MINNEAPOLIS – Before the season started, when Trail Blazers players were asked to describe their teammates, Damian Lillard offered this about Mason Plumlee:
“To me, Mase’s his personality is like a servant,’’ Lillard said. “He’s the kind of guy who likes to go out of his way for other people.’’
Lillard said during games, the Blazers center was like many teammates in that he would often approach him with suggestions about plays. Only with Plumlee, the suggestions were rarely involving getting him the ball.
“He is always coming to me saying, ‘Let’s try this for AC (Allen Crabbe)’ … or ‘When CJ is here, let’s do this for him’,’’ Lillard said. “He’s always trying to do stuff for other people, he’s always concerned about other people. Like, almost every time he comes to me, it’s about somebody else.’’
With that mindset of helping others, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Plumlee is not only leading all NBA centers in assists this season, but is on pace to have one of the most prolific passing seasons the league has seen over the past 20 years.
Heading into Sunday’s game at Minnesota (4 p.m., CSN), Plumlee has 148 assists and if he maintains his 4.2 assists per game average, he will finish with 345, which would be the third most among big men in the past 20 seasons, behind Vlade Divac (432 in 2003-2004) and Joakim Noah (431 in 2013-2014).
Plumlee said his helping approach has been engrained in him from a young age.
“I’ve met people at every level – high school, college, pros – who I’ve admired who had an attitude of getting outside yourself and helping others,’’ Plumlee said. “I think it’s a good way – a pure way – to play. And at the end of the day, it ends up helping yourself, because now people want to talk about my passing. And if multiple people on the team start doing it, it can be a really good thing.’’
The funny thing is, when Plumlee came to Portland in a trade from Brooklyn, there was little to suggest he could be such a gifted passer. In two seasons with the Nets, he never eclipsed an average of one assist per game.
But when he arrived in Portland for off-season workouts, coach Terry Stotts observed the 6-foot-11 big man bringing the ball up the court and threading nifty passes to his teammates.
“You could just see he was very comfortable in those situations,’’ Stotts recalled.
Last season, Stotts started implementing Plumlee more and more into the offense as a facilitator in the team’s “Motion Down” sets, which gets the ball to Plumlee near the free throw line and starts a chain reaction of cuts and screens.
Soon, back-door plays from Plumlee to Lillard, and bounce passes to CJ McCollum for short-range floaters, became common place. Plumlee ended up with a career-high 226 assists, third most in the NBA for big men behind Pau Gasol (294) and Al Horford (263).
“If you ask any player in the NBA, they want the ball in their hands more,’’ Plumlee said. “And (Stotts) put me in good positions last year and this year to make decisions, and I’m grateful for that. You know, people ask: ‘You didn’t have assist numbers in Brooklyn’ … but I always felt like I could pass the ball.’’
This season, the Blazers offense is running through Plumlee even more, and the results have been emphatic. Plumlee is on pace to become just the third Blazers big man to ever eclipse 300 assists in a season (Mychal Thompson did it three times in the early 1980s and Tom Owens did in 1978-1979) and Portland is a top 10 offensive rated team.
Plumlee says he knew he could always pass, but was never blessed to be in a system that placed an emphasis on a big man facilitating.
“I wouldn’t have numbers passing like this, but I’ve always liked passing the ball,’’ he said. “To me, It’s a fun way to play. It’s hard to guard a passer. As you look at guys like LeBron, as dominant as he is, he’s even harder to guard because he’s such a good passer. You can commit two guys to a scorer, but if you can find the open guy or make good decisions, it makes it a big part of the offense.’’
Stotts downplays the credit Plumlee gives him for putting the ball in his hands more, and says the credit should go to Plumlee for accepting the responsibility that comes with having the ball.
“It was as much about him embracing that and how much he could facilitate our offense and be a part of the offense without him scoring more or catching on block,’’ Stotts said. “Over course of last season he embraced that role and realized not only how good he was at it but how important he could be for us.’’
The next step, Plumlee says, is to broaden his game even further. He says he wants to have more of a presence inside on offense and defense, pointing to the team’s poor rebounding effort Friday against San Antonio as an example, as well as becoming more of a factor in drawing fouls to help the team get in the bonus earlier.
Again, the servant in him coming out: thinking about the team more than himself.