This will be the first of multiple entries profiling potential draft targets for the Philadelphia 76ers with the 11th overall pick. Rather than profiling players like Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, and Otto Porter, who will most likely be selected before the Sixers have a chance, this will be a more realistic approach to players who have a stronger chance to be available at 11.
One of the reasons the Philadelphia 76ers organization decided to hand the bulk of basketball operations and personnel to new general manager and former Rockets executive Sam Hinkie is Houston’s value of the NBA Draft. Unlike football, where successful teams generally build through the draft, the NBA has recently fallen victim to the recruiting of free agents to build super-teams. While it is true that teams like the Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder have achieved success mostly through the development of their own draft picks, there still seems to be a glass ceiling for these small-market teams who both lost to LeBron James and the Heat last postseason. Although the scene at the Wells Fargo Center this season would have suggested otherwise, Philadelphia has as much large-market potential as New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Boston. At the turn of the millennium, under the leadership of the charismatic Pat Croce, the Sixers franchise was as exciting as any in the city and was arguably the toughest ticket in town. Unfortunately, after a decade of bad contracts, bad luck, and an unclear direction, the once-proud Sixers franchise has slipped into mediocrity and the attendance numbers continue to dwindle. While new owners Joshua Harris and Adam Aron have done their best to inject the franchise with energy and nostalgia, most of their decisions have backfired on them and the team is in as bleak a situation as any in the top-heavy NBA.
After acknowledging the state of their investment and giving former general manager Tony DiLeo his walking papers, upper management felt that Hinkie was the type of analytical, battle-tested, forward thinking mind that could help overhaul the roster and build the sort of organizational depth that could set the team up for contention down the road. As it stands, the Sixers hold three picks in the draft. In addition to the aforementioned 11th pick, the team also holds the 35th and 42nd picks (both in the 2nd round). While I do expect the team to place a major premium on its two second round picks, it is very difficult to project how they may go about using them, so the focus will remain on the 11th pick and the players who could be there.
One of the most glaring issues with the Sixers this year, plain and simple, was their lack of talent. While Jrue Holiday showed flashes of superstar potential and was selected, deservedly so, to his first All-Star Game, even the team’s best player was difficult to watch out team. After Holiday, the drop-off in talent was staggering. Thaddeus Young continued to demonstrate an admirable level of energy, effort, and tenacity, but it is difficult to imagine that a 6’8″, 235 pound forward with limited range can be a starting forward on a legitimate contender. Evan Turner, following a rather impressive performance in the 2012 playoffs, did not continue to progress and demonstrated unnerving inconsistency. I would not be surprised if Turner is moved during the offseason, but that is for a different time. The team’s front-court was an utter embarrassment, allowing the likes of Joakim Noah, Nik Vucevic, and Tyson Chandler to control the glass and dominate the paint at will. 2012 draft pick Arnett Moultrie displayed some promise down the stretch, it is difficult to project those performances down the road due to the insignificance of the games. The bench, once seen as a bright spot for the young 76ers, missed the presence of Lou Williams and was unable to provide the sort of scoring bridge necessary to keep the team in games while the starters were on the bench. Needless to say, no one was surprised to find out that Doug Collins was thinking of life after coaching this team with months remaining in the season.
While this dearth of skill is certainly alarming, the silver-lining for the Sixers is that they can draft the best player available and address a need at the same time with their pick. Unless the team took a player almost identical to Jrue Holiday, and I struggle to identify a player like that at the top of the board, whomever the team does decide to draft should improve their situation at whatever position that is. The key for this draft is to pick the type of players who will take on the personality of the new direction of the team, an idea that will become more clear once they decide on a head coach. With three picks in the draft, it is not unreasonable for a fan-base to expect at least two of them to contribute sooner rather than later. With that in mind, I expect their first pick to be a player that can step on the court right away and deliver results while going through his development.
My first profile will be on Duke Senior forward / center Mason Plumlee. As a graduate of University of Maryland and an avid ACC-basketball follower, I was able to take in most of Plumlee’s games since his freshman year. There is a lot to like about Plumlee’s game as it projects to the next level, as well as concerns of whether he will be the next Duke big man to slip into obscurity (see Shelden Williams)
Mason Plumlee-Senior F/C, Duke University, 23 years old, 6’11″ (without shoes), 6’11″ wingspan, 238 pounds, 36.0 inch vertical
2012-2013 statistics: 34.7 mpg, 17.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 1.9 apg, 59.9% FG PCT, 68.1% FT PCT
Plumlee is a player that has progressed every year since arriving at Duke. As a highly touted freshman, Plumlee suffered a wrist injury that set him back, but he still managed to contribute on the Blue Devils’ National Championship team off the bench. Once considered a one-trick pony who did not have the physicality to excel in a half-court offense, by his senior year, Plumlee had gone from wiry freshman to a chiseled, muscular force without losing his explosiveness. Plumlee’s ability to run the floor and convert in transition is what highlighted Mason’s four years at Duke, while his more refined interior game did not come along until late in his career, Plumlee’s thunderous dunks and jaw-dropping alley-oops generated energy for his team and pressured opposing big men to keep tabs on the bouncy Indiana native. Plumlee’s vertical game is an area that, as a rookie, will force the opposition to respect while the young man continues to develop elsewhere. Despite attending all four years at Duke, the 23-year old Plumlee still appears to have room to grow. His broad shoulders and impressive frame, measuring near 7’0″ at the NBA combine, looks as if it could still stand to tack on the necessary amount of muscle mass to handle the rigors of playing the interior in the NBA. Plumlee’s ability to face up and take opponents off the dribble was an area he developed before his back-to-the-basket game. He demonstrated a strong, smooth first step and a knack of forcing opponents into situations where they had to foul, rather than allowing one of his thunderous dunks. As a passer, Mason had a deft touch to find opponents on the wings. With a great deal of Duke’s offense predicated around penetrating and kicking to open shooters on the wings, Plumlee had to be able to pass out of double teams as well as off the dribble. By his senior season, Plumlee’s effectiveness appeared as evident as ever due to the opposing team’s hesitancy to double-team him, risking an open three pointer for one of Duke’s guards.
While defense and rebounding was never Plumlee’s calling card, his commitment to improving his game resulted in the senior being named to the All-ACC Defensive team. Recording 17 double-doubles and ranking in the top-5 in the league in blocks, Plumlee’s athleticism and stronger frame allowed him to defend opponents both inside and out, thus increasing his effectiveness on the court. After being embarrassed in the 2012 tournament by Derrick Williams and Arizona, Plumlee finished his career at Duke as a very solid defender at a University with a storied history of defensive stoppers.
While one cannot quantify the value of playing at a school like Duke, in addition to a strong pedigree of basketball kin, it is still worth mentioning how far such qualities can go. Plumlee played for a team that, every night on the court, was facing the opponents’ best shot. He played in high-pressure games throughout his career and, more times than not, came out on the winning side. While many people criticize the Duke program’s ability to produce star-level NBA players, the smattering of Blue Devils who have played key roles in this year’s NBA playoffs suggest the majority of Duke draft picks become effective pros. Plumlee has the attractive combination of being seasoned in the highest level of competition possible at his level, as well as a framework that indicates that the young man may still have another level to aspire to down the road.
As exciting, and sometimes dominant, as Plumlee’s game was at times throughout his career, it was just as frustrating at the same time, senior year included. While there is no doubting that Mason put in substantial work to make him a legitimate All-American player, some of the problems that plagued the big man as a freshman still showed up as a senior, much to the ire of the Cameron Crazies. One of the biggest knocks on Plumlee was his mental toughness. If he was unable to impact the game early on and establish a rhythm, he would disappear at times and, when he did touch the ball, force himself into unfavorable situations and hurt his team more than help them. Perhaps as a result of his athleticism, Plumlee felt as if his explosiveness close to the rim would make up for not possessing the length or frame of some of the premiere big men. Plumlee had a tendency to bring the ball down, either after receiving a pass or an offensive rebound, and allow smaller, quicker guards to poke it free leading to transition opportunities for the opponents. His lack of a legitimate mid-range or perimeter game prevented him from forcing defenders to make a decision on how to guard him. With the athleticism he possessed, a consistent jump shot would have made the explosive young man’s offensive repertoire that much more lethal. He did manage to develop a few moves out of the post, including a sweeping hook shot that took advantage of his quick-burst first step. However, he rarely could adjust if his defender stopped his initial approach, and became flustered when the offense broke down. Plumlee was a very effective player without the ball, a quality that will help him early in his NBA career. That being said, as one of the most physically impressive big men in the ACC, it would have been nice to see Plumlee demand the ball more often and force himself into a rhythm. A lot of his games would see him score in bursts, rather than consistently controlling the offensive interior and force the opposition into foul trouble.
On the defensive end, Plumlee has some work to do if he wants to work his way into a team’s rotation. While his strength allowed him to guard players one-on-one as a senior, Plumlee’s ineffectiveness in pick-and-roll situations was a glaring weak spot on this year’s Duke team. While he displayed his speed and explosiveness on hedges in such situations, he would often lose his responsibility while trying to recover and found himself lunging at a great deal of jump shots. Foul trouble was also a consistent issue during Plumlee’s career. While not as prevalent during his senior year, Plumlee’s tendency to make silly fouls in key situations is something that there is no tolerance for on the next level and will have to be sorted out quickly. Despite his impressive double-double numbers, it is a bit unsettling for a player with the combination of size and explosiveness to not dominate the defensive glass. Often times, it appeared that Plumlee took an extra second or so to get a beat on a ball and often times, less imposing figures brought down the rebound. Whether it will require working to pick up the trajectory of the ball off the rim or developing more effective boxing out habits, Plumlee’s NBA career will struggle to get off the floor should he not improve in the rebounding department. Finally, for all of his thunderous dunks and alley-oops, one would have thought the athletic big man would have developed into a more effective shot-blocker. While his 1.4 blocks per game was a respectable number that helped him make All-ACC Defensive 1st team, Plumlee left a lot to be desired in this department. It may have been a similar situation to rebounding, where his inability to anticipate the play before it happened cost him. Whatever it is, the split-second to make a decision in college becomes even shorter at the next level. As a big man trying to crack a lineup, one must contribute on defense before becoming an integral part of the offense, and that includes blocking shots.
The biggest issue with Plumlee, looking back on his career and focusing on his senior year, is that people never stopped saying, “imagine how good he would be if he improved his (insert any of various aspects of game)” Plumlee had every tool one could ask for in a big man in the newer, high-tempo style of today’s game. He is a physical specimen that can run, jump, pass, dunk, face-up, and even dribble. For me, what it boiled down to with Plumlee was a deficient basketball IQ. Sometimes players who are supremely athletic and imposing can get by on just their physical skills without ever developing the necessary knowledge of the game within the game. Players like Tyler Hansbrough and Carlos Boozer, former dominant ACC big men, are able to contribute at the NBA level consistently despite not possessing the ideal measurables. The reason for this is that they learned every edge they could take advantage of in the game and have continued to exploit that at the next level. While neither player approaches the 7’0″ mark like Mason does, both Hansbrough and Boozer have shown they can still make their presence felt on the court on both ends of the floor on winning teams. Plumlee will need to decide if he is willing to put in the work necessary to find out what type of edges he can get when his athleticism is not enough. Mason has done an admirable job turning himself into a lottery-caliber player. A lot of players will be happy with just having that such distinction. Plumlee will realize very quickly that he can take his career in one of two directions: either find a way to increase your workload and put yourself in uncomfortable situations to forge the type of skills and basketball knowledge necessary to be a big man in the NBA, or take comfort in the fact that he can look really cool throwing down an alley-oop in mop-up time and invest his rookie contract salary wisely, as he will struggle to see the same pay level when it does run out.
Being as familiar with Plumlee’s game as I am, he could either be a strong possibility to end up on the 76ers or not even end up on their radar. With a prospect like Plumlee, the head coaching selection will be the ultimate determinant on whether or not he ends up on their roster. Plumlee’s skill set lends to an uptempo style similar to what the Rockets used this season. While I do not feel the current Sixers roster can play such a way, I do expect, especially with the hire of Hinkie, for a great deal of turnover to take place. Should Hinkie use his old team as a model for how to approach the future of the franchise, I do not see any reason a player like Plumlee would not be an ideal pick at 11. However, should the team focus on developing a more defensive identity with an emphasis on half-court offense, I do not think that Plumlee has a versatile enough game to warrant a lottery pick. While the mental image of Jrue Holiday tossing alley-oops to Plumlee is salivating enough to want to pull the trigger on the former Blue Devil regardless of the coach, Mason is a tricky prospect that has the potential to make the team who picks him to look very foolish, should they not consider his limitations. In a draft that is widely considered as one of the worst in the pass decade, there are a lot of potential ‘square peg in a round hole’ players. Mason Plumlee fits that description to a T and, should the Sixers try to gear their style of play more towards the likes of the Memphis Grizzlies or Indiana Pacers, I would steer clear of Plumlee.
Stats and Combine information courtesy of Draftexpress.com