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Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek: Miles Plumlee hasn’t hit a wall, still helping team win

PHOENIX — Gifts come in all shapes and sizes.

For the first 30 or so games of the 2013-14 season, the Phoenix Suns’ greatest package came in the form of second-year center Miles Plumlee.

Plumlee, the No. 26 overall pick in 2012, was acquired back in July 2013 in the three-player deal that sent forward Luis Scola to the Indianapolis Pacers. At the time, he was projected to be the development piece of the exchange, as the Suns also received the rights to Indiana’s 2014 first-round selection and veteran swingman Gerald Green.

But looks can be deceiving.

Because although he was thought to be an insurance policy should rookie Alex Len not be ready to start the season as Marcin Gortat’s back-up, Plumlee quickly shed that tag following the Polish Hammer’s swift pre-season departure to the nation’s capital.

The former Duke standout recorded back-to-back double doubles to open the season, and it quickly became apparent that general manager Ryan McDonough had orchestrated quite a steal in only his first few months on the job.

Plumlee continued to progress and progress and progress some more as November crept into December. Although not complete polished on the block or in the paint, the 25-year-old found his niche scoring with the jump hook, moving out of the pick-and-roll or grabbing garbage on the glass. Add in his knack for blocking shots, and the Indiana native was quickly building his case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.

And then, it simply stopped.

Since the beginning of the calendar year, Plumlee has reached double-figures just eight times in 25 games. That blemish in and of itself wouldn’t be so glaring, if not for that fact that his bread-and-butter, pounding the boards, has also seen a steady decline. In that same 25-game span, the first-year starter only has 10 or more rebounds in six contests.

So the question has to be asked: Has the Suns center hit the proverbial rookie wall — one he never ran into a season ago because his season consisted of only 13 appearances?

His head coach didn’t exactly answer in the affirmative.

“He’s doing fine with what we ask him to do in terms of setting picks and rolling to the basket,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Some nights, he is going to get those dump-off passes and score 10, 12 or 14 points. Other nights, they may take that away and he only gets six or eight.

“We don’t go to him a lot in the post. But, we still want to the ball inside on early offense with the couple plays that we run to get him the ball and have him score inside.”

Getting Plumlee the ball has certainly been part of the issue, as he’s averaging just 5.8 shot attempts in February — easily his worst statistical month to date.

But the other half of that equation might have something to do with the absence of guard Eric Bledsoe.

The game before Bledsoe tore the meniscus in his right knee, Plumlee put up a career-high 22 points and 13 rebounds. Since, he’s been a shell of his former self.

While Gerald Green has undoubtedly filled in admirably as Bledsoe’s replacement in the starting lineup, he doesn’t present the same issues from a dribble-drive penetration perspective.

“I think there’s been a lot of talk about Miles dropping off, but I’m not sure he really has, maybe his shooting percentage,” said Hornacek. “He was making those jump hooks, right and left-handed, pretty good early on and maybe he hasn’t lately. But still, it’s the opportunities he’s probably not getting much now.

“When Eric is in the game, you have two guys that can penetrate. That makes Miles more important. So you know he’s been a little limited on his touches. But, he’s still doing what we ask of him and helping us out.”

Helping? Sure.

Plumlee, even with declining numbers, is still the team’s most established two-way center.

But with the race in the Western Conference bound to come down to the final nights in April, Phoenix will need more than a big body grabbing a couple of boards and points down the stretch.

It’ll need Miles Plumlee — at least the one that wore No. 22 back in November and December.