INDIANAPOLIS – Say this for Larry Bird’s final draft with the Indiana Pacers: it made an immediate impression. He hopes it proves lasting, as well.
Bypassing several players with significantly more impressive profiles, the Pacers used their first-round pick, No. 26 overall, on Duke’s Miles Plumlee, a 6-10, 245-pound forward-center with modest statistics but impressive intangibles.
“It’s not a sexy pick by any means but I think people that watch us play and see how he fits in, they’ll finally get it,” said Bird, who stepped down as team president Wednesday but will remain for the next few weeks to assist with the transition to the new management team of Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard. “There was a lot of talent down at the end of the draft and I thought in our situation with no bigs, we had to be looking big. …
“They’ll do the grades and they won’t like this pick for us but I guarantee you he’s going to be able to step in and play and as he plays and gets comfortable and we get going, you’ll see the fit and why we did it.”
The Pacers also acquired second-round pick Orlando Johnson, a 6-5, 220-pound shooting guard, from Sacramento in exchange for cash considerations.
In Plumlee, the Pacers believe they acquired the perfect replacement for Jeff Foster, who was forced to retire in March due to chronic back problems.
“The one thing he is, he’s very athletic, he reminds us so much of Jeff Foster and you know how much we love Jeff,” Bird said. “We think he can play for us right now. We don’t have a center on the roster and we think he’s a great fit for what we want to do.”
A four-year player at Duke, Plumlee averaged 6.6 points and 7.1 rebounds as a senior, ranking seventh in the ACC in the latter category. A native of Warsaw, Ind., Plumlee posted a 40.5 inch vertical leap in the Chicago draft combine and showed impressive athleticism in his workout for the Pacers.
“He’s more athletic than he showed at Duke,” Bird said. “He’s going to get a better opportunity here to show some things he can do. He’s not a great scorer but he can score around the basket. He can finish, he can defend the pick-and-roll, he gets up and down the court real well and I think he’s going to continue to improve.
“We went into this draft hoping we could get a player who can contribute right away for us and hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”
This clearly was a need pick. Lou Amundson, the primary backup center last season, is a free agent, as is late-season signee Kyrylo Fesenko. The Pacers expect to re-sign starting center Roy Hibbert, a restricted free agent.
“The first scouting meeting that I went into — we have newly retired Jeff Foster working in our front-office team — and the first meeting I stepped into I jokingly said, ‘OK, are there any Jeff Fosters in this draft?’ And about four of our scouts simultaneously said, ‘Miles Plumlee’,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve had our eye on him ever since.”
Widely projected as a mid-second-round pick, Plumlee said he was only mildly surprised to be selected in the first round.
“It was and it wasn’t (surprising),” he said. “I knew I could belong here but based on what I had produced in my career at Duke I thought it could go either way. If people put a lot of emphasis on that I probably was a lower pick but I thought I had proven to people in the workouts I can do a lot more than that and I’m just happy that one team fell in love with me. That’s all it takes.”
Though more prominent names like Perry Jones of Baylor and Arnett Moultrie of Mississippi State slid down the draft board and were available, the Pacers stuck with their original plan. All four of the players they brought in for a second private workout Tuesday (Michigan State’s Draymond Green, Vanderbilt’s Jeff Taylor, Memphis’ Will Barton and Missouri’s Kim English) also were on the board.
“I think we looked at those guys, we talked about them as they were slipping,” Vogel said. “We didn’t anticipate them being there for us but at the end of the day some of the concerns we had about those other guys weren’t enough to dissuade us from choosing Miles Plumlee.”
Johnson, 23, was the all-time leading scorer at Cal-Santa Barbara, averaging 19.6 points in three seasons after transferring from Loyola-Marymount.
“He’s a big two guard that can get to the hole, he’s a scorer, he can defend, we really like him, so we think he’s another good fit for us,” Bird said. “We think he can get in our rotation right away.
“We’re trying to build our bench a little bit better through the draft and we think we accomplished that. Orlando’s a kid that gives us something we really don’t have, somebody that attacks all the time. He’s a big kid, a big, stocky kid that can handle himself out there.”
Fully aware the selection of Plumlee was not popular among Pacers fans, at least those who flooded Twitter with angry responses, Vogel was asked what he would say to them in response.
“Trust Larry Bird’s track record, first of all,” he said. “Second of all, you’re losing a player like Jeff Foster and you’re getting a guy the whole front office team believes can fit that mold and bridge the gap of what we lost with Jeff Foster.
“I think it’s going to be a very short time period before this kid becomes a big-time fan favorite around here.”