With Kelly, Duke was 15-0, with three victories over Top 5 teams. They were the No. 1 team in the country and the clear cut favorite to cut the nets down in Atlanta. What many forget is that team wasn’t comprised of only Kelly.
At that time another Blue Devil was garnering far more attention. Mason Plumlee was seen as the best player in the ACC and not only that, but he was seen as THE best player in the country. And it was hard to argue with the facts. Plumlee was averaging a double-double, scoring nearly 20 points per game and grabbing 11 to 12 rebounds.
He appeared to come out of the gates this season ready to finally live up to the hype that has surrounded him for three years. He for all intents and purposes had became a dominant big man, something Duke hadn’t had in a very long time. Then Ryan Kelly got hurt.
There was the expectation that Plumlee would have a tougher time without the versatile Kelly there to take pressure off the Blue Devils big man. Kelly could stretch the court forcing opposing big men to guard him out on the perimeter and leave Plumlee with only one guy to play against.
It also opened the floor for guards like Quinn Cook and Seth Curry to penetrate and that occasionally forced Plumlee’s man to leave him to help and left Plumlee unguarded. The results were often Plumlee dunks.
Without Kelly, the drop in Plumlee’s numbers weren’t immediate. He still put up far more double doubles than not but as the season has progressed and Duke has become more reliant on their shooting as Plumlee’s performances suffered from numerous games where he was doubled teamed throughout.
Lately Plumlee’s performances have been far more sporadic and his shortcomings have seemed far more glaring. He has been out muscled and out hustled by players that at the beginning of the year wouldn’t have been put in the same continent as Plumlee.
He has looked far less like the confident player he was at the beginning of the season, one that many thought wouldn’t come after comments from Plumlee’s father who criticized Duke’s use of his son. After three years of being a rebounder and screen setter, Plumlee who only had shown flashes of being an offensive weapon, looked like he had brought his game together.
Without Kelly it has become clear that he perhaps isn’t that player after all. But Duke needs him to step up, for as good as Kelly was against Miami, and as important as he is to the overall success of the Blue Devils, Duke cannot win a championship without Mason Plumlee.
I wrote about this fact not that long ago, but that was before Kelly came back. My thought was that Kelly wouldn’t be returning and if he did it wouldn’t be until the ACC Tournament. I felt Duke’s long-term success would be tied to Plumlee’s success. If he couldn’t start playing like the player he showed at the beginning of the season then the Blue Devils post-season hopes would likely be dashed.
I was wrong about Kelly’s return but stand by the fact that unless Plumlee can once again become a real threat again, that Duke’s still a team with limit and on a given night they can and will be beaten.
Kelly’s sudden re-emergence has many Duke fans thinking big, but I’m thinking about their big man and if his teammates return means Plumlee can have his own re-emergence. Kelly has shown what he can do with two months off, now it is time for Plumlee to start to show again what he can and should be doing.
There are no excuses now, Plumlee has to step up to the moment. If he does the future this season is bright for Duke, if not then it is a bit cloudy with a chance for some serious disappointment.