DURHAM, N.C. — Duke's Marshall Plumlee spends his practices trying to match up with a possible No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and most games seeing only spot duty on the Blue Devils' latest Final Four team.
It's not as big of a role that older brothers Miles and Mason once played for coach Mike Krzyzewski. Yet while his brothers are in the NBA, the 7-foot redshirt junior and ROTC cadet — who has committed to enroll in the US Army reserves after graduation — still has a chance to follow their lead on the court. He wants to help Duke win a national title in his home state of Indiana like they did in 2010.
"At least in my family's experience," Plumlee said with a grin, "when Duke comes to Indianapolis, it's special."
Plumlee, a native of Warsaw, Indiana, averages just 2.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game for the Blue Devils (33-4) heading into Saturday's national semifinal (Sunday, Manial time) against Michigan State. But Krzyzewski said his value is about more than his stats.
It's Plumlee's job — thankless and invisible to anyone outside the Duke program — to battle against star freshman big man Jahlil Okafor in practice and help make the All-American a better player while trying to improve himself, too. It's up to Plumlee to be ready to help a team with just eight scholarship players at a moment's notice due to foul trouble, injury or a particular matchup.
"I just think it feels great to be a part of something bigger than yourself," said Plumlee, already sounding like a grizzled military veteran. "Whatever my role may be, I feel greatly appreciated within the team. ... So I wouldn't say I'm discouraged in the slightest."
It may sound corny, but it's the type of selfless attitude you would expect from an Army officer.
Plumlee participated in a ceremony in January in front of coaches and teammates that put him on the path of becoming a second lieutenant in the US Army reserves after completing Reserve Officers' Training Corps and then graduating next spring.
He had to get a waiver to sign up because he was too tall, joking that his height might keep him from one day being able to drive a tank. But he said the commitment has given him a new bond with Krzyzewski, a former Army captain who played and coached at West Point.
Plumlee also said the move would allow him the chance to serve his country while pursuing a professional basketball career.
"That's the ultimate dream, and it's very realistic," Plumlee said. "I wouldn't have joined ROTC if I didn't know that was a guarantee. It's not 'I hope it works out.' If I'm good enough to play professional basketball, it'll work out. So there's nothing left up to chance."
But that's down the road, right now it's about doing whatever it takes to win a national championship. For Plumlee, that includes banging on Okafor.
"I'm excited to bring what I have to the table because I don't think anyone can bring it quite like I can, just like no one can bring what Jahlil has," Plumlee said. "We're all very special pieces in what's making out to be a special team."
Okafor credits Plumlee for work that has "gotten me better tremendously since I've stepped on campus."
Said Krzyzewski: "He's like a professional, every play. Really the last five or six weeks, I mean, he's been a good player but he's stepped up and he's gained a greater level of confidence from his teammates. He's been a real leader, a real veteran for us."
Plumlee's best moments have come in the past month, starting with a 12-point, 6-for-6 shooting effort in a blowout win against North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals. Then he had 10 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes of the NCAA opener against Robert Morris.
But because his role can be limited at times, Plumlee hasn't scored or attempted a shot while pulling down a total of two rebounds in 22 minutes over the past three tournament games.
His father, who played basketball at Tennessee Tech, said Marshall still gets discouraged at times even as the most optimistic of his four children.
"I guess the way we talk about it is, 'Your journey is personal to you, it doesn't depend on other people,'" Perky Plumlee said. "So I think he's just sort of adopted that mindset: 'I'm on my journey, I'm not going to covet someone else's journey, and I'm going to make the most of mine.'"
Marshall's journey includes the unique chance to become the third brother to win a title with Duke, something that isn't lost on the family.
"It's amazing," said Miles, now with the Milwaukee Bucks. "It's real rare to do it once. He saw us do it. It's crazy that he's back there in the same territory, in our home state, with a chance to do the same thing."