When the Knicks signed Marshall Plumlee to a guaranteed deal in the offseason, I was not too thrilled. Plumlee played four years at Duke, and didn't really show all that much during that time; he has very little skill on the offensive end, and his physical makeup leaves much to be desired (particularly his wingspan and standing reach). To top it off, the Knicks had already guaranteed roster spots for four other centers. Basically, this Plumlee was an energy big who didn't do much else. What was the point of bringing him in over guys like Chasson Randle?
Halfway through the season, that question has finally been answered (although we won't know whether or not it was the right decision for quite some time). The sorry excuse for a scouting report that you just read has actually been pretty accurate -- Plumlee really doesn't do much of anything on offense. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But the energy, hustle, and commitment he's known for has translated surprisingly well, particularly on defense, reaching its apex during last Wednesday's victory in Boston.
There's not much to say about Plumlee's offensive game. He takes after Joakim Noah in a lot of ways -- he sets good screens, maximizes movement of himself and the rock, and plays physically below the rim. Plumlee is a better athlete than Noah, though, which allows the Knicks to place him in the "dunker" role in many offensive sets.
This is something every team in the league does with players who have hops but lack broader offensive skills (you see this often with Kenneth Faried in Denver). Placing Plumlee in the short corner is a strategy that provides a different kind of spacing -- leave Plumlee to help on a drive, as Kelly Olynyk does in the above clip, and he gets a free lane to the rim for a high percentage shot. Obviously, this particular play wasn't executed properly, as Holiday throws the pass too high, but this is something Noah just can't do at this point in his career.
He can also be a marginal threat rolling to the rim. Guys who can catch passes and dunk aren't exactly rare, but it does provide some value. When he gets an open lane, defenders have to help off the corners to prevent an ally-oop, leaving shooters wide open for easy opportunities. Watch Crowder, who leaves Melo to tag Plumlee on the roll; a nice pass from Rose completes a textbook pick and roll possession. Plumlee doesn't get an assist, but his mobility and leaping ability created that shot for Melo.
Unfortunately, that's basically everything Plumlee has -- he doesn't have great touch around the rim, his jump shot is nonexistent, and his athleticism as a leaper is limited thanks to his standing reach (or lack thereof). Because of this, he's below average (at best) as a rim runner overall. All of this was quite obvious during his time at Duke. That's why I wasn't a fan of the signing -- there's not much offensive upside here.
On the other hand, his defense has been a massive surprise, and it's almost certainly why Phil brought him in.
Plumlee isn't a defensive stopper, and he almost certainly won't ever turn into one, but he's extremely mobile for a big man, and there's value to that in the modern NBA. Plumlee's T-Rex arms are going to hold him back from being a rim protector, but he does a solid job getting out on the perimeter, containing the opponent, and recovering quickly -- something you cannot say about someone like Kyle O'Quinn.
That's just smart, competent, high IQ defense. Plumlee does a lot of stuff here, but the most important part is the closeout on Horford. He avoids overcommiting, which is one of many issues the Knicks have; when Horford pump fakes the 3 and tries to blow by him (scouting report, by the way -- Horford does that all the time), Plumlee is easily able to stay in front. Kuzminskas is ready on the backcut by Brown (defense is a team game), and all of a sudden, there's 8 seconds left on the clock with the defense mostly set. To top it off, he makes a great rotation to deny Jaylen Brown at the rim and generates a deflection. Pure luck generates an open 3 for Crowder, but this is pretty much exactly how you want a big to defend this possession.
That's a theme with Plumlee -- his defense is not flashy. At all. It's just...well...competent. And competency combined with mobility can be a big help in today's league. Look at his cloeout here on Jae Crowder, and tell me how many big men on the roster can pull it off without getting blown by or conceding the 3.
Once again: competence + mobility can make a big difference. Plumlee manages to help, recover, and help again in the span of four seconds (nice job by Holiday to stunt & recover as well).
His size and mobility give him a level of switchability that most big men can't dream of, which is a great asset for a center, and his motor ensures that he's never taking plays off (once again, looking at you, Kyle). That's the thing -- this short description covers pretty much everything. Here, he forces a turnover on IT4, which is legitimately incredible. How did he do it? By being in the right place, moving his feet, and keeping his arms up, giving Courtney Lee time to recover.
Plumlee still needs work defensively, of course; after all, he's still a rookie. It's difficult to get a good read on him due to his lack of actual playtime, but he's shown a penchant for dumb fouls, and he can be too hyperactive, leading to bad positioning. He's also a bit feathery, in terms of weight, for his size -- it's no coincidence that his stellar performance came against the Celtics, who basically trot out a bunch of dudes who play with the physicality of a sixth grader. Compared to the lumbering O'Quinn, however, there's lots to like about Plumlee defensively. I don't see him ever becoming more than a matchup dependent role player, but on a team that has major issues defending a pick and roll, Plumlee's mobility could very well swing a couple of games, much like he did on Wednesday.
For the 15th man on the roster, as an undrafted rookie, who was expected to be Lou Amundson 2.0? Not too shabby. Give Phil and the entire organization credit -- the signing was mostly viewed as a complete joke at the time, but it's already led to a pretty nice win during a fairly moribund stretch of the season. You could do a lot worse than that with your final roster spot.