DURHAM, N.C. — Mason Plumlee long ago learned how to deflect criticism the way he swats away shots in the lane, with his own unique touch and a wry Midwestern smile.
Duke’s Plumlee is unconventional in today’s college basketball climate. He is a true post player in the era of the stretch-four, when centers are expected to run up and down the court in tune with point guards. That is where his uniqueness enters the equation.
Most 6-foot-10 players capable of racing up and down the court have subpar post games, don’t body up properly on defense in the paint, nor do they exercise the combination of fundamentals and brute tenacity of rebounding one might see from great rebounders such as Wes Unseld, Ben Wallace or Kevin Love.
A native of Warsaw, Ind., Plumlee has blended all of that into his game: He can bully an opponent on the lower block, and on the next possession he can leap toward the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium, grab an errant alley-oop pass, and ram it home one-handed, igniting a frenzied celebration at Duke’s hallowed hall.
He has taken some hits from fans and the media along the way, but a month into his senior season at Duke, the product of four years of massaging what he did well while adding to his game has given the Blue Devils not only the best big man in the ACC, but one of the best in the nation.
“I’ve worked real hard becoming the player I am, and I have a lot more work to do,” Plumlee said. “I guess I’ve added stuff each year, and this year I want to be as complete a player as I can. My team needs that from me.”
The finishing touches on Plumlee as a college player have been quite obvious so far. He has added several post moves on the lower blocks to his repertoire and has even hit a few jumpers from outside the lane this season. Plumlee, a career 50.5 percent from the free-throw line entering the season, has improved by leaps and bounds to 73.1 percent through nine games.
Plumlee’s defense also has improved, in part because he’s staying on the court longer, something the Blue Devils need from him because they have depth issues up front. Plumlee is making better decisions on the defensive end of the floor.
As a sophomore, Plumlee fouled out of five games and in six other games he picked up four fouls. Last season, he fouled out just once but in nine games had four fouls. In No. 2 Duke’s nine games thus far this season, Plumlee has fouled out once and finished with four in another game, but overall his fouling is down. He didn’t even pick one up in a home win over physical Ohio State until just a few minutes remained. Yet, he totaled 21 points, 17 rebounds and a blocked shot versus the Buckeyes.
“I know people talked about my fouls before, but it’s something I’ve had to learn and it’s been really important to me to get to where my teammates can trust me that I can stay on the court,” Plumlee said.
It sure helps his numbers, too. Including Saturday’s 90-67 victory over previously unbeaten Temple at East Rutherford, NJ, Plumlee is averaging 19.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per contest. He has scored at least 16 points in each of the Devils’ games, and Plumlee is trying to join former Virginia All-American Ralph Sampson and former Wake Forest All-American Tim Duncan as the only players in ACC history to average at least 19 points and 11 rebounds per game for a season.
“I just think he’s one of the best players in the United States,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Him having that type of year will be key for us. I’m very anxious to see how that will turn out.”
Even though the Blue Devils have an impressive resume that includes wins over Kentucky, Louisville, Minnesota and Ohio State, they remain somewhat of a work in progress mainly because they are still meshing together some new players and returning ones in different, more demanding roles.
Sophomore Quinn Cook has taken over the point-guard duties, but his development has in some respect been because of Plumlee, Cook says.
“You always know what you’re going to get with him,” Cook said. “He doesn’t stray from what he’s supposed to do, he always does what he’s supposed to do. That makes it easy for the rest of us.”
And it makes it easy to see Plumlee playing at the next level. His older brother, Miles, was a first-round pick by the Indiana Pacers last summer despite not being half as accomplished as Mason. So expect Mason to go high even higher in June.
But before he gets there, Mason has goals in mind for himself and his team. But you’ll never get him to articulate the personal ones. Seniors at Duke know it’s all about Duke.
“We can be a great team,” said Plumlee, who averaged 14 minutes a game on the 2010 NCAA championship Duke team as a freshman. “If we keep getting better and everyone does what they can, we can be a real great team.”
If Plumlee keeps playing as he has, Duke will remain one of the top contenders for the national title. He’s that good.