Mason Plumlee is ready to put Duke back on top.
Every fall, thousands of college freshman arrive on campuses around the country with varying degrees of pressure and expectations. There is the pressure to succeed academically and socially. There are the expectations of family members, friends and of themselves. In short, there are few who begin their college careers without the burden of someone or something weighing on their shoulders.
Then there are the unique cases like Duke recruit Mason Plumlee. In addition to the normal pressures and stresses of any other college student, come the expectations of an entire university population and a fan base that extends across the country. Seem a little over the top for the average 18-year old to handle? Maybe so, but Plumlee doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of psychological strain.
“I guess it’s a lot of pressure, but my high school team was always expected to win state, so I’m kind of used to it,” he says.
Don’t mistake Plumlee’s sense of calm to be cockiness, far from it. In fact, former high school coach David Gaines – who coached Plumlee for three seasons at Christ School in North Carolina – is quick to heap praise on his star player for his character and actions off the court before he even approaches the subject of basketball.
“He always had a 4.0 GPA, he was well liked and respected by his peers, and he was really just a caring kid,” says Gaines. “I was happy to see that he had genuine interests outside of basketball. I will say this though, we’ve had nine players placed in Division 1 programs, he’s the most ferocious competitor I’ve ever been around.”
That competitive fire stems from the criticism Plumlee heard at a young age from the place he called home.
Plumlee grew up in Warsaw, Indiana, but at the conclusion of his freshman year of high school he transferred to Christ School in Arden, North Carolina. His older brother Miles (also a Duke player) wanted to attend the school to further his basketball career, and after a visit during the boys spring break that year, Plumlee’s parents decided it was a good opportunity for both of their sons to attend.
“[Mason] was very polite and well mannered but you could tell that he really wasn’t too eager to leave home as a 10th grader and travel eleven hours away for boarding school,” says Gaines.
He wasn’t, but ultimately Plumlee followed his older brother east. That’s when the criticism started. Both Plumlee’s played on a rather mediocre high school team back home and had yet to see their potential as players really blossom. Many from Warsaw were angered when the brothers decided to transfer to a stronger program out east, and quickly the notion spread that the two youngsters thought they were better players than they actually were. For Mason it was a time of frustration.
While the sophomore quickly adjusted to his new surroundings and began to thrive in Arden, he couldn’t shake the burning desire to prove his doubters wrong. Certainly he was anything but a polished product at that point, needing to improve defensively and learn how to play inside as a big man, but the potential was seemingly limitless for a 16-year old who was 6-9, versatile and still growing.
The launching point for Plumlee came in the state semi-finals towards the end of his sophomore season. Christ School was matched up with Charlotte Christian, a team they had lost to twice during the regular season. Having seen his backcourt dominated in the two loses, Coach Gaines decided to try something radical by practicing with Plumlee as his point guard in the days leading up to the third meeting between the two teams. It may have been a lot to ask of a big man to start his first game at the point in such a pressure filled environment, Plumlee hardly seemed fazed by the task at hand.
“We thought he might be nervous,” says Gaines, “but he was the first kid in the locker room, and there were no nerves. He played the game of his life.”
Plumlee posted 20 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in leading Christ School to a 73-64 victory. The following night the Greenies won the first of three consecutive state championships with Plumlee on the roster, a fact that has been a great source of pride for the McDonald’s All-American.
“Winning meant everything to me because we were under a lot of scrutiny back home for leaving,” Plumlee says. ”Coming down here and winning three state championships, you really can’t say anything to that. More importantly though, I wouldn’t trade those three years for anything, I love my teammates and we had the best time as a team that I’ve ever had.”
That’s the part of Plumlee’s character that manages to endear him to everyone he crosses path with in the basketball community; no matter how intense and motivated he is, he always maintains the persona of the polite well mannered kid who first arrived in North Carolina three years ago. Still, while the personal criticism may have died down given his decorated prep career, Plumlee will be joining a program that has come under a growing amount of scrutiny from pundits and fans alike in recent years.
Since reaching the Final Four in 2004, Duke has failed to advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen in each of the last five seasons. That’s fine if you’re most schools, but this kind of track record doesn’t fly in Durham. One of the biggest focuses of the criticism has been on the lack of productivity from the Blue Devils’ frontcourt which has lacked a major interior presence since the days of Shelden Williams, forcing Duke to rely even more heavily on their perimeter shooting. While this was once a major weapon that was praised by national experts, it has slowly morphed into an unreliable crutch for a team lacking a viable inside scoring option.
Enter Plumlee and fellow incoming freshman and All-American Ryan Kelly. While neither is a traditional post player and both lack the strength at this point to physically dominate defenders, the two newcomers will join Kyle Singler to give Duke its strongest frontcourt in years. While the coaching staff has already been working with Plumlee this summer to increase his strength leading up to the season, they are excited about what his presence brings to the team.
What Plumlee brings is a versatility that may not be matched by a player his size in the ACC. At 6-11 he can shoot from the outside and attack the basket off the dribble making for a potential matchup nightmare. Plumlee also brings an impressive amount of athleticism to the table for a player with his size, having shown off some of what ACC opponents can expect this season with his appearance in the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest. Plumlee knows that those kinds of athletic showings will be the key to his success at the college level.
“I don’t feel that any big man can keep up with me over the course of a game, just running the floor, rebounding and playing that kind of role.”
Gaines continues along the same path, even offering his hopes for the manner in which Plumlee will be utilized next season in the ACC.
“I think as far as his basketball IQ is concerned, he is going to be ready to play,” Gaines says. “I hope that Duke uses him in a way that he stretches the court a lot. I think he will be very hard to keep on the bench as a freshman; he’s going to be ready to play right away.”
Lofty praise from a man who may know Plumlee’s game better than anyone else, but even those who haven’t been around the freshman all that much are quick to pick up on the potential for greatness. In a recent New York Times blog post, Kyle Singler was noted as being impressed with Plumlee’s toughness in summer pick-up games to the point of saying he could earn a starting role as a freshman. The value of praise from a potential All-American isn’t lost on Plumlee who says that nothing is better than praise received from teammates.
All of this of course brings us back to pressure. Duke isn’t being talked about as an early season contender for a Final Four run, but the players are placing a world of expectations on themselves, as is their rabid fan base. Still, with all he has been through to this point, Plumlee seems perfectly aloof to the whirlwind he is about to enter.
“I’ve seen so many [Duke] games that I’ve just been ready for it; I can’t wait to play,” he says.
Even with the weight of starting a new chapter in his life staring him right in the face, Plumlee is ready to attack the challenge with an unbridled enthusiasm and fervor. Let’s face it though, he’s like any other incoming freshman, oblivious to pressure and ready to tackle the world.