Miles Plumlee dunking with Mad Ants and Indiana Pacers
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Plumlee Loving Dual Role

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

December 18, 2012

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Anyone eager for an extended look at first-round draft pick Miles Plumlee has but one good option these days: drive to Fort Wayne and catch one of his drive-through appearances with the Mad Ants of the NBA Development League.

He'll still practice and travel with the Pacers, the team that drafted him in the first round last June, but coach Frank Vogel frankly acknowledges he's not likely to see significant game action anytime this season. He's currently regarded as a center, and is stuck behind Roy Hibbert, Ian Manhimi and Jeff Pendergraph on the depth chart.

That shouldn't be taken as an insult to the braintrust that drafted Plumlee with the 26th pick earlier this year, or to Plumlee, or, by the way, to Pendergraph, who continues to impress Vogel. It merely reflects the fact the Pacers are a winning team stocked with proven veterans. Mid-to-low first-round draft picks aren't supposed to get immediate playing time with good teams unless injuries create holes in the rotation, so the fact Plumlee isn't playing as often as Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough played as rookies says more about the team than it does the players.

“A few years back our rookies were playing 30, 40 minutes a game,” Vogel said, exaggerating the point for emphasis. “Now they're sort of buried on the bench. That's a good thing as far as where we are as a franchise.”

It's a good thing for Plumlee, too. A rare thing, in fact. He was still coming off the bench his junior year at Warsaw High School, and at Duke he never averaged more than the 20 minutes a game he got last year as a senior. It was only in his two seasons at Christ School in North Carolina that he played heavy minutes, so to descend on the Mad Ants now and then and play long enough to actually get tired qualifies as a refreshing change of pace.

Friday, against the Maine Red Claws, he finished with 10 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks and five turnovers in 35 minutes. Saturday, against the Springfield Armor, he followed up with 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting, 10 rebounds, two blocks and a turnover in 42 minutes.

Consider that he's played a not-so-grand total of 16 minutes in four appearances this season with the Pacers, scoring four points, and it's no wonder he looks forward to evenings in Fort Wayne. Confidence can't be faked, it has to be earned through results.

“Getting a limited run in practice isn't enough to really feel like it's part of your game,” he said. “When you go (to Fort Wayne) and there's refs and you're playing against live competition, you can incorporate a lot more. I've been working on my jump shot. When I knock one down there it's worth 500 jumpers in the gym.”

Plumlee wasn't Fort Wayne's only rookie import over the weekend. Detroit assigned its second-round draft picks, Kim English and Khris Middleton, to the Mad Ants over the weekend. Those three, along with former Purdue center and Boston Celtics first-round pick JaJuan Johnson, now a free agent, gave the Ants four current or former NBA players in the starting lineup. It wreaks havoc with team chemistry, not to mention winning, (the Mad Ants are 3-7), but there's a reason it's called the Development League and not the Win-At-All-Costs League.

It amounts to a double life for Plumlee, but a good one. He gets NBA paychecks, but D League box scores. He gets to improve his skills by practicing against NBA players, but gets to show his skills by playing games against D Leaguers. He'll still get plenty of luxury road trips replete with charter flights and five-star hotels, but also get reminders of grassroots basketball. He'll be humbled by Pacers practices, and have his confidence boosted by Mad Ants games. Best of all, he's wanted in both places.

“It's fun,” he said. “I've got a great group of guys in Fort Wayne and obviously I love the group here. It's actually fun to split time and get minutes in and come here and get better.”

The nature of his parallel universe was typified by the two press releases the Pacers sent out on Monday. They announced he had been recalled from Fort Wayne at 12:24 p.m. and announced he had been assigned to Fort Wayne at 3:33 p.m., thus fulfilling the NBA's requirements for transactions.

He practiced with the Pacers on the main floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, finishing at about 2 p.m. He then headed for the practice gym to continue working out, while his teammates headed to the locker room to prepare for the flight to Milwaukee for Tuesday's game against the Bucks. He shot with the help of a rebounding assistant, making 300 shots, and then worked on ballhandling. He planned to drive to Warsaw later in the day to spend the night at his parents' home, and then head to Fort Wayne on Wednesday in time for the morning shootaround to prepare for that evening's game against Canton.

It's also a good arrangement for his parents, who get to drive 35 minutes to watch him play in Fort Wayne, rather than drive two hours to watch him not play in Indianapolis.

It's a wonder some of the Mad Ants players don't wrap their arms around his ankles and beg him to take them with him back to Indianapolis as he leaves the locker room after games, so great is the passion to make the jump from the D League to “The League.” They settle for peppering him with questions about what it's like in what for most is the mythical land of Oz.

“It's a hard-nosed league,” he said. “Everybody is fighting for a job. They're definitely interested in what separates one level from the next, and a lot of time it's not very much.”

Vogel is confident Plumlee's ultimate job will be in the NBA, based on what he's seen in practice. That time is likely to come later rather than sooner, however.

“He's getting it done here, too,” Vogel said. “But he still makes rookie mistakes. That's probably the deciding factor why he wouldn't supplant one of our veterans. When you're dealing with rookies, you have X factors. For each good play there's usually a rookie mistake that can negate it, as well as the amount of respect officials show young players. It would have to be overwhelming what he's doing in practice to supplant one of the other guys.”

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