Mason Plumlee: Duke basketball's next big thing

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 2, 2012 

— Mason Plumlee sat down at a table in the Ritz-Carlton and told reporters he didn’t come to make any bold statements.

He didn’t need to. His coach already did.

“I think Mason, when you see him play, I just think he’s one of the best players in the United States,” Mike Krzyzewski said at his season-opening news conference. “His having that type of year will be key for us. I’m very anxious to see how that turns out. I’m excited for him.”

A few minutes later: “He’s the key guy,” Krzyzewski said. “Ryan (Kelly) and Seth (Curry) are also key guys, but Mason is the key guy.”

When Plumlee arrived at Duke, he was labeled as a potential one-and-done player. Throughout his career, he has shown flashes, earning honorable mention All-ACC honors his sophomore year and then making third-team last year.

It will take more to earn recognition as one of the best in the country.

“Mason has got to play like a senior and a potential first-round draft choice,” said ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, who coached against Plumlee at Virginia Tech. “He’s got every attribute you want in a frontcourt player. He’s quick, he can change ends, he’s vertical, he’s got good hands, but he’s got to be more consistent.”

The chance to make the leap to star leader is, in part, what drew Plumlee back to Duke.

After the initial shock of Duke’s opening loss to Lehigh in the NCAA tournament wore off, he sat down with Krzyzewski and assistant Steve Wojciechowski. They told Plumlee they would support him either way and would gather information from NBA decision-makers to gauge his draft stock. All Plumlee had to do was let them know what he planned to do.

While weighing his options, Plumlee remembered something Krzyzewski told him in 2008, after the Beijing Olympics.

“When you look at his USA players, almost all of them have a better season when they come back the next season after spending the summer with him,” Plumlee said, citing Derrick Rose’s MVP after the 2010 FIBA World Championships.

“The biggest thing for me with coach is that, even if I’m fortunate enough to play in the NBA for a great team and a good coach, even at that level, there’s no one really as good as Coach K.”

Lessons from Laettner

The two also talked about his opportunities at Duke. While nothing was promised, he was given the opportunity to make this team his team.

Krzyzewski further enabled that when he named Plumlee and Kelly team captains in the spring, months earlier than the typical announcement.

Plumlee has embraced that role.

“He’s definitely on a mission, and there’s no question about it,” Kelly said. “He’s shown the effort and the hard work. He’s in the gym more than anybody else. That’s what you want out of a guy that could have been a first-round NBA draft pick.”

Plumlee, who averaged 11.1 points last season, has worked on developing his jump shot, which opponents dared him to shoot last year. Free throw shooting, always a significant weakness (he made 44.1 percent as a sophomore, 52.8 percent last season), was a focus as well.

Plumlee’s drive to own the team led him to seek out former Duke star Christian Laettner, who told him that great players have to be selfish.

He also remained in constant contact with Krzyzewski, calling him regularly over the summer to receive workout instructions and pass along updates.

As a result, the two have grown closer.

“In the time I’ve been coaching, I’ve been lucky to have so many good players,” Krzyzewski said. “The great ones are the ones who grab you and say, ‘Let’s do this together. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ You form a bond with those players. I feel like we have that.”

Simple strategy: Feed Plumlee

While the talk is nice, Krzyzewski has taken action to make Plumlee the team’s focal point. The coaches aren’t coaching balance, he said. They’re telling the perimeter players to feed Plumlee, which would be the first time in years Duke ran its offense from the inside-out.

“I thought we were too balanced a year ago,” Krzyzewski said. “I’d rather not have it be as balanced. I don’t think you win if everyone on our team scores 12 points a game. I’d like Mason to score 25 a game.”

If Plumlee scores 25, Krzyzewski would likeKelly to score 20. Kelly, a 6-11 senior who has been more effective shooting from the perimeter than he has inside, spent the summer with Plumlee on the camp circuit. Both went to the Amare Stoudemire Skills Academy in Chicago, where they competed against fellow ACC big men Reggie Johnson of Miami and C.J. Leslie of N.C. State.

Kelly and Plumlee performed well enough to earn invitations to the July LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. There, Plumlee teamed up with Florida State’s Michael Snaer, another candidate for the title of best player in the ACC.

“When he was on my team, we were killing it,” Snaer said. “We were killing it.”

Duke is hoping Plumlee and Kelly control the ACC as well as the summer circuit. Beyond their talent, they form a rare duo of two seniors in the one-and-done era.

“Older, really good players are the best thing a coach can have in college right now,” Krzyzewski said. “You always want the young, great player, but if the seniors are outstanding and they have game experience and are 22 or 23 years old, which our guys are, it gives a different dimension to your team.”

Three years ago, it would have been difficult to envision Plumlee still in a Duke uniform. But he’s still there, and he has one more chance to make good on the potential that’s been there from the start.

“I believe it,” Plumlee said of Krzyzewski assertion that he’s one of the best in college basketball. “With that being said, he’s shown confidence in me, and now I have to go back it up.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556

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