Plum is facing her second season with the hard-won wisdom of being jolted with the reality of life as a pro. The biggest lesson, she said, “is that the WNBA is a whole different animal. That’s what I learned.”
Bill Laimbeer, the first-year coach of the Las Vegas Aces, is asked what he saw when he looked at video of Kelsey Plum in 2017.
“A lost person,’’ he replied. “Pressure was on her, being asked to do things she wasn’t used to. Kind of a lost year for her.”
When Plum herself is asked to reflect on her rookie season, which began with her basking in the adulation of being the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA, she doesn’t want to even go there. It certainly wasn’t the immediate star turn that everyone expected after Plum’s incandescent, record-setting Husky career, though she persevered through early adversity to finish positively.
“I’m not looking back,’’ Plum said quickly. “I’m looking forward. Yeah, there were some frustrations, but I’m not worried about last year.”
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Much has changed from last year to this one for Plum, back in town Thursday with the Aces to face the Storm at KeyArena.
For one thing, her team has moved from San Antonio (where they were known as the Stars) to Las Vegas, a transition that delights her because it brings her closer, geographically, to her family in San Diego.
Vickie Johnson, her head coach last year, is now an assistant to Laimbeer, the former Detroit Piston “Bad Boy” who is trying to turn around a team that has finished last three years in a row. Last year, they were a league-worst 8-26.
“He’s a winner,’’ Plum said, speaking pregame. “You knew from the first meeting, he expects a lot out of us. …. We’re going to win here, and that’s because of Bill.”
Most strikingly, Plum is facing her second season with the hard-won wisdom of being jolted with the reality of life as a pro. The biggest lesson, she said, “is that the WNBA is a whole different animal. That’s what I learned.”
After setting NCAA career and single-season scoring records and winning every Player of the Year Award as a senior at Washington, Plum averaged just 8.5 points per game last year. She was hampered from the start by an ankle injury, which caused her playing time and eventually her confidence to dwindle.
But after the All-Star break, she began to more closely resemble the instinctual player who had electrified Husky fans with her playmaking ability. Plum averaged 5.9 points and 2.4 assists before the break, and 12.3 points and 4.8 assists after.
“The second half I didn’t think, I just played,” Plum told the San Antonio-based website The Rivard Report at the end of the year. “I was pretty productive. I just kind of felt like myself.”
Still, those numbers are not what we’ve come to associate with Plum. Allowing herself a moment of reflection before Thursday’s game, Plum said the speed, physicality and intensity of the WNBA game was eye-opening.
“I would equate playing 10 minutes here to a 40-minute college game,’’ Plum said “I think I’ve grown mentally. You get a lot thicker skin. I went from a program that it was all about me, to here, where I’m a role player. So I just have to figure out my role.”
Kelsey Plum, a role player? That’s hard to fathom for those who saw her pour in 3,527 points for Washington and average 31.7 points per game as a senior. Her role then could roughly be described as “just go out and do your thing.”
“I mean, everyone is a role player,’’ she shrugged. “It just depends on how big your role is. Everybody has a role. LeBron has a role. I’m trying to figure out what mine is right now.”
That task is complicated by the fact that Plum missed all of the Aces’ training camp and the first two games of the season while helping her overseas team, Fenerbahce of Istanbul, Turkey, win the FIBA EuroLeague title.
Plum was the finals MVP and should benefit greatly from playing in the highly competitive (and lucrative) league. But the downside is she has only been back in the states for a week and is still trying to get acclimated.
“It was really frustrating,’’ she said of the late start. “It’s one of the things you have to look very closely at. I really wish I could be there, because I’m playing catchup. I’m learning the system day by day. I’m learning people’s names. Hopefully, just stay patient and I’ll get there.”
The upshot is that Laimbeer is still figuring out what he has in Plum, and how best to use her. And he’s doing that in the context of an 0-4 start for the Aces, who were utterly thrashed by the Storm on Thursday, 101-74.
This was just Plum’s second game, and she’s still trying to get out of training-camp mode. Following a four-point effort in 10 minutes in her season debut Sunday against Seattle, Plum played 23 minutes on Thursday and scored just three points, all on free throws. Plum missed the only shot she attempted, a three-pointer, and had four rebounds and six assists.
“It’s tough, because there’s not much practice time in this particular season with everything so shortened,’’ Laimbeer said prior to the game. “She had to pick things up as quick as possible, understand our personnel and what we’re trying to get accomplished. She’s behind.
“I don’t know her. I didn’t coach her before, so I’m learning what she can and cannot do. … New coach, new system, new team, late start. I just don’t have a handle on it right now. I hope she contributes in a big way for us.”
Plum was clearly thrilled to be back in Seattle, site of so many basketball exploits. She took the opportunity to go out to dinner on Wednesday with many of her former Husky teammates.
“I love this place,’’ she said. “The warmness I get, knowing people, camera guys, ushers. This is my home. I’m from California, but I consider this home.”
Actually, between Turkey and the WNBA seasons, she spent exactly three days at home in the past year, she said. Her real home has been the basketball court, and she’s hoping it’s a more hospitable place in 2018.
“I’m not living in the past,’’ Plum said. “I’m not in college anymore. I’m not a rookie anymore. I don’t want to be treated like one. I’m moving forward.”