At the beginning of the 2012-13 college basketball season, the Duke Blue Devils were sitting just inside the top-10 in all polls. While prognosticators had confidence Duke would be a good team, their votes came with a number of question marks surrounding this year’s roster. Most of those questions pointed to senior power forward/center Mason Plumlee, who has been relied upon as that vital piece in the frontcourt for the Blue Devils since the start of his sophomore season.
Pegged as a future NBA lottery pick straight out of high school, Plumlee entered Duke with high hopes of joining an elite class of talented big men that had experienced success during their college careers in Durham. While showing flashes of brilliance in what was expected from him during his freshman, sophomore and junior campaigns, there was also a lot of frustration. He wasn’t as dominant on the interior as many had predicted, he dealt with his share of lapses on the defensive end time after time and he was essentially unbearable to watch from the free-throw line.
While the potential still remained intact, Plumlee’s NBA value was dropping ever so slightly. After announcing his decision to forego the 2012 NBA Draft and return for his senior season, fans and scouts alike desired for a drastic change with the promising big man. Through eight games this season, Plumlee has turned doubters into believers at a rapid rate.
The Duke Blue Devils are currently 8-0 including defeating three top-five teams — No. 3 Kentucky, No. 2 Louisville and No. 4 Ohio State — in the first month of the season. To add to that, they have played the second toughest schedule thus far according to the 2013 Ken Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings. After one of their best starts in school history, Duke is now seen as a legitimate Final Four caliber team behind the emergence of Plumlee, who has finally broken through the proverbial brick wall. Showing the nation a totally different player than in years past, Plumlee has stepped up his game averaging 19.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per game (both career highs). His shooting percentages have also taken a considerable raise as he is shooting 65.4 percent from the field and most notably 76.1 percent from the free-throw line, up from 52.8 percent as a junior. Within the past month he has became one of the best players in the country while playing for one of the best teams in the country.
Taking a closer, in-depth look at the free-throw progression throughout the course of his career, Plumlee is generating 7.6 makes as a senior, nearly twice as many from his junior season, while attempting nearly 10 free-throws per 40 minutes this season. He got to the charity stripe at a high rate last season, but was struggling constantly in coverting those attempts into points. The sudden improvement from the line is what stands out the most through the first eight games of the sesason.
Entering the 2012-13 season, Indiana Hoosiers center Cody Zeller was tabbed as the preseason national player of the year after an outstanding freshman campaign. Deciding to return to school for his sophomore season, he has positioned his team as the No. 1 team in the land and a national title favorite with his presence on the inside. After the first month of the season, the Hoosiers remain at No. 1 in the country with an 8-0 record. While each win has been impressive, Indiana has not played the caliber of opponents that Duke has, judging by their 270th strength of schedule ranking. By that statistic, Zeller’s minutes are down from 28.5 during his freshman season to 27.3 through the first eight games of his sophomore season. He has played over 30+ minutes once — 42 minutes in an overtime victory against Georgetown.
With Zeller not being used towards the end of blowout wins his overall statistics, while good, aren’t overly impressive. Most attest that to the minutes he is averaging against lower rated teams that he has seen so far this season, which is a plausible reason. Nevertheless, with Zeller’s numbers taking a slight drop, Plumlee has surpassed him in a number of categories and has done a tremendous job in placing himself as the frontrunner for national player of the year.
The comparison between Plumlee and Zeller at the course of this season should further enforce the fact that Plumlee should be considered not only the best big man but the best player in the country. Listed below is four different charts detailing different statistics between the two players this season.
The first chart details individual scoring between the two players as of December 6. Using five different categories, Plumlee is ahead of Zeller by narrow margins in four of the five listed, furthermore displaying the significant improvement during his senior season. The key stat that stands out; however, is true shooting percentage, which measures shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, three-point field goals and free-throws, as Plumlee has increased his TS% more than 13 percent from last season (he finished his junior season with a 57.9 true shooting percentage) and is over the 70 percent mark while Zeller hovers in the mid-60′s.
Points per 40 minutes
Points per shot
Effective field goal percentage
True shot percentage
Free throw rate per 100 field goal attempts
The second chart I have included is transition scoring. As it’s been well documented, Cody Zeller runs the floor as well as any big man in the country. Borrowing the GaZeller Watch, a Sports Illustrated Power Rankings-original statistic that combines Synergy possession-logging with playing-time data to assess how many points per 40 minutes the nation’s elite centers score in transition, the numbers back that statement up. Highlighting transition points per 40 minutes, Zeller is generating nearly six T-Pts/40. The Hoosiers are the No. 1 offensive team in the country and the majority of their scoring comes on the fastbreak. Not to be outdone; however, Plumlee is ranked just below Zeller and Gonzaga polish center Przemek Karnowski, who is averaging just 16.1 minutes per game.
Transition possessions per 40 minutes
Points per transition possession
Transition points per 40 minutes
Charted next is rebounding and defensive effectiveness. The two rebounding statistics highlight Plumlee’s impact on the glass for the Blue Devils this season. Through the first eight games of the season, he has finished with double-digit rebounds in five games including two games with a career-high 17. Defensively, he is blocking four more shots than Zeller at this point in the season, 15-11. It’s also notable to point out that Plumlee is also listed as two inches shorter than Zeller. The Indiana big man has generated more steals than Plumlee, 10-5, and has accumulated two less fouls on the year, 19-17. With help from Team Rankings, they track defensive plays per foul to show the importance of each player while not committing a foul. Zeller holds a slight lead over the Duke senior at this juncture of the season.
Rebounds per game
Rebounds per 40 minutes
Defensive plays (blocks & steals) per foul
Finally, there is the all so important player efficiency chart documenting a player’s overall impact for his team in games, wins and performance on the season. Courtesy of TeamRankings.com, Plumlee’s 26.5 efficiency rating is second in the country behind the 27.0 rating of Bucknell power forward Mike Muscala. Zeller’s 19.6 rating ranks him at 63rd in the country. Plumlee also trumps Zeller in both game score and win score as he is ranked third in the country in each category.
Game Score: Player’s productivity for a single game
Win Score: Player’s productivity for team wins
To close, Mason Plumlee has taken his game to an elite level in his final season at Duke. It’s taken up until his senior year for the light switch to turn on and for him to show the nation what he is capable of doing on a consistent basis night-in and night-out. At this pace he is well on his way to potential national player of the year honors later on down the road. However, if you ask Plumlee, player of the year awards fail in comparison to that of a national title, which the Blue Devils will seriously challenge for come March.
By Chad Lykins