When Mason Plumlee signed a three-year, $25M contract there was plenty of confusion among Detroit Pistons fans. There was probably some anger too. At 30 years old, Troy Weaver’s first free agency signing didn’t seem to fit Detroit’s timeline.
The Duke product had been a high-level backup center for the Denver Nuggets for three years, but he certainly wasn’t expected to be a target for rebuilding teams.
He’s not a gifted scorer nor rebounder, and he’s not a guy whose defense jumps out at you. Yes, he’s a very good passer but that in and of itself doesn’t equate to a high upside, especially at 30 years old.
But when you dig a bit deeper, it becomes clear that there are many more subtle things that Plumlee does that lead to team success and can greatly benefit the younger members of the Pistons.
Passing is the one part of Plumlee’s game that draws attention when you watch him operate. He’s patient in letting plays develop, which leads to great success when combined with his ability to read the floor.
A big man like that is obviously valuable, and for a guy like Plumlee who doesn’t stretch the floor, it’s arguably critical. But it goes deeper than just finding open looks for shooters and cutters. Scheming with a great passing big in tow brings versatility that you can’t replicate with a guard. Plumlee can pass out of dribble hand-offs and other perimeter situations, from the block when help defense comes, and in many other forms. That opens up a number of possibilities you simply don’t have when you lack passing in the frontcourt. Adding him to Blake Griffin only amplifies that diversity.
You can see the advanced level of Plumlee’s passing in this seemingly simple pass against the Los Angeles Lakers. When Monte Morris cuts toward the free-throw line, he’s met with a pass that perfectly leads him to open space for a jumper rather than setting him up for failure driving into Anthony Davis:
Against the Portland Trail Blazers, Plumlee brings the ball up after a rebound, draws attention, dribbles out, and throws a perfect bounce pass for an in-rhythm layup:
That play shows off his ball-handling well, which is sneaky good for his size. He won’t break any ankles and he turns the ball over a bit more than you’d like, but nothing debilitating given his assist numbers. More than anything, he is able to dribble into hand-offs and into space to improve his passing lanes. With other better creators around him in Detroit, Plumlee should play a similar role for the Pistons.
Perhaps Plumlee’s best offensive skill is his screening, though. We’ll dig into that more later, but suffice to say that you’ll most often see him as the lead screener at the top of the key to make life easier for Detroit’s lead creators.
When most people think of Plumlee’s defense, they probably think of allowing Anthony Davis to make a game-winner in the Western Conference Finals. Fortunately for Pistons fans, Mason is a much defender than his worst moment.
After being traded from Portland to Denver, Plumlee worked his way into a legitimately positive defensive center.
Plumlee is an above-average rim protector, limiting opponents to 56.9% shooting at the rim in 19-20 and 55.6% in 18-19. He’s not an elite shot-blocker by any means, but his basketball IQ and communication give him a leg up on the competition.
Communication is one of the most underrated aspects of team defense and something the Pistons have struggled with for years, especially since the loss of Aron Baynes. The result has been that the Pistons have been in the bottom third of the league the past two years in opposing shooting percentage inside three feet. If you watch and listen to good defenses, you hear a lot more talking than with worse counterparts. Blake Griffin is a good communicator with a wealth of experience and adding to that should provide more teeth to a defense that desperately needs it.
Plumlee won’t jump off the television screen much when you watch him defend. He’s not elite in any one area, but he’s solid enough everywhere to be a positive force.
You won’t see him blow up every pick-and-roll, but you’ll see moments of technical perfection like how he single-handedly shuts down this side screen play against the Toronto Raptors:
He hedges perfectly, flips his hips to help the trail man to force the ball handler into help, and recovers to block the shot at the rim.
Against the Milwaukee Bucks, he appears to get beat by Sterling Brown in a drop coverage. But watch closely how he bodies Brown just slightly to affect his path to the rim and allow Plumlee to recover:
It might not always be flashy, but expect Mason Plumlee to be a helpful defensive contributor to a team that has struggled to defend the paint in recent years.
A lot of the things that Plumlee excels at aren’t necessarily going to be fully captured in the box score. That’s not to say that he’s going to be some dominating force, but he can assist the youth in more subtle ways.
Learning defensive positioning and communicating well are particularly difficult skills to learn for younger players. And those are areas where the rookies and Sekou can learn from veterans like Plumlee and Griffin. Recognizing the importance of communication, especially the difference when the starting frontcourt is off the floor, is something that should happen naturally if the wheels are churning and the coaches are doing their jobs.
But Plumlee’s most significant role in terms of developing Detroit’s young ballhandlers comes in his value as a screener.
He may not be a thundering force as a roll man, but Plumlee excels in screening for the lead ball-handler and adjusting his angles to optimize open space. As Killian Hayes learns defensive coverages and how to react appropriately, Plumlee can be helpful in making the job easier. It’s also helpful to the coaching staff in getting Hayes the ball in a number of different ways like dribble hand-offs where he can work on off-ball action to get to the ball rather than probing the defense.
Watch here as Mason turns down the initial action to set up a perfect screen to get Monte Morris downhill:
When a Spurs defender goes under a screen here, he anticipates Morris’ counter and sets a screen with his back to the defender to get Morris another look:
The chemistry may take time for Plumlee and Hayes, but if and when it comes, Detroit’s young point guard has a very good partner to help him with some of the subtleties of NBA pick-and-roll coverage.
Plumlee is not going to take over and win games for the Pistons, but he does have the skillset to assist on both ends of the floor while providing a valuable example for the youth movement that is still learning the NBA game.