How Mason Plumlee could make life easier for Detroit Pistons rookie Killian Hayes

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons kicked off their free agency period last Friday by signing center Mason Plumlee to a three-year, $25-million deal. It was a surprising move for several reasons.

Plumlee, a backup center for the Denver Nuggets the last three seasons, has just 44 starts since 2017-18. And as the NBA has become faster and more perimeter-oriented in the last decade, centers who don’t space the floor, protect the rim or score at an elite level have seen their value plummet. 

Yet, targeting Plumlee, 6-foot-11 and 254 pounds, was clearly a priority for general manager Troy Weaver. The contract is, by all indications, healthy for Plumlee’s level of production. The market for backup centers has been somewhat haphazard, with some signing bigger contracts (Spurs center Jakob Poeltl ended up re-signing for three-years, $27 million), and others settling for minimum deals. 

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The Plumlee acquisition comes despite drafting Washington center Isaiah Stewart with the No. 16 overall pick a couple days before, and signing Jahlil Okafor later that same day. It indicates that Plumlee’s value for the Pistons goes beyond his stat sheet and role with the Nuggets last season. 

A simple reason could be that Plumlee has the skillset to make life a lot easier for Killian Hayes, the Pistons’ rookie point guard taken seventh overall last Wednesday. 

There are many aspects to Hayes’ game that qualified him to be Weaver’s first draft pick with the Pistons. Standing 6-5 with a 6-8 wingspan, he’s big for the point guard position and versatile on defense. He’s been playing professionally since he was 16, and thrived as an 18-year-old playing for Ratiopharm ulm, a German squad, last season. 

[ Why the Pistons chose Killian Hayes to lead rebuild ]

But his best skill is his playmaking. He’s good at manipulating defenders in the pick-and-roll and creating lanes to the rim for himself and others. He’s a proficient passer. And thanks to his strong footwork for his age, he has flashed some upside as being able to hit 3-pointers off of the dribble — an important skill that separates many of the NBA’s great point guards from the rest of the pack. 

Plumlee is one of the better pick-and-roll big men in basketball, and should give Hayes a very capable partner as the rookie adjusts to the pace of the NBA. Plumlee is a good passer and a good screen-setter. Given that Hayes was high on Detroit’s draft board, it’s possible Plumlee was identified in advance to be paired with Hayes to help ease his transition into the NBA. 

[ That time new Pistons center Mason Plumlee stuffed LeBron James ]

Among big men, Plumlee’s assist percentage was elite last year. He logged a career-high 21.4% assist rate — in the 96th percentile among big men, according to Cleaning The Glass. His former teammate, Nikola Jokic, led the pack, followed by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, Bam Adebayo and James Johnson. Plumlee tied with Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis. It’s good company to be in. 

Part of Plumlee’s success can be attributed to his role Denver’s offense, which was one of the best in the league last season. But even before joining the Nuggets, Plumlee was an above-average passer. He’s been at least in the 88th percentile among bigs since his third season, when he was with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015-16. 

Plumlee also excelled as a roller last season, averaging 1.34 points per possession as a pick-and-roll roll man according to NBA Stats. It’s a top-10 number across the league and comparable to other high-flyers, such as Hawks power forward John Collins and Nets center Jarrett Allen. 

He was also very solid as a cutter and on putbacks last season, though they weren’t significant parts of his game. Plumlee could see an expanded role in Detroit, as he’s the most experienced center on the roster. 

The Pistons appear to be following a three-year plan, as Plumlee and Jerami Grant both signed there-year contracts. Detroit’s rookies — Hayes, Washington and Saddiq Bey — along with Sekou Doumbouya, are the heart of the rebuild. Detroit spending $85 million on two players last week doesn’t change the long-term plan. 

Detroit’s most reliable path back to playoff relevancy will be those four players reaching their potential. Given that Hayes is the highest draft pick and lead playmaker in the group, it’s safe to say that the future of the franchise is tied to Hayes’ development.

The jury is out on if Plumlee will live up to his contract. But for the Pistons, his ability to positively impact Hayes’ development appears to be invaluable. 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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