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D Doesn't Stand for "Demotion"

by Mark Montieth |

November 26, 2012

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They could have been bitter, bored or beleaguered by the whole thing. Who wants to leave the lush life of the NBA, drive two hours and spend the weekend playing a couple of games with a Development League team before a high school-sized crowd?

Miles Plumlee and Orlando Johnson did, it turns out. The Pacers' two rookie draft picks drove to Fort Wayne to play two games for the Mad Ants over the weekend, were back at practice with their NBA team on Monday and will stay with it throughout their four-game road trip. They'll rejoin the Mad Ants for home games on occasion, and they'll do so without hesitation. Rather than view the experience as being demoted from the varsity to the JV squad, they see it as an opportunity to get extended playing time during a real game—an unlikely occurrence with the Pacers unless there's an injury.

Plumlee (drafted 26th) and Johnson (drafted 36th) both had mediocre games for the Mad Ants on Friday, when they were still learning the names of their new teammates, but played well on Sunday after having the benefit of one practice and a couple of game-day walkthroughs to get acclimated. Perhaps the most encouraging part of their experience, however, was their attitude toward games that other NBA players might have been ashamed to be seen in. That was evident from their enthusiastic recollection of the experience, as well as that of Mad Ants coach Duane Ticknor.

"Talk about two great young guys," Ticknor said. "They were fun to be around, they were coachable, they accepted criticism, they cared about winning and they cared about their teammates.

"It was a win-win. And that doesn't happen a lot of times."

That came as no surprise to Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "Those two guys have maybe the best rookie attitudes I've ever been around, honestly," he said. "They just want to learn and get better."

Plumlee and Johnson got significantly better between their first and second game over the weekend, once they got their bearings. Plumlee finished with five points on 2-of-9 shooting and 12 rebounds in Friday's loss to the Erie Bayhawks, while Johnson finished with 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting and nine rebounds. Sunday, against the Maine Red Claws, Johnson finished with 30 points and nine rebounds—both team highs—along with four steals and just one turnover in 43 1/2 minutes. Plumlee had 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting, seven rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes. (Former Butler guard Shelvin Mack had 22 points, six rebounds and six assists for the Red Claws.)

"We tried to learn the plays on Friday, but we didn't know what we were doing out there, so we tried to make it up on the fly," Johnson said. "Sunday we got in a comfort zone and that made it a lot easier."

Longtime Pacers scout Mel Daniels drove up to watch Sunday's game, and came away most impressed with Plumlee.

"He runs well, and he has a good feel on the (low-post) block," Daniels said. "His problem is that he thinks rather than reacts, so it causes him to seem a little slow and not be as explosive as he should be. I think those things will come in time. He needs to be shown how to be efficient in the interior, by using his body and using his legs to help him rebound."

Ticknor said Plumee gained energy and confidence from an impressive dunk over Maine's Fab Melo, Boston's first-round draft piock, midway through the second quarter of Sunday's game.

"His whole body language and attitude changed," Ticknor said. "It was like the light went on. I told him, that was the Miles that I remembered. I would have liked to see him get a few more rebounds above the rim and block a few more shots. At this level he should have been able to protect the rim better. He's got some things to work on, but that's what we're here for."

Ticknor said Johnson settled for jump shots in the first game, but was shown video clips of his possessions before Sunday's shootaround.

"He was like, Man, I've got to attack," Ticknor said. "He got a couple of easy buckets early in the game by attacking and then the jump shots started going."

Plumlee was born in Fort Wayne, and grew up in Warsaw. His parents still live there, but were in the Bahamas to watch younger brothers Mason and Marshall play for Duke over the weekend. Plumlee and Johnson spent the night at his parents' home on Saturday – "Plumleeville," Johnson called it.

The weekend not only gave them a chance to stretch their legs, it helped them broaden their perspective as well. They were treated well by the other Mad Ants players (which includes former Purdue center JaJuan Johnson) and they appreciated the opportunity to play, but they also were reminded how good it is to be an NBA player.

"It's a grind down there," Johnson said. "They're trying to make the most out of it, trying to get that call-up. And who knows? It's so rare that you do get that call-up from the D League. I definitely have a greater respect for those guys."

The Pacers haven't decided when to send their rookies back for more D League seasoning. Ticknor expects to have them for at least a couple more games before Christmas. If so, Plumlee and Johnson won't be complaining about it.

"Honestly, I loved it," Plumlee said. "I want to make the most of it if the opportunity comes again."

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