When Marshall Plumlee was a high school student at Christ School near Asheville, he would offer friends quite the trade: a ticket to a Duke basketball game in exchange for a ride to Durham.
As a Duke recruit and little brother to Blue Devils basketball players Miles and Mason, Plumlee had no problem securing tickets. Sweet rides, however, had always been the tougher find: hand-me-downs from his family have included a 2000 Silver Ford Windstar minivan and a white Cadillac DeVille.
“So I would pick a friend and say, I’ll give you a ticket if you drive me. It was a pretty good gig,” Marshall said.
While watching his brothers at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Marshall would note the instructions coach Mike Krzyzewski and then-assistant Steve Wojciechowski would give his brothers. Marshall would then go back to Christ School, the boarding school the three Plumlee brothers attended, and try to apply that coaching to himself. He would also inevitably think about his future.
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Marshall wasn’t immediately convinced that he wanted to join his brothers at Duke. His parents weren’t initially sure that was his best move, either.
“Duke is a premiere program, and we didn’t want him to get starstruck with wanting to be at Duke only to be at a place that maybe was at a level where he shouldn’t be,” said his father, Perky Plumlee. “It was all about what’s the right fit.”
After five years at Duke, there’s no question that the match has benefited both the Blue Devils and Marshall. This season, he has averaged 30.6 minutes per game (34.9 in ACC play), scoring 8.2 points and corralling 8.6 rebounds per contest, too. And ever since Amile Jefferson broke his foot in mid-December, Marshall has been Duke’s only viable post option.
“With Amile being out, how (Plumlee) has played that position and the amount of minutes – if you list reasons for us being pretty successful and a tournament team now, you would have to put him at the top,” Krzyzewski said. “There is no replacement for him.”
Twice in ACC play this year, Marshall has snagged 17 rebounds. With Duke down to just four healthy scholarship guards against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Marshall played the final 14 minutes with four fouls.
“In my opinion, he was the reason they won the game over at our place,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “He played the last 14 minutes with four fouls and challenged everything we had around the basket.”
Traveling to Durham
It’s easy to forget that Marshall had never averaged more than 9.6 minutes, 2.2 points and 2.4 rebounds per game before this season. Now a hulking true center, he barely resembles the skinny 7-footer that joined his brothers on campus in 2011.
Of course, he isn’t the first Plumlee to grow into himself while at Duke.
“I just remember coming to watch Miles and thinking holy crap, what have they done to him? He got all beefed up,” Marshall said of his memories from going to his first Duke game. “I had this image of this skinny guy in my head from high school, and I was like, man, they bulked him up, they took away all of his bounce. He’s not going to be able to jump anymore. And then he just skied and jammed it. I’m like alright, maybe he’s just a really good athlete.”
Perky Plumlee and his wife, Leslie, have been driving the 12-hour trip from Warsaw, Ind., to Durham to see their sons play since 2008, when Miles, the oldest, was a freshman. Perky conservatively estimates that they have made 10 trips a year, for eight years. But back when their youngest child, Madeline, was a boarder at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh (she graduated in 2014), Leslie estimates that she made the trip to the area at least twice a month.
For years, their routine looked like this: For a Saturday game, leave Friday evening and drive through the night. Catch a few hours of sleep at a rest stop off of the I-77 toll road in West Virginia. Arrive in Durham on Saturday morning and try to charm the hotel receptionist into an early check-in for another nap before getting ready for the game.
“We’ve deviated a little bit from season to season, but that’s generally how we have made it work,” Perky said.
Most recently, Perky and Leslie made the trip to Washington, D.C., to watch Marshall and the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament, where Duke lost 84-79 in overtime to Notre Dame in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Deciding on Duke
Of the three boys, Miles was the most unlikely to end up at Duke. He had committed to Stanford and then-coach Trent Johnson, but Johnson left Stanford for LSU during Miles’ senior year of high school. Mason, then a high school junior, had already committed to Duke. Miles ended up committing to the Blue Devils in May of his senior year.
No one in the family pushed Marshall toward Duke – at least not until the end of his recruitment.
“My mom, my dad, Mason and my sister were all very supportive and (said), ‘Marshall, do what’s best for you; we don’t want you to feel any pressure in terms of going to one school or the other,’ ” Marshall said. “As it started to get down to the wire, Miles pulled me aside, and he said, ‘Come on Marshall, look, it’s time to come to Duke.’
“Miles was a little more no-nonsense about it, and I think I needed that kick in the pants a little bit to get my head straight.”
Virginia and Michigan were the other finalists in Marshall’s recruitment. Perky reminded his youngest son throughout the process that both of his older brothers had their ups and downs at Duke and that he needed to pick the best fit for him.
However, a meeting with Krzyzewski and Wojciechowski helped Marshall make up his mind about playing for Duke.
“Really, I think what turned the tables for Marshall was when he had a 2-on-1 meeting with Coach K and coach Wojciechowski,” Perky said. “He was able to just talk to them, and they were able to tell him what they thought about him as a player and what his potential was and could he, in fact, be a contributing member of the Duke team. Did they honestly feel that he could really help their program? And that was what we needed.
“I remember after that meeting, Marshall felt confident and said, ‘I want to come here, I can do this. I can play here. They believe that I can, and I believe that I can. And I’m in.’ ”
In 2011, Marshall, who redshirted his freshman year, joined Miles and Mason at Duke.
Perky hasn’t been surprised at his youngest son’s success this year. He knew from years of watching him and now-Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller compete on the same Indiana Elite AAU team that his son could play.
“Marshall has had to endure a lot of taunting and teasing – You’re stiff, you’re the black sheep of the three, he has had to endure a lot of that,” Perky said. “He’s a better athlete than a lot of people realized with his mobility. He doesn’t have a tremendous wingspan. I told Marshall everybody is lacking something. You just have to learn to come to grips with what you have and learn how to use it to the utmost. And I think he has great mobility. He’s got some size, and he is pretty quick on his feet for a guy his size. And he plays with a lot of energy.”
Marshall does intend to pursue his NBA dream after graduation, just like Miles (with the Milwaukee Bucks) and Mason (Portland Trail Blazers). The commitment he made in January 2015 to become a U.S. Army officer will allow him to do that.
But first, Marshall and the Blue Devils will head to Providence, R.I., for the NCAA tournament, where they’ll face UNC Wilmington on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. And Perky and Leslie will watch, drawing close to the end of an incredible eight-year run.
“I just hope,” Marshall said, “that Duke has enjoyed eight years of Plumlees as much as I have.”