Nearly no one saw this outburst and starting-caliber statistical output coming from the Phoenix Suns Miles Plumlee this season.
He only played in 14 games as a rookie Pacer last season. There was no room in their rotation, he was inexperienced, and his skill set was somewhat redundant with those of fellow Pacers Roy Hibbert and David West. When he came to Phoenix in the trade for Luis Scola in the offseason, most viewed it as taking a flyer on a young player who might some day develop into a solid rotation player. Very few expected such a wild surge in production.
Coming out of college, DraftExpress described him as
"purely from a physical standpoint, Plumlee looks the part of an NBA big man, measured just a hair under seven feet in shoes, with a 7'0 wingspan and an outstanding frame."
However, his numbers did not match the expectations of such an overwhelming set of physical gifts. A four- year player at Duke, his production in the competitive ACC was sub- par. He averaged only 20.2 minutes, 6.6 points, and 7.1 rebounds in his senior season. With such a massive build and sublime athleticism, above-average defense was an expectation. He did not meet it. Besides defensive rebounds, of which he nabbed 22.7% of all that were available, he displayed few elite skills. His 96.1 defensive rating (DRtg, points allowed when a certain player is on the floor, given as an average per 100 possessions) was high, and his 91.1 career defensive rating was the 13th- highest in ACC history.
After his senior year, DraftExpress had this to say about his defensive evolution.
"His lateral quickness is above average for a player his size, and his increased strength and explosiveness could allow him to play solid post defense in a pinch coming off the bench in the NBA. He did a much better job of staying out of foul trouble as a senior, averaging a career- low 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes, pace adjusted, in increased minutes and while posting a career- best 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes, pace adjusted."
So there were signs of life. But even with the increased quickness, strength, and positioning within the defense, Plumlee only projected as a decent post defender who could be expected to hustle and rebound. Thus far in his first season as a Sun, Plumlee has a 22.8% defensive rebounding rate and a 97.0 DRtg, which are both right about where they were in his senior season as a Blue Devil.
But what is the most surprising is the way that he has used his physical skills and taken advantage of increased opportunity to be an impact both statistically and within a system. He is averaging 2.1 blocks per game in 31.4 minutes, with less than three fouls. Since the Nash era began, the Suns have rarely had a consistent center situation, let alone one who can patrol the paint on defense and force players to their weak side and into contested long jumpers or floaters.
The area worth wondering about will always be if he can maintain effectiveness, efficiency, and consistency on the offensive side. At Duke, his only real, developed skill on the offensive side was rebounding.
According to DraftExpress, he was the third best offensive rebounder per 40 minutes, pace adjusted, in his senior season at Duke. He had abnormally high offensive ratings (ORtg, calculated in the same was DRtg, but calculates points scored as opposed to points allowed per 100 possessions) throughout his collegiate playing career, but this probably had much to do with playing with floor- spacing scorers like Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, as well as other physical big men such as his brothers Mason and Marshall.
DraftExpress said of his offensive game as a senior:
"Plumlee is still very raw around the basket, at his best catching and finishing. Though his footwork is underdeveloped, he looked comfortable executing a few basic-spin and up-and-under moves with his back to the basket and with his right hand. It's not looking very likely that Plumlee will ever develop into a reliable back-to-the-basket threat, however, especially considering his rawness as a senior and his general lack of development up to this point."
While he did develop a semi-reliable elementary post moves, they would likely not translate to the NBA level unless they were polished and less reliant on size or strength, which would be easily matched against NBA competition.
Since arriving in the Valley, he has been a different man offensively. He still has, and always will, benefit more from what the players around him do to create open looks, but he has taken advantage of these open looks in many different ways, and has obviously put in work to carve out an offensive niche in this league. Operating as an athletic big in the pick and roll with Bledsoe and Dragic, he has finished with a variety of strong lay-ins, alley-oops, and dunks.
As an isolated post scorer, he has continually gone to his right-handed hook shot, generally driving from left to right as he puts up the shot. Defenses have keyed in on this as the season goes on, but he has continued to stay effective with a multitude of cuts, tip-ins and has even showed off a mid range, Tim Duncan-esque jumper out of the post.
He has also displayed an innate ability to read the defense on quick outlet passes in transition, finding the right guard or streaking forward consistently. In Phoenix's up-tempo offense, this skill is invaluable. If Plumlee were to develop an aptitude for passing out of post-up opportunities, his offense would be taken to the next level. The Suns half court offense is based a lot on cuts, drives and floor spacing, so if Plumlee became better at finding open guys cutting towards the lane or open shooters, he could escalate his own value as well as the success of the Suns as a team.
For a player who was an unmentioned shoo-in to a minor trade in the offseason, Miles Plumlee has exceeded all expectations. He has given the Suns all they could hope for as an eventual replacement for Marcin Gortat, and even created healthy competition and confusion towards the fit of Alex Len on this new look team.
As the Suns continue through the season as one of the league's most fun, athletic, and exciting young teams, Plumlee is an integral part of their culture and success.
Enjoy him, Suns fans.