PORTLAND — Portland Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee has always had this in him but wasn’t able to show it.
During Plumlee’s first two pro seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, he took many by surprise. He became an impact player as a rookie after being taken late in the first round and the next summer, he made the USA Basketball team that won the 2015 FIBA World Cup.
His athleticism was the attribute that stood out, but one thing that was harder to see, something that Plumlee nurtured away from the cameras, was his desire to be a playmaker.
Pick-up games during the summer were the only laboratory for him to work on the more creative parts of his game.
That was, of course, until he was traded to Portland this summer.
Head coach Terry Stotts remembers seeing Plumlee take a rebound coast-to-coast and thinking to himself: “We’re going to be doing that this year.”
The process has had bumps in the road, especially early. But Plumlee has become a little more settled in making plays, turning the ball over just six times over the last five games.
It would be fewer had Plumlee not recorded three turnovers in Sunday’s win over the Lakers, though when asked about that stumble, he’s quick to point out that only one of them came while trying to make a pass.
“I caught a rebound out of bounds and I had a moving screen,” Plumlee said. “Really I only had one turnover, Dame (Damian Lillard) on a back door. I’ve always been very comfortable with the ball.”
Stotts has seen that comfort in Plumlee grow.
“I’ve told him, I don’t mind that he puts himself in that position, but along with that comes a responsibility of being a decision maker,” Stotts said. “What I’ve told him is, don’t try and make plays that aren’t there. Make solid decisions. And that’s part of the growth of a young player, being a decision maker.”
In the first two weeks of the season, Plumlee had games where he committed six, five, and four turnovers and was one of the team leaders in turnover percentage.
“Like anybody, whatever it is, maybe it’s seeing a play that’s not there and forcing a play that might be there,” Stotts said. “Getting caught with not knowing what to do. That’s part of it, being seven footer or 6-2, you have a lot of the same problems.”
Given the freedom to play with the ball unlike in Brooklyn, there were bound to be plenty of stumbles putting those skills into practice during games.
“There’s definitely a lot more opportunity here, that’s for sure,” Plumlee said.
But whether he wasn’t allowed to showcase his skills in Brooklyn or suffers some opportunity costs in his new found freedom, the confidence Plumlee has in his playmaking ability has never wavered.
“It’s never something I’ve ever questioned in high school, college and otherwise,” Plumlee said. “It’s kind of instinctual. It’s not something to think about. I didn’t need the reassurance of a game because that’s something I’ve always done. I play a lot of pick up and in pick up you can do whatever you want so I think that sustained it.”
While his previous team tried to mold him into something, Stotts and the Blazers staff is letting Plumlee be himself.
Before Sunday’s game, Plumlee had run off a streak of three straight games with double-doubles, something he’d only done once before in his career.
The mistakes have been minimized since the start of the season and Plumlee is playing free, evidenced by a no-look over the shoulder assist to CJ McCollum in Saturday’s win.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric, designed to measure overall on-court impact, rates Plumlee fifth overall among centers in the league and first on the Blazers.
After showing flashes in Brooklyn, Plumlee has not only been given the freedom to play the way he wants but has earned a consistent starting role for the first time in his career.
So far this season, but especially lately where the Blazers have won three out of four games, the arrangement has worked out well for both parties.
“It’s more opportunity, the flow, the way our offense is I get the ball a little bit more,” Plumlee said. “I get to see the floor and make plays.”