There might have been a time when you thought “good” was the ceiling for Kelsey Plum and “great” was just a memory from her college days.
There might have been a moment — maybe several moments — in which you felt her going No. 1 in the 2017 WNBA draft was a whiff of a pick.
The early numbers for the former Huskies star were underwhelming, with Plum failing to score more than 9.5 points per game in any of her first three years in the league. Now, in her fifth season, the Las Vegas Aces guard looks like the woman the franchise hoped she would be when it (based in San Antonio at first) snagged her with the top pick — one of the best players in the world.
“Coming out of college, there were a lot of great expectations. I wasn’t prepared to handle the W. I had to learn about basketball again,” Plum said. “But if you look at it, Steph (Curry) wasn’t an All-Star until Year Five. James Harden was similar (fourth year). It takes time to grow into that kind of role, and I think I’m right on time.”
You want to know how many WNBA players are averaging more than Plum’s 18.0 points per game? Six. Want to how many are averaging more than her 6.0 assists? Two. Want to know how many players have made more than her 17 three-pointers five games into the season? None. And she’s hitting those threes at a 51.5% clip — all after an Achilles tendon injury that cost her most of the 2020 season.
This stretch has been reminiscent of the athlete who set the NCAA’s all-time scoring record while at Washington. It conjures memories of the woman who scored 31.7 points per game her senior year to set the season scoring record as well.
Is Plum at the level of a Diana Taurasi or Sue Bird in terms of dominant guards? No. But, to paraphrase an old WNBA slogan, her current statistics are suggesting that, “She’s got next.”
Of course, there were doubts that such an evolution would occur for Plum. And many of those doubts were swirling inside Kelsey’s head. The spotlight is inherently 1,000 watts brighter for a No. 1 pick who literally scored more Division I points than any woman in history. So when you’re just “pretty good” your first few years, it can be pretty unsettling.
“When you come into the league, and the expectations aren’t met, you can be super fragile,” Plum said. “I would ask, ‘Am I worth anything? What’s wrong with me?’ I had to relearn myself and what I love outside of basketball and value things that weren’t performance-based.”
What did you learn about yourself outside of basketball? I asked.
“That I’m really cool!” Plum said. “I love my family. I’m a people person. I love being outdoors. I just had to learn that basketball isn’t everything.”
But it’s never a bad thing to excel in your profession. And it’s not as if this leap came out of nowhere. Last season Plum averaged 14.8 points and 3.6 assists while shooting .944 from the free-throw line (her .902 career percentage is second all-time.) She also won Olympic gold in 3-on-3 hoops in Tokyo last summer. That builds confidence, something Plum is teeming with right now. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have a coach who unleashes your talents, either.
Becky Hammon signing a seven-figure contract with the Aces this past offseason made her the highest-paid coach in WNBA history. It was a monster deal. But so far, in Plum’s mind at least, she has been worth the price.
“That woman was sent from God,” Plum said. “She believes in me. I feel it. The other day I passed on a shot, and she said, ‘Why didn’t you shoot that?’ I didn’t feel like I was in rhythm, but she was like, ‘I don’t care if you haven’t shot in a month. Shoot it!’ ”
Plum seems to have heeded the advice. On Tuesday Kelsey missed her first five shots as Las Vegas (4-1) fell into an early hole vs. the Mercury. She ended up with 20 points while going 7 of 16 from the field and 4 of 8 from three en route to an Aces victory.
On Thursday Plum will lace ’em up again at home vs. Minnesota. Should be worth a watch. Entertainment is everywhere in Vegas, but Plum provides it about as well as anyone.