DURHAM, N.C. – Pete Newell’s big man camp is justly famous for polishing the games of young post players. How long before Perky Plumlee’s backyard camp is equally renowned?
The former Tennessee Tech standout has nurtured three towering sons into major college basketball prospects. The two oldest brothers will perform for the 2009-10 Duke Blue Devils ... the third is a high school junior who is already being recruited by almost every top program in the country.
“With my family – both parents played basketball – and where I grew up, it was easy to fall in love with basketball,” freshman Mason Plumlee said. “My earliest memories are playing at our grandparent’s house – me and Miles and my father.”
Mason is a year and a half younger than his oldest brother Miles. But the two oldest Plumlees started learning the game together and always battled head-to-head.
“I think we kind of developed at the same rate,” Miles Plumlee said. “I never felt like one of us fell behind. It was always great competition. As we got older, fights became so common that we never finished a game.”
Mason’s first organized basketball came in the basketball hotbed of Warsaw, Ind.
“When I was in the third grade, they let me be the manager of the grade school team.” he said. “You had to be in the fourth grade to be on the team.”
He was frustrated to watch his older brother get to play while he passed out towels and kept stats.
“I’m sure some other people saw me as Miles’ little brother, but I never gave Miles that,” Mason said. “We were so similar growing up. There was never a point where one was so much better than the other. When we played one-on-one, it would always go back and forth.”
Both players emerged as successful high school players – but neither played for Warsaw High School. Instead, the Plumlee brothers transferred to Christ School, an academically oriented boarding school in Arden, N.C., just outside Asheville.
“It was a tough decision – I didn’t come down here willing,” Mason said. “I just didn’t have any options. Me and Miles weren’t going to stay at home. This was a better fit.”
And despite his initial resistance to the move, the middle Plumlee brother ended up delighted with the way things turned out.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said.
Together Miles and Mason teamed to make Christ School one of the nation’s prep school powers. Miles, who was also a prep high-jump champion, was rated the No. 81 prospect in the prep class of 2008, according to the RSCI (which averages recruiting rankings). He plowed through a multitude of offers, before signing with Stanford in the fall of 2007.
Mason, who was rated even higher in the 2009 class – No. 18, according to the RSCI – also considered the Cardinal.
“My first big offer came after my freshman year in high school, when Kelvin Sampson offered me a scholarship to Indiana,” Mason said. “I was recruited by schools from the ACC, Big 10, Pac 10, Big East and SEC. When it came down to it, I narrowed the list in my mind to Georgetown, Duke and Stanford. I liked the coaches at all three schools. But I felt best about Duke. I couldn’t find anything I didn’t like about it.”
Well, there was one small thing. Mason had hoped to play college basketball with his older brother, but with Miles headed to Stanford and his own commitment to Duke, that appeared to be a lost opportunity.
Then everything changed at Stanford. Head coach Trent Johnson, who had signed Miles and just missed on Mason, left Palo Alto for LSU.
“I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Coach Johnson was going to LSU,” Mason said. “The first thing that popped in my mind was, ‘We can still play together.’”
Although Stanford eventually hired Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins to replace Johnson, the oldest Plumlee brother felt excluded during the coaching search. He was given his release – and wound up in Durham. In a very bizarre sequence of events, Mason first committed to Duke, while Miles first arrived in Durham and first played for the Blue Devils.
“It’s crazy how it worked out,” Mason said, adding, “There was never a question that we wanted to play together.”
The two young big men will get that chance this season. They’ll be competing, along with seniors Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas for playing time in the post. In fact, Duke has four players on the roster listed at 6-foot-10 or better. That doesn’t count 6-foot-8 junior Kyle Singler, who has started in the post each of the last two seasons.
“We have so many big guys, that we’ll always have two big guys on the floor at the same time,” Mason suggested. “I don’t look at it as dividing minutes. I think it means we’ll always have two fresh big guys in the game. Depth is a big asset at the position. We want to compete and push each other for minutes.”
Miles had an excellent opportunity to establish himself last season, when he actually began the year as Duke’s starting center. But his minutes diminished rapidly and by the end of the season, he was playing little.
“I had a lot of stuff to deal with, both on the court and in school,” he said. “It was kind of a downhill cycle. Once I lost confidence, it was hard to come back. I’m past that now. I’m a lot tougher and stronger.”
Miles ended up averaging 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds in an average of just under seven minutes a game. The numbers are not impressive, but assistant coach Chris Collins insisted that it was far from a wasted season for the young big man.
“It was a great learning year for him,” Collins said. “He has a ton of ability. He’s very athletic – he can run and he can jump. And he’s skilled.”
So is his younger brother Mason, who earned McDonald’s All-America honors as a prep senior.
“Mason has got a chance to be really, really good,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He has skills of a guard and the body of a big man, and a great basketball mind. He’s very competitive, he likes the stage, and he’s comfortable with the ball.”
A lot of Duke ears perked up during ESPN’s coverage of the dunk contest at the McDonald’s Game, when commentator (and former Duke star) Jason Williams related that Coach K had told him that Plumlee reminded him of former Blue Devil standout Christian Laettner.
Certainly Mason and Laettner are physically similar, but could Plumlee possess the same competitive edge that made Laettner such a great player?
“I’ve coached for many years and had a lot of fine players, and Mason is as competitive a kid as I've ever coached,” David Gaines, the coach at Christ School, said. “When he knows what his weaknesses are, or I point them out as his coach, he will work it to death. Mentally, whether it's a drill, 3-on-3 or 5-on-5, for three years he has just hated to lose. He is always working whatever angle, in a good way, to find a way to put his team on top. What that did for us, is it translated into three state championships. He is just a winner who will work his rear end off.”
Collins, who arrived at Duke one year after Laettner’s departure, doesn’t disparage the comparison.
“Mason is an incredibly talented young guy,” Collins said. “The one thing that we’ve always been impressed with about Mason is that he has an edge to his game. I think that’s what [Coach K] meant by his comparison to Christian. Not as much as players, but in terms of mentality. Christian had that mean edge that you need to be a great player and we believe Mason has that in him too.”
Mason doesn’t deny that he’s ultra-competitive.
“I realized that a lot of time winning comes down to who wants it more,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants it more than me. My high school team was made up of a great bunch of guys. But we just decided we were not going to lose.”
He considers himself an “inside/outside” big man, who should fit right into Krzyzewski’s system at Duke.
“I think I’m a mobile big guy,” he said. “I like to run the floor, rebound and play defense. I like to think I can also make things happen at the offensive end.”
He knows all about the other inside/outside big men that Krzyzewski has nurtured, especially Laettner and Danny Ferry.
“That was one of his main recruiting points,” Plumlee said. “He used both those names and some others. Objectively, I know my game and Duke’s style fits my game.”
Mason and Miles are both listed by Duke at 6-foot-10 – Miles at 240-pounds, Mason at 230-pounds. Privately, Mason claims to be a half-inch taller. He might be a little quicker, although the younger brother admits that Miles is the better jumper.
“In high school, Miles high-jumped 6-9 ... I only jumped 6-8,” he said. “He has some dunks I can’t do. I thought I was more explosive, but the other day [in a pickup game], he hurdled Zoubs [Zoubek] on the break and dunked – like the famous dunk of Vince Carter jumping over that guy. I can’t top that.”
Miles recalls the play.
“That was an unreal experience,” he said. “[Mason] threw an outlet to me at midcourt. Zoubs was right in front of me. I just jumped up ... I didn’t hit him. That was by far the craziest dunk I’ve ever had.”
But, overall, he insists that his younger brother is a better “trick dunk” artist. Mason finished second in the dunk contest at the McDonald’s Game, but he was leading and almost certainly would have won had he managed to pull off his most spectacular dunk – a play where he dunks three basketballs at the same time.
“When I didn’t do it, it felt like a letdown,” he said. “But I’ve done it before.”
Mason will get the chance to show off his skills for the Duke fans this season. He’ll also get the chance to build a better relationship with former prep rival Ryan Kelly – the star of the Ravenscroft team that Christ School beat in last year’s state title game.
“After we beat them in the state championship – we actually played them twice last season and beat them both times – we got together,” he said. “We’re getting to know each other.”