The Purveyor of Dunks: How will Miles Plumlee fit with the Perth Wildcats?
The Perth Wildcats made a rare mid-season splash on Wednesday, announcing the signing of former NBA big man Miles Plumlee. Usually a model of stability and continuity, the NBL’s most successful club saw the need for an upgrade and acted accordingly, cutting ties with import Dario Hunt to make room for Plumlee.
With 346 games of NBA experience across seven seasons, the 31 year old journeyman immediately becomes one of the NBL’s highest profile players. Most recently, he played seven games for the CBA’s Zheijang Lions, putting up 11.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Somewhat ironically, he only became available for Perth to sign when the Lions replaced him with New Zealand Breaker Corey Webster.
By all reports, Plumlee is a truly fascinating character, as detailed in a Sports Illustrated feature in 2018. He celebrated his 30th birthday at Burning Man, rides unicycles competitively, and calls himself the “Purveyor of Fun”. That alone could make him a worthwhile signing for the Wildcats and their fans.
But what about on the court? With Bryce Cotton, Nick Kay and Terrico White entrenched as the team’s stars, how will Plumlee fit alongside them?
How does Plumlee play?
Plumlee has never been a superstar, at least not since starting his college career at Duke in 2009. Most four-year college players drafted to the NBA are picked because they were dominant against NCAA competition. That wasn’t the case for Plumlee; he averaged 1.8 points per game in his freshman year, and his career-high mark of 6.6 points per game came in his senior year. It was a similar story in the NBA, where his best scoring season yielded 8.1 points per outing for the Phoenix Suns.
Those low scoring totals are, in part, due to a fairly limited offensive game. Across his whole NBA career, more than half of his field goal attempts (58.9%) came from within three feet of the basket, per Basketball Reference. That number spiked during his final two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, up to 65% in 2017/18 and 70.8% in 2018/19. That last number is from a very small sample size and in just 18 games, but it fits the trajectory of a veteran big becoming more and more accepting of his role.
Within his offensive niche, though, Plumlee should be a dangerous weapon. A supreme athlete with the strength to power through contact, he certainly looks the part of an elite pick-and-roll big man. His numbers as an NBA roll man don’t jump off the page, and neither do his percentages when shooting at the rim. Against NBL defences, that should be a different story; while he certainly won’t have his way on every trip into the paint, he should find life a little easier with less elite rim protectors present.
Speaking of rim protectors, Plumlee himself should immediately be one of the best in the NBL. He averaged 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes throughout his entire NBA career, and he twice swatted more than one shot per game for a season despite never playing big minutes. After being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 2012, coach Frank Vogel described him as “clearly the best dirty-work player in the draft”. Coming into one of the most physical leagues in the world, that reputation should serve him well, although he won’t have long to adjust to the differences in officiating that many imports struggle with.
How will he fit with the Wildcats?
Plumlee’s offensive game makes him a perfect late-season addition for any team, and particularly for a contender like the Wildcats. Coach Trevor Gleeson and his players would have their offensive sets well and truly established by this point of the season, with Cotton, White and Kay as the focal points. History shows that Plumlee won’t need or demand a high number of offensive touches, as he never took more than seven field goals per game during his NBA career. Even during his brief stint in China he shot the ball just 11.7 times per game, as per Basketball Reference, a mark considerably lower than Cotton and White this season and only just above Kay.
Stylistically, it will be interesting to see how Plumlee adapts to Gleeson’s measured offence and its heavy focus on Cotton. During his two most productive NBA seasons with Phoenix, they ran a fast-paced offence under Jeff Hornacek. In 2014/15, the Suns ranked seventh in the NBA for pace (96.83 possessions per game). That picked up even more the following year, as they were third in the league (97.2), per the NBA’s official stats. Compare that to this year’s Wildcats, who are dead last in the NBL by the same metric (75.5), per Spatial Jam. If nothing else, though, Plumlee will be a dynamic screener for Cotton and a big lob target at the rim, essentially slotting into the role vacated by Hunt.
That’s not where his impact will be needed most, though. Perth have been humming along nicely on the offensive end, tied with Melbourne United for second in offensive rating and scoring 119.7 points per 100 possessions. It’s their trademark defensive grit that has slipped slightly, if only from their usual high standard. They’ve been a middling team on that end of the floor this season, ranked fifth with a defensive rating of 117.
Plumlee represents an instant and immense upgrade over Hunt as a rim protector. That’s not meant as a slight to Hunt, who was serviceable off the bench. As mentioned above, Plumlee should be one of the best defensive bigs in the league from his first step on the court. Regardless of criticisms directed at the big man during his time in the NBA, he was always a rotation-level defender, and those types of players aren’t common in the NBL. He and Kay will form a rugged one-two punch on the interior, and opposing teams will have to be constantly on guard when rebounds are in the air.
The Wildcats and their fans have always had high expectations, and this season is no different. It’s championship or bust, especially now that Plumlee is on board. He only has seven regular season games to find his groove, but if the Purveyor of Fun can deliver another ring to the league’s winningest club, there’ll surely be a party to rival even Burning Man in the west.