Suns becoming more centered

In his first year with the Suns, Miles Plumlee is averaging nine points and nine rebounds while ranking ninth overall in the NBA's metrics for individual defensive impact.

Jennifer Stewart

When the established variables are "tall and athletic," the advised appliances of patience — especially in Phoenix — should include the sun dial.

Even with that qualifier, the Suns — whose history of centers doesn’t exactly drag us toward Springfield — happen to be in relatively strong shape. And that’s a bit unexpected, especially since franchise followers expected the brief interlude of low-post competence to expire about the same time as Marcin Gorat’s contract.

But the doomsday expectation of last year has been replaced by two disparate-but-talented young centers. With the Noah’s Ark approach working out at point guard, any eventual logjam at center might be an acceptable predicament.

One of these young bigs is Miles Plumlee, a seeming salary-match component from the trade with the Pacers that delivered the well-traveled Gerald Green another first-round draft pick to Phoenix. The other is rookie Alex Len, a 20-year-old selected by a brand-new general manager making his first big investment with the spoils of last season’s truly painful 25-57 party.

Before taking a peek at Len’s recent return, let’s dig into the advancements made by Plumlee. Through 34 games, the strong and bouncy second-year pro has been a revelation, averaging nine points and nine rebounds while guarding the rim like a mother hawk. With the NBA’s player-tracking cameras as our metrics guide, he currently checks in ninth for individual impact on defense. That may be tricky to quantify with video, but Suns fans will take it.

Anyway, after playing for a bit less than an hour of real time during his rookie season in Indiana, the 25-year-old Plumlee looks like more than just a great athlete who can bend the rim.

But before we get into that, let’s rewind a portion of the scouting report on the former Duke prospect delivered in 2012 by Draft Express.

"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."

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OK, we’re not suggesting Sky Miles already has acquired the fancy low-post footwork last seen by Hakeem Olajuwon, but through his own commitment and the expertise of the Suns’ coaching staff, we’re looking up at his ceiling. And he certainly appears to have more room for drop-spin-hook improvement than the former Sun (Gortat) who did a pricey apprenticeship with Olajuwon a couple of summers back.

"I’m happy with my progress," Plumlee said. "I feel better every game. I feel like I have more energy because I’m not as anxious on the court, I’m not wasting energy. I just feel like can play harder."

Yeah, the anxiety starts to diminish when you give the Suns 17 points and 20 rebounds against the Lakers or hit the 76ers with 22 and 13.

While it’s true that much of his scoring depends on how opponents defend Phoenix’s point guards in pick-and-roll maneuvers, Plumlee is becoming harder to deal with in low-post isolation situations. Even though he did miss three close-range jump hooks in last Saturday’s victory over the Bucks, Plumlee’s quickness and agility while cross-stepping or spinning into his shooting motion was impressive.

"He’s making quick moves," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "When we get the ball inside to him, he’s very confident with his moves.

"I think, in the beginning, he kind of predetermined his moves and what he wanted to do, but I think these last 10 games, when he gets it in there, he’s seeing where the defense is, and that’s the shot he ends up taking. He’s not predetermining anything — he’s just seeing how it flows, and that’s a good step for a big man to have. If they want to play him on the right side, then he’ll go to the left-hand hook. If they want to play on the other side, he’ll drive right."

Evidence of this progression can be gathered watching Plumlee work with Suns assistant coaches Mark West and Kenny Gattison during practice and before games. With West reprising his role as a tough defensive center for the Suns (and both coaches offering instruction), Plumlee drills at reading the defender’s position and reaction, making appropriate moves or counters.

Given his quickness, strength, vertical capacity, balance, intelligence and eagerness to improve, it might seem hard to imagine why Plumlee’s potential wasn’t developed more in four years at Duke or as Pacers rookie. But while raw talent can get a player to an elite level, rising above the other skilled players on hand can take time.

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After being selected by the Pacers late in the first round of the 2012 draft, Plumlee was required to watch his established teammates and learn.

"You can’t do anything if you don’t play," he said. "But on the other hand, they (Pacers) were so good last year, and I learned a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am without the Pacers.

"I loved it there. But it’s a great fit here, and I’ve just been working really hard."

From drop steps to counter spins, Plumlee’s evolution has been rapid. But the progression may require the modest development of a face-up jumper and more consistency at the free-throw line. The latter category puts Plumlee at a chilly 48 percent on the season (38 percent on the road), but he has made 9 of his last 13 (69 percent) over the last three games.

There also is a learning curve defensively, even though his presence has prevented a paint-points-allowed problem from becoming much worse.

"He’s always there blocking shots," Hornacek said. "Defensively, if our guards can put pressure on, then Miles is there to blocks shots. He’s long, he’s athletic and he protects the rim for us.

"Teams worry about him when they drive the ball to the basket, because they know he can get his hands on balls. He may not have the amount of blocks, but the amount of alters are there. It’s big for us; he gives us a lot of stuff."

Considering his selection at No. 5 in last summer’s NBA Draft, the 7-foot-1 Len hasn’t contributed much stuff yet, but he did gather five rebounds in limited minutes during Wednesday night’s comeback win over the Timberwolves in Minneapolis. That followed a Tuesday night cameo in Chicago.

"The ankle feels good," Len said after Wednesday’s test drive. "Right now, I have no pain, which is good.

"My legs are not there yet. Every day it’s coming back. I’m doing some extra stuff to come back faster."

For Ryan McDonough, the new general manager referenced earlier, the bright side from Len’s slow start is easy to embrace.

"The silver lining," McDonough said during an interview on a local radio talk show, "is that he was able to get in the weight room and get a lot stronger."

And the gold lining is that Len’s inability to earn minutes in his rookie season contributed to the Suns’ reliance on Plumlee at center. Practice and drills can be important, but practical application isn’t bad, either.

Sometimes the lords of player development work in mysterious ways.