Few rookies performed better than Mason Plumee did last season.
The Brooklyn Nets big man filled in for an injured Brook Lopez and picked up some of the slack for a declining Kevin Garnett, eventually starting 22 games and averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in just 18.2 minutes per contest.
At the moment, the Duke product is looking to hang around (subscription to ESPN Insider required) Team USA as it soon embarks upon FIBA Basketball World Cup competition in Spain.
"It’s just the latest step in Plumlee’s unforeseen rise—remember, just more than a year ago the Nets drafted the 6'11" forward/center out of Duke with the 22nd pick," writes The Record's Andy Vasquez. "Plumlee went on to make the NBA’s All-Rookie first team and finished fourth in voting for NBA Rookie of the Year."
But it's the NBA season ahead that could further set Plumlee apart—and the experience with Team USA certainly won't hurt.
As Vasquez adds, "After what he’s been through this summer—playing, competing and feeling as if he belongs with basketball’s best—he will return to Brooklyn, smarter, better prepared and more confident."
After spending most of his minutes at center a season ago, the first step in Plumlee's development may be adjusting to a role at the power forward spot. With Lopez healthy and primed to occupy the middle, Plumlee will be tasked with fitting in.
He recently spoke with reporters about the possibility of a move to power forward:
I’m definitely comfortable at power forward. I’m a very good passer; I can see the floor, and I can put the ball on the floor. I don’t know what they’re looking to do, if they’re trying to stay small but what made that work last year was Paul [Pierce], so I can’t imagine we do that again. I think we would play two bigs and how [new head] coach [Lionel] Hollins has played traditionally has been that way.
"He demands so much attention, you kind let him be the focal point scoring-wise and then you kind of complement him. So it can be a good two-man tandem," Plumlee said about Lopez.
Lionel Hollins discussed the situation with Newsday's Roderick Boone:
I don’t want to put limitations on players, but what’s the difference between a "five" and a "four?" They are two inside people. I just don’t see the need to label players that way. We’ll see when we start training camp, and we start doing what we are doing, and how [Plumlee] fits in and we’ll go from there.
The 24-year-old's penchant for impacting games without the ball in his hands makes him an especially attractive option alongside the more productive Lopez.
As ESPN Insider's Bradford Doolittle (subscription required) explained, "Plumlee, of course, rarely scores outside the immediate vicinity of the rim, but being paired with the face-up abilities of Teletovic, Lopez and Garnett means Plumlee offers a nice complementary option."
As much as Plumlee must master the art of deferring, a need for more robust contributions could emerge in short order.
While the 26-year-old Lopez is scheduled to make a healthy debut this season, this is a guy who played just 17 games last season and was limited to five games during the 2011-12 season.
"I'm not scared at all," Lopez said in February. "I'm confident I'm going to get back on the floor and I'm going to do everything I can. There's no doubt in my mind that I'll be back out there playing with my guys. I'm going to do everything I can to be out there."
And when he is out there, Lopez is pretty good. Playing in 74 games during 2012-13, he averaged 19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest.
Though not an especially impressive rebounder, Lopez protects the rim and stretches the floor with solid range.
The bigger worry is whether he'll be able to remain healthy for a full season.
To be sure, the Nets will do everything they can to ensure just that.
"We’re going to change how we approach him, maybe with his weight," general manager Billy King told New York's WFAN Radio in March (h/t the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy). "He maybe got too heavy. We’re going to try to modify that as well and do some of things to take the pressure off his foot as well."
Surprisingly, however, the organization is resisting any urge to limit Lopez's playing time.
According to SBNation's Net Income, King recently told SiriusXM Radio's Starting Lineup, "Right now, there is no plan to put any restrictions on him ... And whatever doctors allow Brook and Deron [Williams] to do, Lionel is going to push them to that point."
Granted, big minutes hardly guarantee future injury to Lopez. Then again, he may be vulnerable to another setback even without those big minutes.
In any event, Plumlee's presence could prove invaluable.
"Everybody is high on him. He’s a young player that has a big future in him," Hollins told Boone. "We’re expecting big things from him."
All the bigger in the event Lopez—or Garnett, for that matters—succumbs to injury.
For his part, Plumlee is intent on collective success in the wake of last season's disappointing second-round loss to the Miami Heat—and he thinks much of the club's improvement can come from within.
"It’s definitely motivating," Plumlee said. "For sure there was more hype going into last year because of the big trade (for Garnett and Pierce) and a second year in Brooklyn, but I just think the media and people don’t take into account how much better a team can get with players they already have."
"It doesn’t have to be a trade, it doesn’t have to be a draft pick," he added. "I think that’s what’s going to show this season."
Indeed, if Plumlee gets the opportunity he deserves—one way or another—Brooklyn will be well on its way to showing that improvement.