May 25, 2022
It’s finally the year of Kelsey Plum
'I feel like a lot of things are going my way'
LAS VEGAS, NV — “I want it, I want it so fucking bad.”
That is how Kelsey Plum feels about being described as the most dangerous guard in the WNBA. And the 2017 number one overall pick looks like she might just achieve it this year.
Plum came out of Washington with a lot of expectations in 2017. The 5’8 guard from La Jolla, Calif. had just become the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history, passing Jackie Stiles and finishing her time as a Husky with 3,527 points. However, her first few years in the WNBA weren’t the easiest for Plum. She didn’t average better than 9.6 points per game her first three seasons. Reflecting on the gap between what she did and what her goals were has produced a multifaceted explanation in her mind.
“I don’t think the mental component and emotional component was really in touch, I wasn’t really in tune with myself in those different ways…I think when I got into the league, I had to relearn my confidence. You know, I feel like I lost it and in a couple of different ways,” Plum told The Next. “I feel like it’s taken a couple of years for me to understand myself who I am as a human outside of basketball, and I feel like that’s now carried over to the player that I am.”
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Last season, Plum had her best year to date. However, the Aces had a lot of talent on the roster and Plum was asked to come off the bench. Even though she wasn’t starting, Plum put up starter-like numbers, averaging 15 points, 2.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists while playing 26 minutes a game. Her success garnered her the WNBA Sixth Player of the Year award last season. However, Plum wanted more, she wanted to start. Her teammate and fellow award winner Dearica Hamby, knows that Plum learned from that experience and is ready to show why she should be starting every game.
“I think she just feels like she has a lot to prove. She came in, she’s the No. 1 pick and that was frustrating time in her life, and you weren’t that good. And then last year coming off the bench, she didn’t think she deserved to come off the bench,” Hamby told The Next. “I think that she’s moreso, to herself, trying to prove I’m capable, I’m one of the best guards in this league. So, it’s time for me to show that.”
Coming into this season, there were a lot of questions surrounding the team with a new head coach. Becky Hammon was bringing a new style of offense and different ideals to the Aces. With all that was new, it would be easy for players to take time to adjust, but not Kelsey Plum. All she did was show up to camp in the best shape of her life and immediately show Hammon what she brought to the team. Every teammate raved in the preseason about how focused and determined she was this year. Hammon knew right away that Plum’s skillset would make her extremely valuable in her offense.
“I told Kelsey early in the year that she’ll be the hardest guard in the league because of her willingness to pass,” Hammon said. “And she has such a high skill set, obviously scoring the ball that now when teams are just focused on taking away her scoring, her willingness to pass kind of makes her unguardable.”
Through eight games, Plum is off to the best start of her career. She is averaging 18.1 points per game, sixth-best in the WNBA. She is fourth in the WNBA in assists at 5.8 a game. She leads the WNBA in three pointers made while shooting 47% from behind the arc. All these numbers are career-highs for Plum. She knows that Hammon trusts her and gives her the freedom to find and take any open shot, like she did in college.
“Becky’s been tremendous for me. I just feel like she’s given me the ultimate green light and she’s super positive with me and believes that, you know, I can do anything on the court,” said Plum. “So as a player when your head coach is consistently re-affirming those things, it just makes you want to go out there and reach your full potential.”
Plum’s college coach Mike Neighbors said Plum has always been the most competitive player on the floor and he knew this from the first day she arrived at Washington.
“She literally flew from USA Basketball straight to Seattle, when all the other kids on that team were flying back to their home and then going to their colleges. I picked her up at the airport and we went directly to the gym, from the airport,” Neighbors told The Next. “That was when I remember thinking this kid’s not just talking about it, she’s being about it. It was the probably the Stanford game, kind of that tipping point when she was a freshman. We knocked Stanford off, just the way she played and the way she handled it. That was when it really started going into this not only could shoot, she set records, but I think she could build our program.”
This competitive, professional mindset is something Plum has been ingrained with since a young age. Her mom drove a taxi when she was just 14 years old. Her father worked two jobs and played two sports while he was in college. Her grandfather and great-grandfather sold newspapers on the corner. Plum’s family is full of fighters, and it certainly shows in her play on the floor.
When I asked Kelsey to describe herself on and off the court, she only said two words: “A dog.” Then she followed it up with a bark.
While Plum has always been a fighter, she’s had to fight a multitude of battles throughout her career. Not only did she have a slow start to her career for a No. 1 overall pick, but she also ruptured her Achilles tendon in 2020 and had to miss the entire season. But Plum felt that year was a turning point for her because she came to better understand how grateful she was to play the game of basketball.
“I just feel so blessed to be healthy. I think that we take for granted that every day when we wake up, we can walk to the bathroom, we don’t need crutches. I felt like that was the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced that type of, it was just literally stillness,” said Plum. “Like I can’t do anything. I’m just grateful for that time I got to just rebuild myself inside and out. I still, to this day, tell people that’s the best thing to happen in my career.”
Neighbors remembered when Plum came into his office her senior year and asked him to put her on a team with the freshman and walk-ons and have them play against the starters to see if her team could beat them at practice. Neighbors decided to finally have this game. Early on, Plums team was getting beat and so she started to take over the game. Coach Neighbors was refereeing the game and was not calling any fouls for Plum when she drove to the basket and calling fouls against Plum’s team. This caused tensions to rise, and it escalated to a point where Coach Neighbors had to kick Plum out of practice. However, instead of showering and leaving the gym, Plum stayed in the locker room and waited. One of Neighbors assistants went downstairs and got Plum and brought her back up to practice. After she and Coach Neighbors talked, Plum finished practice.
“I think that describes her. She’s going to first look for a challenge. Then she’s going to accept that challenge and she’s not going to quit on it. She’s not going to give up,” Neighbors said.
“He was trying to blow calls but I’m just really grateful,” Plum remembered from that day. “You know, he’s similar to Becky, somebody that was super positive with me, believed in me and just ride or die with me. When those people are in my corner, I feel like I can pretty much do anything.”
Kelsey Plum is one of the most competitive, confident, and well-conditioned players in the WNBA. She is finally getting to show the league this year what she is made of. It’s nothing less than the manifestation of the vision she’s had since she was a child.
“You just see the product of all the years kind of carrying over to now,” she said. “Nothing’s changed. Since I was 10, since I picked up a ball, I wanted it that bad. I don’t think anything’s changed. I still play as hard as I’ve ever played, but I feel like a lot of things are going my way and so people might think it’s this year, but it’s really not anything different than I’ve been doing.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.