Miles Plumlee finds greener pastures in the desert

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Former Indiana Pacers draft pick Miles Plumlee has renewed spirits after being traded to the Phoenix Suns.

For all that is unfair by labeling an NBA player as a terrible draft pick before his first professional game, there's also a lot to be said about patience leading to lucky breaks and a resulting taste of success. Miles Plumlee, in just his second NBA season, has already had both things happen to him.

This summer, Phoenix and first-year general manager Ryan McDonough turned veteran Luis Scola into Plumlee, a protected first-round pick and an apparent throw-in, Gerald Green.

The Suns' goal: get younger and pile up assets with the loaded 2014 draft on the horizon.

Phoenix shipped center Marcin Gortat off to the Wizards in a later trade, and it was viewed as the final blow to seemingly unrealistic hope that the Suns would be anything less than awful. But like Scola, Gortat is no longer in the rear-view mirror if the Suns and their fans are even bothering to look. Plumlee has them living in the present.

Plumlee has been more than capable for a player that was a questionable first-round pick by Indiana after averaging just 6.6 points per game as a senior at Duke. It didn't help he fell under the flawed category of a four-year college player whose potential had already been tapped.

"I really didn't learn any of this until last year," Plumlee said this season. "Getting to watch Roy Hibbert was really the biggest thing. I watched every game last year so I got enough reps mentally to go out there and put it to use."

So far, so good. McDonough's moves have gone better than anticipated, and arguably none have been immediately as impactful as the trade with the Pacers.

Plumlee, in his second season, was a surprise starter for coach Jeff Hornacek as the regular season began and is backing up his coach's confidence by averaging 10.3 points, nine rebounds and 2.1 blocks through 12 games. Plumlee has been the defensive presence in the middle, using his athleticism to alter shots at the rim and control pick-and-rolls.

"I think he's athletic enough when he jumps up, I don't think guys believe he can block the shot and get there, and he does," Hornacek said.

It's been impressive, especially considering he's not gotten into much foul trouble as the team's lone shotblocker. After playing just 55 minutes as a rookie with Indiana, it's even more astounding. Plumlee said he's learned how to use his athleticism to his advantage, going straight up on block attempts to, at worst, alter a shot at the rim.

"I've been working on those a long time," Plumlee said. "If you do it properly, you shouldn't get a lot of fouls."

Hornacek has been most impressed by Plumlee's ability to keep the blocks in play because "he doesn't bat the ball into the stands." It didn't hurt Plumlee spent last season learning from one of the league's best defensive units.

Against the New Orleans Pelicans and 2012 first overall pick Anthony Davis on Nov. 10, Plumlee recorded a career-high five blocks, scored eight points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

"I mean, I hold my athleticism in high regard," he said afterward, when a reporter asked him if he was surprised to out-block Davis. "I think I'm as athletic as anybody my size."

The confidence is there, perhaps before the production and the opportunity was.

Now, Plumlee is melding that with a skillset that's been under the microscope of assistant coaches Kenny Gattison and Mark West, two former NBA big men that have a combined 26 years of experience in the league. The individual work has made the game slow down for Plumlee.

"Just improving your offensive package," he added, "working on all your pivots and moves, making them more natural — I feel like I'm getting a lot better."

While he's only showed a mildly successful bank-shot when he gets post touches from 10-feet and out, Plumlee has a consistent jump hook when he gets into deep post position. The right-hander has even showed the same with his left hand.

Within Hornacek's offense, Plumlee is arguably as important as stretch forward Channing Frye.

Looking at the roster before the season, it's amazing for the Suns to be shooting above 35 percent from three-point range. Plumlee is one reason for such success for a team that is surprisingly in the top-half of the league in three-point accuracy at 36.8 percent. As a threat to catch Lob City style passes from former Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe or Goran Dragic, Plumlee has taken advantage when teams become overly concerned about the three-point shooters off pick-and-roll action.

"Miles, you know, he's just an athletic guy, you don't have to run a lot of things for him," Hornacek said. "It's basic basketball. You roll to the basket hard, you have guards who can pass it, you're going to get some stuff."

Plumlee debuted this season with an 18-point, 15-rebound and three-block performance in the Suns' win against a Portland team that's since been rolling. While he caught the Blazers off guard and defenses have since become wary of him, the numbers haven't been quite the same. But Plumlee is still growing.

"After that first week (of camp) it really kind of started rolling for me," Plumlee said. "Ever since then, each day I've felt like I've gotten better."

With the right tools and a new opportunity, the big question for the Suns is only, "How much better can Miles Plumlee be?"

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