Mason Plumlee of Duke and Cody Zeller of Indiana have each played eight games so far this season, and both have their teams off to an 8-0 start. Zeller’s Indiana is ranked No. 1, while Plumlee’s Duke is ranked No. 2.
Even if the Blue Devils haven’t overtaken the Hoosiers in the polls, Mason Plumlee has passed Cody Zeller as the favorite for the Naismith Player of the Year award.
Since the season is still young, such proclamations are premature, but Zeller was deemed the favorite in the preseason based on nothing more than the previous season's performance and perceived potential. So a small sample size is better than no sample size, and the fact of the matter is that in the early going, Mason Plumlee has put together a more impressive season than Cody Zeller.
A look at the traditional stats shows Plumlee to be the clear favorite.
Plumlee is outscoring Zeller 19.6 points per game to 15. Plumlee is out-rebounding Zeller to the tune of 11 rebounds per game compared to 7.6. Plumlee has also tallied 15 blocks this season compared to Zeller’s 11, even though Plumlee is listed as two inches shorter than Zeller (stats via StatSheet.com).
In the traditional stats, Plumlee is ahead on all cards.
Zeller’s best basic stat is that he turns the ball over less than Plumlee. Zeller has only 10 turnovers, while Plumlee has stumbled to 21 (via StatSheet.com).
In modern basketball, the traditional stats are examined in concert with the more advanced stats, which then present a fuller picture.
At first, the advanced stats seem to favor Cody Zeller. In Roland Average, which combines the plus/minus of a player while he is on the court with the plus/minus of the team while he is off the court, Zeller has a commanding lead.
On average, Indiana is 18 points better when Zeller is on the court. Meanwhile, Plumlee’s Roland Average implies that Duke is just 9.2 points better with Plumlee on the hardwood (via StatSheet.com).
However, plus/minus is affected by how many minutes a player is on the court. Mason Plumlee plays an average of 33.75 minutes, whereas Cody Zeller averages 27.25 (via StatSheet.com). With Plumlee on the court for nearly the entire game, his plus/minus is more or less just Duke’s margin of victory.
This, of course, points to the crucial element in Plumlee’s case for Player of the Year.
Duke has faced Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State. At the time of the games, all three of those teams were ranked in the Top Five. Wins over Minnesota, which is now in the Top 25, and VCU are also impressive Ws for the Blue Devils (schedule via ESPN).
In each of those hard-fought games, Plumlee proved his worth by leading Duke to victory.
Zeller and Indiana, on the other hand, have faced only one Top 25 opponent. While the Hoosiers did dismantle UNC, something Duke fans relished in, Indiana has otherwise faced a batch of tin-can opponents (schedule via ESPN). Currently unranked Georgetown is probably the second best team the Hoosiers have faced, and the Hoyas pushed Indiana to overtime before Zeller and company could pull out a win.
The higher quality of opponents Duke and Mason Plumlee have faced not only explains Plumlee’s lower plus/minus and Roland Average, it makes the advanced stats where Plumlee bests Zeller that much more impressive.
For starters, Plumlee holds a 65.4 percent to 63.2 percent lead in field-goal percentage. But Plumlee is also ahead in true field-goal percentage, in which three-pointers are weighted and free throws are incorporated. While adding weight to three-pointers doesn’t mean much considering that Plumlee has yet to attempt a three and Zeller has only put up one, the inclusion of free throws is important given how much each big man is fouled.
Despite his previous struggles from the line, Plumlee’s true shooting percentage is 69.4 percent, whereas Zeller’s is 64 percent. Again, that incorporates important points coming from the charity stripe. Plumlee’s high true shooting percentage is significant seeing that he has been to the line 67 times through eight games. That’s the fourth most attempts in the country, and Plumlee is making the most of his ample opportunities (via StatSheet.com).
Those free throws, among other things, are important down the stretch of close games—something Plumlee has experienced more than Zeller this year.
So far Duke has played in four hard-fought games that finished with a winning margin of nine or less. And Mason Plumlee has proven himself to be a clutch player. Plumlee scored 18 against Kentucky, 17 against VCU, 16 against Louisville and 21 against Ohio State. He also had a double-double in all of those games except Kentucky (game log via ESPN).
Zeller, on the other hand, scored 17 points but shot an unimpressive 4-of-11 (box score via ESPN) in Indiana's only real test thus far, the Georgetown game.
Plumlee, meanwhile, has not shot under 54.5 percent in any game this season (game log via ESPN).
The bottom line is that whether you are looking at the basic stats, the advanced stats or just using the old-fashioned eye test, Mason Plumlee has made more of a case for Player of the Year than Cody Zeller.
Plumlee has scored more, done it with greater efficiency and done it against tougher opponents. The season is only eight games old, but it’s fair to say that there is a new favorite in the race for the Naismith.