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Mason Plumlee is the Passing Big Man the Hornets Needed

by Sam Perley

If the NBA has taught us anything recently, it’s that versatility and adaptability continue to breed success. The best teams and the ones playing regularly into May and June have handfuls of players who can do some of everything – shoot, score, rebound, pass, handle the ball, defend multiple positions, switch and function in a half-court or transition setting.

The Charlotte Hornets have their sights set on eventually becoming one of those teams that produces sustained yearly success. Enter soon-to-be ninth-year veteran center Mason Plumlee, who landed in Charlotte along with Auburn forward JT Thor as part of a draft-night agreement with the Detroit Pistons in exchange for the rights to another rookie in Florida State center Balša Koprivica.  

Plumlee averaged career highs in scoring (10.4 points), rebounding (9.3) and assists (3.6), while shooting 61.4% across 56 starts during his lone season in the Motor City. Charlotte was staring at a huge vacancy at the five position this summer with incumbents Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo both on expiring contracts. So, with Plumlee available plus moving up 20 spots in the draft, the Hornets jumped at the opportunity to add a player who should be a fantastic fit. 

“I’ve been a big fan of [Mason’s] for a while,” said Hornets Head Coach James Borrego. “His skill set fits what we’re trying to do here. He’s a willing passer, a smart player, can rebound at a high level. His playmaking ability – he can handle at the top of the floor, at the elbow. The more playmakers we have on the floor, the better. Adding that out of the five position with Mason is going to be tremendous for our group.” 

Emphasis on the aforementioned term ‘playmaking’. The 6-11 Plumlee is a massive boost to the passing department and somebody who can collapse defenses before quickly and creatively hitting open shooters. He finished seventh amongst centers in assists last season trailing only 2021 NBA MVP and former Denver teammate Nikola Jokić, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle, Bam Adebayo, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Vučević, all of whom have been NBA All-Stars.

“I can help guys,” stated Plumlee, who also created the ninth-most points off screen assists (10.4) in the NBA last season. “My goal is always to make the game easier for the next guy and you appreciate that being a part of a team. I’ve always been ball friendly, had a good feel for passing, setting guys up. I’ve been fortunate to play with great guards my whole career, so looking forward to that. That’s really my approach.”

The pass-happy, ball-sharing Hornets ranked first in the NBA in assist percentage last year (67.2%), fourth in both passes (304.8) and potential assists (49.3) and then third in points off assists created (70.1). By utilizing this style of offense, it’s vital that all five players on the court – including the center – can push the pace and facilitate the basketball when needed. 

“When we played Charlotte, they were really physical on defense and they flew the ball up the floor,” recalled Plumlee. “They advanced it with the pass as well as anybody we played against and they really moved the ball well in the half-court, too. I was just so impressed with how quick [LaMelo Ball] got the ball up the floor and not always with the dribble.” 

He added, “To me, just that pace is something where it fits me as a player. I’d like to be a big in that up-tempo game, so it’s something that I look forward to. I was really excited about the [trade]. I think my skillset will fit in well. It’s a really well-coached team. It seems like there’s a lot of smart players and that always makes the game easier.”

One of the Hornets’ most glaring holes last season was finishing at the rim as the team registered the third-lowest restricted area field-goal percentage (60.3%) on the seventh-most attempts (28.9). Plumlee converted 76.5% of his shots from this zone (189-of-247), good for the NBA’s fourth-best efficiency amongst the 97 players with at least 200 such attempts behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeAndre Jordan and Michael Porter Jr.

Charlotte also finished ninth in offensive rebounding percentage last season (27.6%), with Zeller (2.5) and Biyombo (2.1) both accounting for 2.0+ offensive boards per contest. However, the squad was just 20th in second-chance scoring (12.7 points) despite the higher-than-average amount of extra opportunities. Perhaps now with Plumlee’s repertoire in the fold, the Hornets can start converting more of these particular takes into makes. 

In total, Plumlee has appeared in 60 career playoff games with Brooklyn, Portland and Denver, reaching as far as the 2020 Western Conference Finals. Only Terry Rozier (50) and Gordon Hayward (29) are anywhere close to matching the Indiana native’s postseason experience. “[Plumlee’s] won in this league, he fits our program. He fits our culture. I love his leadership qualities, his winning qualities, the DNA he brings with him here,” stated Borrego.

At 31 years old, Plumlee might not necessarily be the team’s long-term starting center of the future, but he is the center of the now and a pretty seamless fit into the current core. The young Hornets will look to keep running and sharing the basketball a lot this season, so expect their new selfless big man to be right in the middle of it all. 

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