Mason Plumlee’s evolving role from bench guy to vocal leader

Dec 18, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee (24) dunks the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes all you can hear in the Nuggets locker room after a disheartening loss is the quiet shuffling of the feet of media members as we all congregate in the center of the room. Waiting to amble over to whomever the TV broadcast is waiting to speak to. We whisper to each other, assuming that the last thing players want to hear is loud-speaking media.

At his locker, Mason Plumlee sat looking at his phone. Waiting to shower. Normally the media will speak to the usual suspects, but after the Nuggets lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday December 20th there was a different determination. When Plumlee returned and was ready the media throngs went back over to Plumlee and got something we have come to expect more and more of late from the Nuggets big man:

Honesty.

“You know they (Timberwolves) played better D” Plumlee said “but our defense was nonexistent toward the end of the game; and that’s when it’s supposed to be at its best.”

Plumlee’s penchant for honest appraisal isn’t unique, but it is needed. A team that is this young needs a voice to rise above and let them know when they have been messing up or at the very least have the ability to be self-critical. Where it has been surprising is that, well … it’s Plumlee. The voice we are hearing isn’t the one we expected.

The center from Duke was brought to Denver in a trade in early February 2017. A trade that – up until very recently – was seen publicly as the first big misstep of Nuggets’ President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly. A largely unfair description considering how Jusuf Nurkic (the other “main” piece in the trade that brought Plumlee to Denver) largely forced the Nuggets hand by bad, obstinate, childish behavior pre-trade. As Connelly honestly admitted in CSG Podcast in October the Nuggets were caught up in an emotional situation with Nurkic.

Where did that leave Plumlee? As we later learned, Plumlee was playing with an abdominal/core injury that he just played through once he got to the Nuggets that he didn’t address until the offseason. This likely skewed Nuggets fan perception of Plumlee as he wasn’t fully healthy until this season. Then he signed a 3 year $41 million contract in September which caused fans to scratch their heads.

Since then, while not a great offensive player, Plumlee has taken over a primary role as “defensive quarterback” ala Kenyon Martin circa 2009-11. A guy who can keep guys on task and make sure everyone is in the right place. That sort of role is extremely valuable.

More than that, Plumlee’s voice in general has been something that many of us self-anointed wisend scribes in the media hadn’t anticipated. At all. We thought that Plumlee’s complimentary (on a lesser scale) to Jokic would help the Nuggets somewhat when Jokic was on the bench but we didn’t expect to hear things like what he told Altitude’s Vic Lombardi in late November after the Nuggets got annihilated by the Utah Jazz in Utah by nearly 30 points:

“You know, I think it’s going to take some leadership; hold people accountable. Somebody has got to step forward and kind of be a voice, you know, and get on people and it can’t just be from the staff we have to take ownership internally and, you know, deal with it.”

This was late November when Plumlee made those comments. The Nuggets had lost Paul Millsap to injury and there was definitely a void in leadership. Since Plumlee made those comments the Nuggets have gone 7-6, included in that stretch was Nikola Jokic going out for 7 games with an ankle injury. To the forefront has been Plumlee. Speaking after almost every game and making his voice heard.

Plumlee’s own performance is hard to quantify – largely because Plumlee isn’t a prolific offensive player. Certainly his raw stats don’t leap off the page. In fact if you take a look at the numbers (6.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.9 assists per game so far) you’d be fooled into thinking that he’s had a sub-par season.

The impact the 6th year center has had on this 2017 Denver Nuggets squad is more like a manager. A guy who can set the tone by setting a great pick at the top of the circle or a hustle play including chase down blocks and showing sheer effort on plays he may not end up making but displaying what you should do with a display of effort. Plumlee makes sure everyone understands what you need to do on defense before you go out and execute.

Guys like Plumlee are hard to box in with advanced metrics because their impact is largely felt in ways you can’t apply easily with numbers. He is someone who – through speaking out and setting an example – has set himself apart in a really unique position to being indispensable in his role without producing those numbers that demonstrate on the page. Everyone who watches knows he is having a great impact but they can’t put it into a neat box.

That is perfectly fine and is desperately needed.

Plumlee’s emergence during this stretch of the season while the Nuggets were impacted by significant injury has been a steadying of a ship that could have sent the season into a death spiral shortly after Jokic injured his ankle. Along with Gary Harris, Plumlee has shown that there’s talent below the fold. Something that will help the Nuggets long term and well into the future.

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