Mason Plumlee’s sophomore season wasn’t supposed to start off this way. Not after his strong rookie campaign last year.
Heading into the 2014-15 season, Plumlee was fresh off of an improbable summer run with Team USA. Plumlee made Team USA’s final roster cuts for the tournament after initially seeming like a long shot upon being invited to training camp. Despite all odds, he made the final cut and played in all nine tournament games.
Plumlee arguably earned his way onto Team USA after an improved second-half to his rookie season. In 29 games after the All-Star break, Plumlee averaged 9.1 points per game versus the 6.2 points he averaged in 41 games prior to the break. He also raised his field goal percentage from 63 percent to 68 percent and averaged nearly twice as many rebounds with six per game. He was rewarded with a spot on the 2014 NBA All-Rookie First Team, along with Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Instead of coming into this season as a lock for the starting lineup after his accomplished rookie season, Plumlee struggled early in the season to find playing time in new head coach Lionel Hollins’ system.
“It’s very similar to last year – new coach, new system,” Plumlee told Basketball Insiders. “It took a little bit for us to get it but now that we’re getting it, I think we’re better earlier this year than we were last. There’s naturally going to be a learning process when you have a whole new system put into place but right now guys are playing to their strengths. Joe [Johnson] is looking great; [he] demands a lot of attention and that’s opening up stuff for the rest of us. We got a good thing going, we’re just trying to build on it and I think our best basketball is ahead of us.”
Through the Nets’ first month of action, Plumlee averaged just 5.1 points in 13 minutes per game. Since then, Hollins made a change to insert Plumlee into the starting lineup and he hasn’t looked back as he’s started each of the Nets’ last 13 games. The Nets have gone 8-5 during that stretch, winning six out of their last seven games and improving to .500 at 16-16. Plumlee is averaging 14.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game as a starter compared to 4.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 0.6 blocks per game off of the bench. Perhaps the biggest change has come in his shooting percentage – he’s shooting 66 percent as a starter and 38 percent off of the bench.
“He’s more aggressive,” teammate Deron Williams said of Plumlee’s transformation. “He’s definitely more confident. I think it’s just the extra minutes, knowing he’s able to play through mistakes. I think he got his head down early when he would make mistakes and come out, and now he’s able to play through those mistakes. He’s playing well, he’s listening and he’s playing good.”
Hollins also decided to make another change to the starting lineup recently, opting to move Williams to the bench in favor of Jarrett Jack. Since Jack has been in the starting lineup, the Nets have won six out of their last seven games, including wins over the Nuggets, Kings and Bulls. Plumlee praised the decision to move Jack into the lineup and even credited Jack for helping his own improvement.
“He’s always got his head up, always finding people and he’s predictable,” Plumlee said. “You know when he’s going into a shot; you know when he’s looking to set somebody up so it really helps you not only scoring wise, but also as a rebounder. When you know the kind of shots a guy takes you can go to the glass, you can anticipate shots being taken so it helps you in a lot of ways.”
With Plumlee and Jack now starting, the Nets now have one of the best one-two punches coming off of their bench in Williams and Brook Lopez. Despite the demotion, both players have completely bought into the change and are comfortable playing in any role Hollins asks.
“It feels good,” Williams said. “It’s an adjustment for both of us, but we’re in there together, and we have some chemistry together. We’re going to be effective whether it’s starting or coming off the bench; we just want to contribute. I’m not playing as many minutes so I’m just trying to be just aggressive, pickup and just cause havoc whenever I can.”
While the players have accepted their new roles, Hollins has been criticized by his decision to bench two out of his three highest-paid players. Williams is the second-highest paid player on the team, due $19,754,465 this season while Lopez is next in line and is owed $15,719,062 this season. Although the two won’t be starting – at least for the time being – they’re earning praise from at least one of their teammates.
“They’re two very special players,” Jack said on Williams and Lopez coming off of the bench. “Every single night with the situation we have now, they’re better than probably the starters and the bench. To have them come in and give us that punch, I mean I thought D-Will was great for us tonight; he really sparked us. I thought Brook did a tremendous job for us in the third quarter, being a presence for us in the middle. We just got to do a better job with closing out games.”
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