The race for Player of the Year is usually an up and down affair. This basketball season has been no different.
The preseason pick was Indiana’s Cody Zeller. Then, through the non-conference schedule, Mason Plumlee made a strong case for the award. As Indiana slipped and Duke sped ahead through December, Plumlee seemed poised as the front-runner.
Then Ryan Kelly got hurt, and Duke promptly lost to NC State and Miami. In the loss to the Wolfpack, Plumlee, even without Kelly’s presence stretching NC State's defense, played pretty well. With the defense able to collapse down on him, Plumlee still produced 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting and 11 rebounds.
The Miami loss, however, told a different story. In the historic blowout, the senior standout scored 15 points and added 11 rebounds, just like in the NC State game, but he did so on 5-for-15 shooting, got pushed around on defense and looked decidedly one-dimensional on offense.
This highlighted Plumlee’s biggest hindrance in terms of the POY race: perception versus performance.
When pitted for POY honors against Cody Zeller, a fellow athletic center who runs the floor, statistics alone can tell much of the story. Since both players play a similar position, raw and advanced metrics offer a pretty fair comparison.
Unfortunately for Plumlee, the recent competition for the top spot in the POY race comes from guards.
Michigan’s Trey Burke is averaging 18.1 points and 7.2 assists. Syracuse’s 6’6” point-forward Michael Carter-Williams is putting up 12.2 points and 8.5 assists. But beyond the impressive stats are impressive playing styles.
Obviously, substance should count more than style, but voters are affected by things beyond the stat sheet. The media and voter preference for guard play goes so far that ESPN’s latest POY straw poll has Cody Zeller trailing teammate Victor Oladipo even though Zeller averages four more points-per-game and also bests Oladipo in rebounds and blocks.
Burke’s silky smooth running of the Wolverine offense is frequently must-see TV. Carter-Williams wows audiences with his NBA size and athleticism. Oladipo is regarded as one of the country's most well-rounded players. Other candidates are similarly buoyed by an attractive playing style and the perception that they shoulder the weight of their team.
Mason Plumlee, meanwhile, is, at his best, a fundamentally sound post player. Despite averaging a double-double, 17.6 points and 10.8 rebounds, Plumlee’s game is aesthetically inferior to that of high-flying and three-point shooting guards. He also is routinely dismissed as a rather dim star on Duke’s roster.
Fair or not, Mason Plumlee is regarded with less esteem due to his perceived lack of versatility on offense and the presumption that he can’t single-handedly lead his team to victory the way the nation’s top guards can.
If Mason Plumlee is going to win POY honors, he must overcome those negative assessments of his game as well as the guard-bias of voters and the media.
To that extent, the Ryan Kelly injury potentially helps Mason Plumlee. I wrote an article detailing how Kelly’s absence hamstrings Plumlee’s chances at the award, but in a round-about way they offer the senior center a unique opportunity.
With Kelly in the lineup, defenses had to respect his three-point threat, which spread the floor. This allowed Plumlee to go one-on-one in the post. Now, with Kelly sidelined by injury, defenses can collapse down into the post, clogging up the lane and making it easier to double-team Plumlee.
Those adversities have made things more difficult for Plumlee. Still, if he can overcome the increased attention from defenders and lead Duke to wins in spite of injuries and streaky outside shooting, then Plumlee might make more of a case for his POY merits.
Even if his stats suffer, Mason Plumee leading a debilitated Duke roster would speak volumes in terms of the depth of his intangibles.
Against Wake Forest, nothing was going right for anyone in a Duke jersey other than Mason Plumlee. His 32 points and reliable inside scoring saved Duke from an embarrassing road loss. Games like that speak to the value of Plumlee beyond the data bluntly articulated in box scores.
At an aesthetic disadvantage to guards and trailing fellow front-court player Doug McDermott in raw stats due to McDermott going up against Creighton’s lack of quality conference opponents, Plumlee has to offer up more than just solid numbers. He has to show that, even with teams keying on stopping him, he can get his points and rebounds and operate as the catalyst for Duke’s offense and defense.
It’s critical, then, that Mason Plumlee and Duke make the most of their remaining marquee match-ups. In the Blue Devils’ most important clashes, Mason Plumlee must prove that he has what it takes to dominate a game and tilt it in favor of his team.
Obviously that includes scoring points, getting rebounds and making blocks. It also requires Plumlee to prove himself to be the primary cog in Duke’s engine.
If he can establish himself as a leader and as a player skilled physically and mentally, imbued with ability and intangibles, then Plumlee has a shot to push Duke to big wins and maybe even push himself ahead of highlight reel guards for a POY award.
Tonight, in a rematch against NC State, would be an excellent place to start.