Denver Nuggets’ Friday Film Study: Mason Plumlee’s passing

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

When the Denver Nuggets traded for Mason Plumlee shortly before the 2017 NBA trade deadline, they successfully achieved their vision of 48 minutes of elite playmaking from the center position. While Nikola Jokić was in the midst of establishing himself as a premium offensive player and one of the best passers in the league, Plumlee was also creating a reputation for himself as a center that could be a primary creator in an offense.

At the time of the trade, Plumlee was averaging four assists per game for the Portland Trail Blazers. Given Denver’s unique style of play, the Nuggets were focused on obtaining a player that would allow them to play the same way for all four quarters, regardless of personnel.

Even though, on the surface, Plumlee’s assist numbers have dropped (2.5 per game in Denver compared to 3.2 per game in Portland), that can mainly be attributed to his smaller role as a backup behind Jokić. Plumlee’s assists per-36 minutes is nearly identical (4.3 with the Nuggets, 4.4 with the Trail Blazers), and his assist percentage isn’t too far behind (17 percent compared to 18.4 percent).

Plumlee enjoyed his best passing season with the Nuggets in 2018-19, as he averaged three assists per game (5.1 per-36 minutes). Plumlee’s career-high for a season is 3.5 assists per game back in the 2016-17 campaign, while the 5.1 assists per-36 minutes he recorded last season tied his previous career-high. Not only did Plumlee finish fourth on the Nuggets in assists per game, he was also one of only nine centers to average at least three assists per game.

The 29-year-old center posted a 19.7 assist percentage last season, which fell just short of his career-high of 19.8 percent back in, you guessed it, 2016-17. Plumlee’s elite assist percentage ranked in the 94th percentile in the 2018-19 season, which continued a trend he has developed throughout his career. Plumlee’s assist percentage has placed him in the 87th percentile or higher every year since the 2014-15 season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

While Plumlee doesn’t always showcase the touch and precision that Jokić does, he is more than capable of making the two most important passes in Denver’s offense: finding cutters and open shooters. Given that the Nuggets’ offense mainly revolves around playmaking from the center position, guards and wings are encouraged to cut towards the rim or make themselves open on the perimeter.

As seen in the below video, Plumlee can find cutters in a variety of ways after receiving the ball in the post or near the top of the key. Plumlee shows that he isn’t afraid to thread-the-needle with these passes and uses just the right amount of touch and bounce to lead to an open layup or dunk.

With how much the Nuggets emphasize dribble hand-offs involving their centers, being able to scan the court, find a cutter and deliver an on-time and accurate pass that leads a teammate to the rim is of the utmost importance, and Plumlee does an admirable job in that regard.

However, finding cutters isn’t the only playmaking ability that is needed in Denver’s offense. Given the number of quality shooters in the rotation, finding open shooters in a variety of situations is crucial.

Plumlee has shown that he can find a shooter when he is operating as the roll-man or when he is simply backing down in the post. However, seeing an open shooter is only the first part of the equation. It is then on Plumlee to deliver a quick and accurate pass in the shooter’s pocket that allows him to go up for the shot right away. As seen in the below video, Plumlee can make those passes on a consistent basis.

While some of those passes were relatively routine, Plumlee showed that he can make difficult passes to shooters in traffic, with multiple defenders around him.

Of course, it wouldn’t be true Denver Nuggets fashion without some flashy, highlight-worthy passes, and Plumlee certainly has some of those in his arsenal. In the play below, Plumlee and Jokić go back-and-forth around the rim, before Plumlee dishes an over-the-head, no-look pass to Jokić for the easy basket.

In the next play, Plumlee grabs an offensive rebound and dishes a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to a cutting Trey Lyles, which leads to an and-one.

In the 2019-20 season, Plumlee can expect to have even more room to operate and create for others. With the addition of Jerami Grant and the expected role that Michael Porter Jr. will play in the rotation, Plumlee will have even more floor-spacing around him.

Grant connected on over 39 percent of his 3-pointers last season, which represents a significant increase compared to Trey Lyles (25.5 percent), while Porter Jr. projects to be an above-average 3-point shooter. Combine those two forwards with Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, who both shot over 40 percent from deep last season, and you get a bench unit that has plenty of floor-spacing and athleticism on it.

Over the course of an 82-game regular season, Plumlee is certainly one of the best backup centers in the league. However, given his unique skill set and playmaking ability, Plumlee provides additional value for a Nuggets squad that is looking to go farther in the playoffs during the upcoming 2019-20 season.

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