism to look like an improvement over Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas as the top option down low, but he never looked comfortable on the court in the beginning of the season.

His playing time was sporadic through the first half of the year, but he started to show signs of improvement midseason. In Duke's win over Georgetown, where he matched up well with former Duke recruit Greg Monroe, it looked like things were finally starting to click for Plumlee.

His contributions didn't pick up, however, and he only played in two of Duke's final nine games.

Next season, Duke returns all of its post players. Both 2009 commits, Ryan Kelly and the younger (and more highly touted) Mason Plumlee, are 6'10" or taller, so competition for playing time down low will be as fierce as ever (for what it's worth, Kelly isn't really a low post player, though).

His younger brother, Mason, is expected by many to start in the post next season, but plenty of Duke fans are hoping to see more of Miles in his sophomore season.

If he could develop his offensive production and cut down on his fouls (he averaged an incredible 1.5 fouls per game although playing less than seven minutes per), he could end up passing Zoubek in the rotation at center.  

That would still put Thomas, and likely Mason, ahead of him, but with the potential that Duke could only have three guards next year in the event that Gerald Henderson leaves for the NBA and John Wall goes elsewhere, the Blue Devils will feature a more forward-heavy (instead of guard-heavy) lineup. That could mean more minutes for Plumlee, as Thomas would likely play more as a power forward and less on the post.

If he can put the pieces together, he could give the Blue Devils an option they haven't had in years—a backup post player who still has the ability to finish above the rim and be an offensive threat (that hasn't happened since Nate James and Casey Sanders shared minutes in 2000-01).

Don't expect Plumlee to start next season or pass three-year starter Thomas in the rotation, but if Miles can develop into a 10-minute, five-point per game player and move ahead of Zoubek in the post, he'll be in great shape to play a big role in the 2010-11 season.

 

What If Plumlee Doesn't See More Playing Time?

In 2010-11, Duke will be without Thomas and Zoubek because of graduation. There is a good possibility that Kyle Singler will leave for the NBA after next season as well, so there could be plenty of room in the post for both Plumlees.  

Josh Hairston is the only power forward coming in that season (although Duke could technically add one more player to that class), so it's unlikely that Plumlee would be buried in the rotation fighting for playing time.

Nevertheless, it's rarely a good thing for a player like Plumlee to go consecutive seasons without much floor time.

He could certainly play for a number of solid programs all over the country, so transferring isn't out of the question. Duke has had three players transfer in the last three seasons, some of whom got more burn than Plumlee, so transferring wouldn't be without precedence. 

If Plumlee can't crack the rotation next season, it's not unreasonable to think he could wind up looking for another school, even with his brother on the team.

The Blue Devils would love nothing more than to see Plumlee develop into a significant presence in the post.

He has the size, speed, and athleticism necessary to contribute in a big way, and if his court awareness and mental game can come around, the Blue Devils could have more versatile and mobile big men than any team in the ACC for the next three years.

Duke has thrived when they've had deep, athletic frontcourts in the past, and Miles Plumlee is certainly a key part of the Blue Devils having that luxury.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about his development, and he is just a sophomore, but next season will definitely be a decisive one in terms of his future with the Blue Devils.

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