Gattison, West Guide Plumlee to Breakout Year
Already dripping sweat, Miles Plumlee once again establishes position in the low post. He extends his left hand well away from himself and his defender, who has made it clear that lazy demands for the ball will be met with deflections or, at the very least, annoying attempts at them.
The entry pass comes and Plumlee quickly takes stock of what he feels more than what he sees. Are his defender’s hands high or low on his back? Is he favoring the baseline or positioned higher to prevent a drive to the middle?
Decision made, the Suns’ big man takes one dribble toward the middle, reverse pivots back, and lofts a right-handed hook off the glass. It goes in this time.
Plumlee’s defender – Suns assistant coach Mark West – whips the ball back out to his “teammate”, fellow assistant coach Kenny Gattison. Time to go again.
When Jeff Hornacek began compiling his list of assistant coaches, he was intent on covering all the bases: experience, personality, ability to relate to players, one-on-one teaching, etc.
The rookie head coach knew he’d lend a more personal touch to his guard rotation, having played both backcourt positions himself in the 1980s and 90s. That left the bigs, headlined by Markieff Morris and (acquired later that summer) Alex Len and Miles Plumlee. Their development would be key to both the Suns’ present and future.
In the end, Hornacek went with Gattison and West. Their experience in basketball made them trustworthy on a professional level. Their well-regarded time as big men teammates in Hornacek’s playing days with the Suns didn’t hurt either.
“The experience of playing in the league and knowing all the little things that can help a young player, I thought those two guys would fit perfectly,” Hornacek said.
The “little things” came from big lessons, learned while guarding the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.
It helps that they are willing to divulge the tricks of their trade. Even when West had an office and job (Vice President of Player Programs) on the fourth floor, Hornacek knew he would make frequent visits to the practice court on level zero and do some one-on-one teaching with the Suns’ big men.
Gattison had used a more formal outlet, serving as an assistant coach for the Nets, Hornets, Hawks and even Old Dominion University. In that time he tutored the likes of Chris Gatling, P.J. Brown, David West and Tyson Chandler.
Hornacek has West and Gattison participate equally with the other assistant coaches – Mike Longabardi and Mike Longabardi – when it comes to generic team preparation. The two of them, however, have first dibs and responsibilities when it comes to the Suns’ frontcourt players.
“They’re in charge of those bigs,” Hornacek said. “I think the [players] enjoy working with them, the way they handle them, the way they teach them. They’ve been great.”
Their effectiveness as teachers is magnified as a tag-team. Hornacek admits they form a “good cop, bad cop” duo capable of connecting with any player on any level or tone.
“Kenny’s probably more likely to get after them a little bit more in terms of saying something to them,” Hornacek said. “Mark’s very fatherly with them. It’s a good combination.”
Plumlee could rebound. He could block shots. He could roll to the rim after setting screens.
That was about all Hornacek planned on getting from his newly acquired center, at least at first.
But Plumlee kept coming into the gym. He kept Gattison and West busy, going through workouts that included post moves, counter moves and face-up options.
He’d follow by practicing the actual shots to finish those moves: jump hooks from the strong hand, sweeping hooks with the off-hand, reverse layups to avoid the shot-blocker.
“He worked his butt off during the offseason,” Hornacek said.
Mental application had to accompany the physical exertion. Plumlee was being taught to use his 6-11, 255-pound frame by thinking first and fast rather than acting fast and furiously.
“Top-to-bottom, going through my moves, my footwork, understanding my move,” Plumlee said. “A lot of it is mentally, like what you’re looking for, what you’re supposed to feel [from the defender]… It’s getting a feel for that and finding your pace and knowing what moves work for you and what your advantages are against different guys.”
Again, West and Gattison’s different points of view came in handy. The former was a 6-10 banger who used his size to out-muscle opponents. The latter was a 6-8 forward who was often forced to fill in at center.
Plumlee hears the differences in their respective strings of advice, then goes out and applies whatever serves him best in a particular matchup.
“I can definitely tell Mark was a true low-post guy,” Plumlee said. “I like a lot of Kenny’s stuff too, ‘cause he was at more of a disadvantage because of the height he was giving up at center. Really, it’s nice because they’ve got all the bases covered. Mark’s stuff works more when I have an advantage on someone with my size and Kenny’s stuff works more when you’re going against a true center, someone who’s a little bigger and heavier than me.”
Stories of the “good old days” are all too common in the teacher-pupil relationship, and West and Gattison have countless at their disposal. Sometimes they accompany a lesson. Other times it’s simply shooting the breeze.
Either way, Plumlee takes it all in.
“I enjoy it. They don’t talk my ear off. I want to hear it,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of great stories. You learn a lot from that stuff too.”
Even when they’re about players from a quarter century ago?
“Yeah,” the 25-year-old laughs. “Sometimes I don’t know them all, though.”
The forearm Plumlee feels on his back doesn’t belong to a well-meaning assistant coach. It is sharp, extending from the wiry-but-strong frame of Chicago’s Joakim Noah.
The Bulls center is a renowned defensive specialist that has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in their primes.
Plumlee isn’t thinking about that. His thought process is the same as if he were back on the practice court: feel the defender, decide, go.
The lefty jump hook, shot after pivoting back toward the baseline, forces casual Bulls fans to glance through their game program as they try to recall who No. 22 is.
Closer NBA followers don’t need the reminder. They know he is shooting 52 percent from the field, ranks eighth in the league in blocks and 17th in rebounding.
Yet it’s the offense that remains the surprise, even 30-plus games into the season. Hornacek still laughs about it, even as he admits Plumlee has become a viable low-post option for this team.
“We’re very confident throwing the ball in the post to him,” he said. “He’s got a quick move. He’s strong, so if he gets bumped he doesn’t fall out of position. He’s turned into a great player for us.”
Both Hornacek and Plumlee credit the West-Gattison duo for the transformation. But are two assistant coaches who based their NBA days on scrapping more than scoring really capable of teaching this much when it comes to offense?
“I think there’s a lot to be said that Mark and Kenny have guarded some of the best scorers of NBA history in the Olajuwons and those guys,” Hornacek said. “As a defensive player, you can learn a lot offensively by what you do defensively on guys…I think they can reverse it.”
They can, and what’s more, they have, to the point where Plumlee has reversed his own fortunes in the process. After playing 55 minutes total last season, he has become the Suns’ most reliable big man while averaging mere tenths of stats under a double-double in points and rebounds.
More importantly, the lessons he has learned are becoming more a matter of habit every day.
“I feel now that he’s just taking what the defense is giving him and making his moves from there rather than predetermining what he’s doing,” Hornacek said. “That’s a credit to him and the effort he’s putting in day in and day out.”