Ball-handling center Mason Plumlee gives Trail Blazers a big boost

TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee is one of the NBA's leaders in dunks this season.Miles, Mason and Marshall Plumlee have joined a very exclusive club in the NBA.

There have been a few dozen sets of two brothers who played at the same time during the league's 70-year history. Five families have produced three NBA players.

But only three sets of three or more brothers have played NBA ball at the same time.

Former Trail Blazer Caldwell Jones, whose NBA career spanned from 1976-90, and brothers Wil (1969-78), Major (1979-85) and Charles (1983-98) all played in the league. But never were more than three of them playing at the same time.

The Barrys — Jon (1992-2006), Brent (1995-2009) and Drew (1997-2000) — played together for three NBA seasons.

Then there are the Plumlees, the current version of pro basketball's "All in the Family."

Miles, 28, is a 6-11 reserve center with Milwaukee in his fifth NBA season.

Marshall, 24, a 7-foot rookie center with New York, has played three games with the Knicks this season while dividing time with their D-League affiliate in Westchester, New York.

The best of the lot by quite a bit is 6-11 Mason, 26, Portland's starting center and in his fourth NBA campaign.

The natives of Fort Wayne, Indiana, didn't grow up with collective dreams of joining forces at basketball's top level some day.

"It's very cool, but no," says Mason, who like his brothers played collegiately at Duke. "I always planned on playing in the NBA, but I never knew if my brothers would meet me there. It's a blessing. It makes the league a lot of fun.

"Being in the NBA is an experience. It's a great job. Some of the stories you get from your brothers — there are certain things you can only talk about amongst yourselves. It's like a fraternity. I love that I can have brothers who play up here, too."

The Plumlees were born to "Perky" and Leslie Plummer. Perky, 6-6, is an attorney who played basketball at Tennessee Tech. Leslie, 6-foot, played at Purdue and recently retired after a career as a pharmacist. The baby of their four offspring, Maddie, is a junior playing volleyball at Notre Dame.

How did the Plumlee patriarch get his nickname?

"He's Miller Percy Plumlee III," Mason says. "He's always smiling, so his sister starting calling him 'Perky.'"

Plumlee says competition between the boys was intense during their childhood years.

"With Miles and me more so, and Marshall came in late," Mason says. "He worked his butt off to get into the league, and I'm proud of him, too."

Plumlee played a variety of sports growing up until he got to high school, where he focused on basketball and was serious enough about track and field to high jump 6-8.

"I placed at state, though I don't recall what I finished exactly," Mason says. "Miles was even better. His best was 6-10 or 6-11."

Plumlee's unusual ball-handling skills for a big man were nurtured during his days playing youth and AAU basketball.

"When I played up (in age groups or level of competition) with Miles' teams, I wasn't the tallest guy, so I'd bring the ball up court," says Plumlee, who reached 6-10 by the time he was a senior in high school. "I played everything from point guard to center. Even in high school, I played a little point guard, depending on the team and situations."

Because of that experience, Plumlee says, "I feel real comfortable with the ball in my hands."

Plumlee was a three-year starter at Duke, blossoming as a senior, when he averaged 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds while shooting .599 from the field in 2012-13. The Blue Devils went 30-6 that season, losing to eventual national champion Louisville in the Elite Eight.

As a freshman in 2009-10, Plumlee played on a Duke team that went 35-5 and won the NCAA title, leading the Devils in blocked shots. In four years there, Plumlee's teams were 124-23 and always finished among the nation's top 10.

Plumlee has another cherished accomplishment from his Duke experience — a bachelor's degree in psychology.

"I don't know what I'll do with it, but I have it if I need it," he says with a smile. "I do know there's plenty of opportunity for application of it in the NBA, (including) understanding teammates ... understanding coaches. ... just being able to understand where people are coming from.

"What people say is not always what they mean. Body language can be more important than what is said. I pay attention to a lot of little things like that."

A part-time starter his first two NBA seasons in Brooklyn after being taken with the 22nd pick in the 2013 draft, Plumlee was a member of the 2014 U.S. national team that won the World Cup in Spain. The Nets sent Plumlee to Portland on draft night in 2015, along with the draft rights to Pat Connaughton, in exchange for veteran guard Steve Blake and the draft rights to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

It's been a great deal for the Blazers, who thrust him immediately into the starting lineup during the 2015-16 season. He averaged 9.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting .516 from the field.

Plumlee has been even better this season. He leads the Blazers (and is ninth in the NBA) in field-goal percentage (.557), rebounds (7.6 per game) and blocked shots (1.1). He is on pace for a career high in scoring (11.9) and assists (4.4), ranking second in the latter category among centers in the NBA behind Boston's Al Horford (5.0).

Plumlee has played some of the best basketball of his career of late. Heading into Tuesday night's Staples Center matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, Plumlee has averaged 13.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting .601 from the field over the past 14 games. He came tantalizing close to the first triple-double of his career in Sunday night's 125-124 double-overtime loss to Detroit, notching eight points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 12 assists in 40 minutes.

"'Mase' has had some really good runs during his (season and a half) with us, including his playoff series against the Clippers last year," Portland coach Terry Stotts says. "But there's no doubt he's in the middle of a very good stretch right now."

Stotts wasn't familiar with Plumlee's talents when he was acquired by Portland.

"I didn't see him play that much with the Nets, and he didn't play that much on the national team," the fifth-year Blazer mentor says. "I felt like we were getting a good player, but I wasn't sure what to expect."

Stotts says Plumlee gives Portland "a little bit of everything," including an unlikely facilitator from the high-post area.

"We play through him out on the floor," Stotts says. "We rely on his passing. He's an integral part of our offense. He makes some extremely athletic plays — running, jumping, using his quickness, bringing the ball up the floor. You forget how tall he is sometimes."

Plumlee is adequate at best at the defensive end. At 245 pounds, he sometimes gets bullied by bigger post men who back him down in the key and score over him.

"Some post matchups can be challenging for him," Stotts says. "But he has been very good when we trap. He is very active, not only on the ball, but with blitzing and just getting back into the paint. He is very alert. He competes all the time. You can feel how hard he plays. That is just in his DNA."

Plumlee has become an effective and sometimes flamboyant dunker, ranking third in the NBA with 68 dunks, behind Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Miami's Hassan Whiteside. Plumlee has been the beneficiary of a growing chemistry on pick-and-roll plays with Blazer guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

"Mase does a tremendous job catching the ball in the middle, finishing, dunking, getting offensive rebounds, tip-outs — doing a lot of the little stuff," McCollum says. "He has been a leader, too, on defense, echoing calls, trapping, rotating, blocking shots at the rim. He has been helping us out a lot."

Plumlee has been one of the better bargains in the league, drawing a salary of $2.33 million in 2016-17 — less than half the average of $5.2 million. The Blazers and Plumlee's agent, Mark Bartelstein, failed to agree on a contract extension in October. Plumlee will likely reject Portland's $3.4 million qualifying offer in July, meaning he will become a restricted free agent. The Blazers will have the opportunity to match any contract he signs with another team — a deal sure to be worth several times what he is making this season.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it this summer," Bartelstein says. "But I can say Mason loves everything about Portland. He loves playing for Coach Stotts. He loves the guys on the team. He feels a real camaraderie among the guys. He very much enjoys playing with them.

"We weren't able to get something done with an extension in the fall, but we've put that behind us. After the season, Neil (Olshey, the general manager) and I will sit down and talk. I can say Mason has a very open mind to staying there in Portland."

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