Amongst all the zaniness and inconsistency this college basketball season, there has been one topic of discussion that has been consistently and heavily debated all throughout the year: has Cody Zeller or Mason Plumlee been the better play THIS season?
Notice that I said ‘better’ season and not ‘more valuable’ season. With injuries to Ryan Kelly and Marshall Plumlee leaving Duke thin at the forward position at different points throughout the season, Mason Plumlee has been about as valuable as can be for the Blue Devils. You could make a case for Zeller, here, but the Blue Devils would likely be a lot worse off without Plumlee than Indiana would be without Zeller.
Like I said, though, value is an entirely different argument, and one we’ll never fully understand unless the teams were willing to go a week without their star players. Since that isn’t happening anytime soon, we have nothing empirical to go off of, and therefore an opinion would be nothing more than that: an opinion.
Considering this, I’m going to take the empirical evidence we do have and break down and compare the two big men’s performances this season, statistic by statistic. Here we go:
The ability to rebound is considered to be the most fundamental of tools a big man can have. Plumlee is more developed than Zeller from a physical standpoint which gives him, at the very least, a small advantage in the category. I intend to do this comparison from a strictly statistical standpoint, however, so let’s focus on that.
DRB%: Zeller – 19.6%, Plumlee – 23.2%
ORB%: Zeller – 12.7%, Plumlee – 10.6%
TRB%: Zeller – 16.5%, Plumlee – 17.2%
As you can see, Zeller holds the advantage on the offensive boards, grabbing 12.7% of all opportunities he has received on the season. Yes, Plumlee has more total offensive rebounds (Plumlee has 77, Zeller has 75), but that only means he has received more opportunities than Zeller.
In terms of defensive rebounds, however, Plumlee thrashes Zeller. The 3.6% differential is a pretty big one, and it is a direct cause of Plumlee topping Zeller in Total Rebound Percentage. So, whether you want to look at this from an advanced or basic statistical view, Plumlee has the advantage.
Plumlee 1 – Zeller 0
FG%: Zeller – .588, Plumlee – .595
TS%: Zeller – .642, Plumlee – .617
FT%: Zeller – .753, Plumlee – .651
Statistically, Zeller has actually had a slight slip on offense this season, while Plumlee has improved in just about every category. This isn’t me saying that the point automatically goes to Plumlee. This is me saying that Zeller was absolutely nuts in his freshman season, so nuts that it was near impossible to actually improve upon his .623 FG% and and .625 TS%. While his offensive numbers aren’t quite as dominant, they’re still unbelievably impressive.
To me, Zeller has been the better shooter (haha, shooter! Has either one of these guys even taken a jump shot?!). His 10.2% advantage at the free throw line is huge, giving him a slight edge in True Shooting Percentage. Consider the following: in Duke’s losses, Plumlee has shot 6-15 from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Zeller has only had one poor game from the stripe: a 2-6 performance in the season opener, a 97-54 blowout victory over Bryant.
The men’s performance in the paint has been too good and too similar to definitively say one is better than the other, but their difference from the free-throw line is enough to separate them. Point: Zeller.
Plumlee 1 – Zeller 1
Block% : Zeller – 4.9%, Plumlee – 4.3%
Defensive Rating: Zeller – 86.0, Plumlee – 89.8
Defensive Win Shares: Zeller – 3.1, Plumlee – 3.0
Steal%: Zeller – 2.1%, Plumlee – 1.6%
My goodness, they are almost identical. Zeller has the slightest advantage in each category, but it really isn’t enough to set him apart.
This one is a draw.
Plumlee 1 – Zeller 1
Offense Contribution (Excluding Shooting-Specific Stats)
Offensive Rating: Zeller – 131.6, Plumlee – 115.9
Turnover Percentage: Zeller – 12.1%, Plumlee – 17.0%
Offensive Win Shares: Zeller – 3.5, Plumlee – 3.1
Assist%: Zeller – 8.5%, Plumlee – 10.7%
Zeller dominates this category. Plumlee and his hands of stone have him turning the ball over at a 17% clip, and Zeller has a significant advantage in terms of Offensive Rating.
Plumlee does hold an advantage in terms of assist percentage, but that relies far more on one’s teammates, rather than the player himself. Zeller wins this one.
Zeller 2 – Plumlee 1
Win Shares: Zeller – 6.6, Plumlee – 6.1
PER: Zeller – 32.1, Plumlee – 26.7
Plumlee shouldn’t be ashamed, because a 26.7 PER and a 6.1 WS puts him at an elite level in college basketball, but Zeller’s 32.1 PER is borderline insanity. Out of all the players in a major conference, only Virginia Tech’s Erick Green has a higher PER (Green, however, doesn’t come close to Zeller’s Win Shares total due to poor defense).
Game, set, match: Zeller
Zeller 3 – Plumlee 1.
Yes, Plumlee has the higher per game averages in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks, but he also averages a whole six minutes of playing time more than Zeller.
What does this mean? It could mean that Indiana hasn’t needed Zeller on the court as much as Duke has needed Plumlee. The least amount of minutes Plumlee has played during a game this season has been twenty-four in an early-season win over Delaware. Meanwhile, Zeller has played twenty-four minutes or less in seven games this season, including twice in Big-10 play.
Considering all of this, it could mean that Plumlee is more vital to Duke’s success than Zeller is to Indiana’s. It could mean that Indiana has the luxury of giving Zeller more rest because they are so dominant and able to build significant leads during his time on the court. It could mean nothing, really – a difference that can be attributed to a difference in coaching philosophies. Like I said, it is difficult to grasp how valuable a player is to his team unless you’re able to watch the team play without him entirely.
In my personal opinion, Zeller has had the better season, but Plumlee is the slightly more valuable player. As someone who has seen every game this season, I can assure you that Plumlee has been the rock in a season filled with injuries for the Blue Devils. I do understand that one could make quite the case for Zeller, however.
I don’t expect this article to end the conversation, as Duke and Indiana fans will vehemently defend their own, but I certainly hope it has given you a little change in perspective outside of the typical ‘Player X averages more than Player Y per game, therefore Player X is better than Player Y’ analysis.
P.S.: Honestly, there are numerous angles you can take in this argument, many of which I didn’t even begin to touch upon in this article. I enjoy hearing different perspectives, so feel free to drop a comment below or send me a tweet. I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I write about this topic, and I’d love to hear more opinions on the subject.