DURHAM, N.C. – Miles Plumlee was destined to end up at Duke, playing for Mike Krzyzewski.
The Blue Devil freshman, whose journey from a small town in Indiana took him through the mountains of North Carolina to the West Coast before he wound up in Durham, ended up sharing a suite at Duke with fellow freshman Olek Czyz.
Czyz is a native of Gdynia, Poland, who came to this country prior to his freshman year of high school. But Plumlee has a Polish connection too – and not just because he grew up in the Indiana town of Warsaw.
“What’s crazy is that my uncle is the ambassador to Poland,” he explained.
Victor Ashe, appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to Poland by President George Bush in 2004, is married to Plumlee’s aunt, Joan. The young Blue Devil big man has twice visited his relatives in Poland.
“Olek? He just thought it was cool,” Plumlee said. “I’ve been to his house and his mom cooks for us. I know about some of the food because I’ve eaten over there.”
Coach Krzyzewski, who has his own well-advertised Polish roots, is hoping that his new “Polish” big men – Plumlee and Czyz – can help bolster his frontcourt in the coming season.
Plumlee brings a polished game that he’s trying to adapt to his growing body. After growing up as a point guard, then making the transition to wing forward, he’s learning to meld the skills he learned at those positions to his new shape – officially listed now at 6-foot-10, 230-pounds.
“I know I can [fit in] -- I just have to work for it,” Plumlee said. “I want to have a big role on the team and I want to play as much as I can. I’ve got a lot of skills and know I can bring a lot to the table, but as far as immediate impact, I know right now I have to focus on being a big presence on the floor ... being able to run the floor, guard the bigs and rebound. So if I can do those things and play really intense, I think I can help the team and bring a lot right there.”
It’s already clear that Plumlee will have an immediate impact on Duke’s fortunes this season. The freshman was in the starting lineup for the team’s first two exhibition games and displayed a surprisingly mature game.
“Miles is a good player and he’s a very good athlete – good hands, good feet, shot blocker, runs,” Krzyzewski said watching his freshman get 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in 18 minutes against Virginia Union. “It’s just a matter of him getting experience. He’s a really good fit.”
Plumlee is fitting in so quickly and so well that it’s hard to believe that he is only at Duke after a bizarre game of musical chairs that involves his younger brother, Mason; former Blue Devil athletic director Joe Alleva; former Duke assistant coach Johnny Dawkins and former Stanford coach Trent Johnson and ...
Well, it’s complex. So let’s start at the beginning.
From Indiana To Arden
Miles Plumlee is a Hoosier at heart. Born in Fort Wayne, he lived in West Lafayette – about 10 minutes from the Purdue campus – until he was eight years old, when his family moved to Warsaw, a small town in the northern part of the state that is famous for its high school basketball.
“Everybody took basketball seriously there,” Plumlee said. “It was a big part of my life.”
Both his parents played college basketball. His father played at Tennessee Tech and his mother at Purdue. But they didn’t force their three sons into basketball.
“My parents were very big on being well-rounded,” Plumlee said. “I played soccer. I tried baseball, did swimming for five years, did a lot of off-topic sports – I used to be really big in mountain biking and snow boarding. I was really good riding a unicycle.”
Still, basketball was inescapable.
“We’ve always had a hoop at our house,” he said. “That’s basically where it started. Mason and I were always playing each other. [Youngest brother] Marshall finally started playing with us too when he got a little older. Our parents were always coaching us up and giving us pointers and teaching us drills. It was a great environment for basketball.”
The games were very competitive. By chance, middle brother Mason grew faster than older brother, Miles. As it worked out, the two were usually the same height.
“We played a lot of one-on-one,” Miles said. “Those were really competitive games. It normally ended up in a fight.”
Miles was a 5-9 point guard as a freshman when he entered Warsaw Community High School. He grew 10 inches in the next two years, into a 6-7 junior. But the rapid growth caused problems that threatened his chances to play high school basketball.
“I had a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “It really wasn’t the best situation for me. Playing college ball was one of my dreams and I didn’t want to give that up. It looked like things weren’t going to work out for me there.”
Plumlee’s parents began looking for a prep school that would give him a better chance to develop as a college prospect. They found Christ School in Arden, N.C., a small, academically-oriented boarding school located just south of Asheville.
“I knew I needed an extra year,” Plumlee said. “My Dad, he had a friend from college at that school and he took some business trips there. We took a visit and it ended up being a great situation and a great fit. We decided I would go there.”
The family also decided that Mason, a 6-7 high school freshman, would accompany his older brother to the North Carolina school.
“They thought it was good for Mason to come along even though he didn’t really want to go at that time,” Miles explained. “But I know he’s been enjoying it. I know he loves it now – they’re going for the third state championship in a row, so that will be fun.”
The youngest Plumlee brother, Marshall, is also attending Christ School. The oldest of the three Plumlee brothers isn’t quite sure why his parents gave all three boys first names starting with “M.”
“I guess they started that way and got on a roll,” he said. “I have a sister and her name is Madeline.”
Miles Plumlee found success on and off the court at Christ School.
He earned a place in the National Honor Society and graduated as Class of 2008 Salutatorian. And, along with his younger brother Mason, he helped the small private school to a 63-6 record and back-to-back state NCISAA championships. As a senior, he averaged 15.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots a game.
Yet, it took a while before Miles Plumlee emerged as a prospect.
“Going into my junior year, I didn’t have much attention,” he said. “That was my first year of playing AAU. The next summer, I finally got a few offers. There were a lot of mid-majors looking at me, along with some big time schools, but I really hadn’t gotten a ton of exposure.
“Stanford had always been a school I wanted to go to since I was little, so when they got interested, it made the decision pretty easy for me. I really loved the coach there and I thought it would be a great fit. It was really an easy decision for me at the time and I just wanted to get it over with.”
Miles Plumlee signed a national-letter-of-intent with Stanford in the fall of 2007 – just as Duke was starting to show interest in his younger brother. Miles was never on Coach K’s recruiting radar – although the two began to have informal contact as the Blue Devils began to pursue his younger brother.
“Once they got in it, Mason fell in love with Duke pretty quickly,” Miles said. “That’s what’s weird. I was just coming to enjoy the game and come on some of his visits. I made it to three games last year, but I never made an official visit or anything. But I got to see it.”
At that point, Miles Plumlee was still excited about attending Stanford and Duke was still focused on his brother. That was about to change.
The first pebble in the avalanche that would sweep Miles Plumlee across the country from Stanford to Duke dislodged last May, when Blue Devil athletic director Joe Alleva left Durham to become the new AD at LSU.
One of the first moves Alleva made in Baton Rouge was to fill his new school’s basketball coaching vacancy by luring Stanford head coach Trent Johnson to LSU.
That was the move that caused Plumlee to re-think his decision to attend Stanford.
“Once my coach left and the Lopez twins went pro, it wasn’t the same situation for me,” he said. “Coach Johnson meant a lot to me.”
Stanford would eventually hire long-time Duke associate head coach Johnny Dawkins to replace Johnson. But in the interim, the Plumlee’s had a hard time finding out what was happening in Palo Alto.
“I just wanted to open my recruitment again,” Miles said. “We got that – I don’t know what it was called – the release to talk to other schools.”
The first school to call was Duke.
“Since Mason had already committed, we had been in contact with Duke and Coach K,” Miles explained. “I had been improving all that time and I was more developed, so I think my stock had risen.”
“I got a call from my parents,” Miles said. “They said they had just talked to Coach K and he was coming up to see me play. Aside from Stanford, it didn’t matter what other schools talked to me. That was probably the only one I would have considered. As soon as it worked out, I became very interested. I got my full release and Coach K came and saw me. I talked to him that one time. I was pretty convinced that this was going to be a much better situation for me here at Duke. I thought we could really do big things here this year.”
Plumlee held off on his re-commitment until he talked to Coach Dawkins, but that didn’t change his mind.
“I think he understood,” he said. “I know Coach Dawkins is great and all, but it was more than the coaches. The opportunity to play with my brother was big for me.”
The Plumlee brothers have come a long way since their one-on-one games usually ended up in fisticuffs. After two years of playing together on championship teams at Christ School, Miles now enjoys being on the same team with Mason.
Obviously, Mason feels the same way.
“Coach K talked to Mason before [contacting] me,” Miles said. “It was up to Mason – he was here first, so he didn’t have to let me on the team ... well, you know what I mean. If it was awkward for him, Coach K didn’t want to bring me in. It meant a lot that [Mason] wanted to play with me. I wanted to play with him, because we’ve always done great together. That was a huge thing for me and getting to come to Duke and play for Coach K.”
Plumlee joined the rest of his new Duke teammates to watch Coach K coach the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Beijing. The team gathered for the 2:30 a.m. tipoff, watched the victory over Spain, then had breakfast together.
Watching the way Krzyzewski coached Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and the rest of the NBA stars in China, Plumlee could see elements of the Duke scheme that he was just starting to learn.
“There were a lot of similarities,” he said. “You could tell, it was a real effective offense and real intense defense. That’s a big part of the offense I think, just how hard they play defense and pressure the ball.”
Plumlee believes that his background will help him fit into K’s scheme.
“I’ve always been a perimeter player,” he said. “I’ve just gotten bigger. My main focus is playing and helping the team out. So this year, if my role is rebounding and playing defense and hitting inside shots, I’ll do that. But I’ve always worked on my ballhandling. I grew up as a point guard. I love dribbling, distributing the ball, shooting, driving to the rim – that kind of stuff. If that’s not what I need to do to play this year, I’m going to do whatever Coach needs.”
Plumlee has gotten significantly bigger over the summer. And his athleticism is not always recognized, associate head coach Chris Collins pointed out:
“Miles is a very underrated athlete. He finished second in the North Carolina prep high jump last year [clearing 6-9]. He can run the floor. He’s still growing into his body, but he added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.”
Plumlee is also fitting in on campus, although he said that between basketball and the academic demands he’s facing as a student at Pratt [Engineering] School, he doesn’t have a lot of free time. He didn’t even bring his unicycle with him to campus.
He shares a freshman suite with Czyz and freshman Elliot Williams.
“It’s been great so far,” he said. “I love Olek and Elliot ... we’ve become like best friends already. It’s been a great situation – not much turmoil at all. We’ve got all three of our beds in one room and we’ve got our lounge and the other room. We’ve got a nice setup.”
So it all worked out. From Warsaw to Arden to Stanford to Duke – Miles Plumlee has finally found a basketball home.