DURHAM, N.C. -- The incalculable value of an active seven-footer was on full display to the college basketball world in the first half of Duke’s most watched home game last winter.
With top-ranked Syracuse visiting Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time, with over four million television viewers tuned in for the rematch of an epic overtime spectacle, Duke center Marshall Plumlee found the Orange in the palm of his hand for 15 minutes and squeezed.
He took a pass in the low post, shot-faked into one dribble and scored off the glass. He charged into the lane unobstructed on a teammate’s missed three-pointer, collected the rebound off the rim and slammed it through with two hands. With the shot clock winding down, he received the ball on the elbow and, as the defense converged, quickly rifled it to the corner, where Rodney Hood drained a three just before the buzzer.
When Syracuse’s Jerami Grant drove into the paint guarded by Amile Jefferson, Plumlee nimbly blocked Grant’s shot from the side and kept the ball in play for the Blue Devils. When Grant came barreling back inside a few minutes later intent on throwing down a one-handed momentum dunk, Plumlee rose to the challenge and forced Grant to jam the ball off the iron, without fouling him.
When the half ended, Plumlee had connected on both his field goal attempts, grabbed five rebounds and blocked three shots in 15 minutes. The Blue Devils had trailed 17-8 early but had rallied for a 26-26 tie by intermission, and Plumlee was one of the significant factors. Duke went on to a narrow victory behind a 19-10 double-double from Jabari Parker and a controversial defensive stop by Hood, but Plumlee’s contribution to the cause could not be discounted.
That wasn’t Plumlee’s only productive outing last season — he was the lone bright spot in the loss at UNC and he earned double-figure minutes against 11 ACC foes — but in big-picture terms it was one tantalizing snapshot of where he hopes he’s headed for his final two seasons with the Blue Devils.
“This was a tremendous learning year,” said Plumlee, who played over 300 minutes as a sophomore after logging just 50 as a redshirt freshman in 2013. “I feel I have a lot to reference and get better from, whereas past years there wasn’t as much of a body of work to look at and evaluate. This past year there is plenty of footage I can look at and reference to make myself a better player.”
And make no mistake, Plumlee views this summer as the primary breeding ground for that better player. After suffering a preseason broken foot heading into 2013 and dealing with his recovery from foot surgery heading into 2014, Plumlee finally has a summer to invest in his basketball development — and he’s keen on optimizing the opportunity. Not just with pickup games and Duke’s extensive offseason strength and conditioning cornerstone, but through film study and personal tutelage from two guys who know him well — his older NBA brothers Mason and Miles.
“Part of trying to get as much as I can out of this summer is taking advantage of Miles and Mason,” said Marshall. “I took some time to visit Miles in Phoenix and we worked out together. He was teaching me all the things he’s known and all the things he wishes he would have known when he was a player at Duke. And I have plans moving forward to go up to New York and visit with Mason and repeat that process. They are a wealth of knowledge that I feel I should take advantage of, because I can’t think of anyone else who could relate more to what I’m going through than my brothers, who arguably are similar type players.”
Miles, who graduated from Duke in 2012, enjoyed a breakthrough campaign as a starter for the Suns this past season, while Mason, a 2013 grad, earned NBA all-rookie honors with the Nets. Both saw gradual, incremental improvement across their four years at Duke, culminating with first-round NBA draft selections. Their direction and inspiration could figure prominently in Marshall’s efforts to follow a similar career trajectory.
Two of Marshall’s objectives this summer are to have a ball in his hand on a daily basis for some sort of basketball-related activity, and to study as many great players as he can on film. Duke video director Kevin Cullen has assembled numerous highlight tapes for Marshall’s viewing pleasure, including some that resonate close to home.
“What’s really helped me is watching my brother Mason and his season with the Nets,” Marshall noted. “We’ve gathered some footage on him, some of his better games this past year, and some of the things he’s going through in the NBA right now are comparable to what I’m going through at this point in my college career — finding that niche, finding the way you can help your team the most, even if it’s not something you are accustomed to doing. I’ve really admired his energy and his work ethic and his fire out there on the court, and how that managed to boost him up to first team all-rookie, a successful season and the start to a successful career.”
While Marshall’s college basketball career may be on the verge of turning a corner, his academic career is shifting into overdrive. During his final two years of eligibility, he has designs on picking up his bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree while also completing the U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. Plumlee enlisted in ROTC during his redshirt freshman season, took a break from it last year and plans to finish the remaining requirements over the next two years in hopes of being commissioned as an Army officer.
Long interested in the military, Plumlee’s passion got a spike in high school when he visited an Army base in Manheim, Germany to compete in the Albert Schweitzer International Youth Basketball Tournament. That’s where he first met the inspirational Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, one of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s former players at Army. The summer after his true freshman year at Duke, Plumlee and former Blue Devil basketball operations director Pat Thompson, an ROTC product, drove Plumlee’s old family minivan down to Fort Benning, Georgia for another visit with Lt. Gen. Brown and an overview of options for military service. After that trip he signed on with the Duke ROTC program.
“It’s definitely a big time commitment, but that’s part of what makes it so special — sacrificing a little bit to become a better person and have that discipline in my life,” Plumlee said. “It takes flexibility on both sides, the basketball side and the Army side, and I’m just happy that I have Coach K, someone who is so familiar with the military. That enables me to do both and really let my basketball complement my Army experience and my Army experience complement my basketball.
“The classes are great, and I feel the more I learn in the classroom and through field training exercises with the Army, the more I understand the things Coach K does. It’s becoming more and more apparent to me how much of his own personal military experience he applies to his daily routine and how much it influences his style of leadership and why he’s been so successful.” “It’s something that requires incredible discipline and structure, it provides toughness, and most importantly it’s something he wants to do,” associate coach Jeff Capel said of Plumlee’s ROTC track. “When these kids get to college they should have input and choose what they want to study. That’s the freedom we give our guys, and it can be very positive. It’s something Marshall is very interested in and has a passion for, and I find nothing but positives in that.”
Plumlee will spend a sizeable portion of next summer at Fort Knox in Kentucky immersed in ROTC’s rigorous centerpiece of training known as LDAC — the Leader Development and Assessment Course. But that’s still a year away; the focus this summer is on setting the foundation for the basketball season ahead, both individually and collectively. Given that Plumlee has been on three Duke rosters with no ACC titles and early NCAA losses to Lehigh and Mercer, the task at hand is serious business.
“It’s the ultimate motivator — you came here to win, you want to win, we’re going to do whatever we can to win,” he said. “There’s a sense of urgency. The clock’s ticking. Quinn Cook and I don’t have that much more time here. And I want to have a legacy at Duke and have something I’m extremely proud of. Looking back on last year, that’s a reminder that’s always in my head that let’s me know it can be gone in an instant and we’ve got to take advantage while we’re here.
“We’re always moving forward,” he added. “I’m thrilled in terms of our talent and attitude. I feel like we have a lot of like-minded people who just want to win. We can really encourage one another and bring out the best in one another. I think it goes without saying that the incoming freshman class is very talented. We have talented people here as it is and putting that all together, I’m excited to see what happens. I know Coach K has a great plan for us and if we try our best to listen to him and follow his lead, we have the potential to be a great team.”
Late in the first half of last year’s Syracuse game, one of the Cameron Crazies held up a Big Head cutout of Plumlee’s face with the Syracuse mascot affixed to the side of his mouth, celebrating the emphatic manner in which the young Duke center had taken a bite out of the Orange. Plumlee was unable to replicate his deeds in the second half, relegated to the bench with leg cramps. But the Blue Devils’ potential for greatness next season rises sharply if he can put the squeeze on more opposing inside attacks.
“To be honest with you, looking back on that game, I can’t tell you how many points he had,” Capel noted. “But I can tell you unequivocally that he impacted the game in such a positive way. That’s what we need him to do. Our guys can’t get caught up in external things or what people are saying or how other people view success. It has to be all about what we think and how you impact winning. We have to be, as a group, consumed with winning and every guy on our team should be thinking about that. How can I impact winning? How can I help our team, and this group I’m on the floor with right now, get better?
“That Syracuse game is a perfect example of that, because when Marshall got in he was consumed with that and our team got a lift. Our team got a jolt. With him being able to work this summer, hopefully it puts him in position conditioning-wise where he can do that for longer periods of time next year.”