The questions about what makes Kelsey Plum tick were intended to be straightforward. But the answers had more range than Plum’s prolific jump shot.
The questions proposed to Kelsey Plum, and to those close to her, and to those who have watched her closely at the University of Washington the past three seasons, were intended to be simple, straightforward:
What makes her tick? What makes her great? What makes her her?
The answers had more range than Plum’s prolific jump shot. Some of the answers were more creative than her pick-and-roll creations. Others cut sharper than her deadly drives to the hoop.
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Ultimately, there isn’t one simple answer that defines Kelsey Plum, perhaps the greatest women’s basketball player in Husky history. If Plum has her way, by the end of her senior season next year the perhaps in that equation will disappear. She doesn’t say it, but she doesn’t have to: her demanding demeanor makes it obvious it’s important to her. One doesn’t call an assistant coach at 2 a.m. asking to get in the gym, or hurry back from knee surgery, or absorb the (many, many) fouls she does if that isn’t true.
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“I just love it,” she says, “and I crave it.”
“Kelsey’s an enormously talented player and she’s a fierce, fierce competitor. She is so focused and has so much intensity about what she is (doing). She is in the moment all 40 minutes.” — June Daugherty, Washington State coach
It’s a delicate, incongruent balance, and few combine grace and tenacity as well as Plum. Both qualities were on full display in the Huskies’ semifinal upset of 11th-ranked Stanford at the Pac-12 Conference tournament last weekend at KeyArena, one of the most notable victories in program history.
Plum, a 5-foot-8 junior point guard, was as good as ever that night. She drove around double (and triple) teams, she swished pull-up three-pointers, she zipped cross-court passes to teammates forgotten in a corner.
She finished with 29 points that night, breaking the Huskies’ career scoring record in the process. She also was hit with a technical foul after wrestling for a loose ball, during which she flailed and blindly (and, she says, unintentionally) hit a Stanford player in the mouth with the back of her hand, drawing blood.
“I’m just competitive and I want to win,” Plum says. “Sometimes I get overly competitive. I think that would come from my family. I was the youngest girl (among three other siblings). I have a younger brother, but he’s 6-3, 235 (pounds) so he’s not really the little brother, you know? I was the baby and I got hammered growing up in everything — physically, mentally.
“Now I’m not the baby anymore, but I still walk around like I’ve got to prove everything all the time.”
With 2,296 points — in 99 games — Plum ranks sixth on the Pac-12’s career scoring list. At some point in the middle of next season, she should pass Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike (2,737) as the most prolific scorer in conference history. She has a decent shot a becoming the first Pac-12 player — man or woman — to score 3,000 points. Averaging 26.2 points per game this season — which, if it stands, will be a Pac-12 women’s record — Plum probably would need to average about 28 points next season to challenge the NCAA’s career scoring title (Jackie Stiles, Southwest Missouri State, 3,393 points).
Kelsey Plum file
Hometown: Poway, Calif.
Notable: Three-time all-Pac-12 selection. … Fastest player to score 2,000 points in Pac-12 history, doing so in 88 games. … Scored 45 points in a game against Oklahoma in November of 2014, a UW record. … Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2014.
Yet, whenever she’s asked about individual records, Plum offers little more than a shrug. Her desire to excel is genuine, but largely in the context of leading her team to something more, something better.
The Huskies haven’t won an NCAA tournament game in 10 years, and they’ll get another chance soon.
The 64-team field will be announced Monday, and UW is projected as a No. 7 seed.
Plum is confident this is the team, and this is the year, that the Huskies finally push through in the postseason.
“I think you can shut her down for maybe a quarter, but it’s like the ‘Jaws’ music: At some point the shark’s going to come out. You’ll be looking around wondering when it’s going to happen. She’s just fantastic. What can you say?” — Mary Murphy, Pac-12 Networks analyst
Over the past two seasons, Plum has led the league in minutes played. She did so last year on a torn meniscus that required offseason surgery. This year, she was on the floor for 39 minutes a game during conference play, and not a second went by when she wasn’t the focal point of the opponent’s defensive plan.
Switching from off guard to point guard this season, she has the ball in her hands on virtually every possession of every game, and if UW coach Mike Neighbors is to be believed, Plum is fouled on just about every possession, too. Already, she has attempted more free throws than anyone in Pac-12 history — she’s 639 for 727, an .879 clip. It could be more.
Plum’s interactions with referees can be an entertaining game in themselves. The conversations are sometimes sanguine, sometimes serious. Yes, she does get hacked often, but she also concedes that she initiates quite a bit of contact, too. Neighbors acknowledges that Plum is difficult to officiate because of that.
“It’s a blessing and a curse when you first walk out (for warmups) and see the refs. Sometimes I just have to bow my head: ‘God help me in this one. It’s going to be a long game.’ People can change … but let’s be real: Some people are out to get me, man,” Plum says. She laughs.
“But the biggest thing is you can’t let people on the other team or the refs dictate how you are. … I do get fouled a lot. I get bumped all the time. And refs have told me, ‘Plum, you’ve already shot 15 free throws.’ And I tell them, ‘Should it matter?’ But I get their point. … (Sometimes) I could get mowed over by a chopper and I’m not going to get the call. That’s why it’s a blessing and a curse.
“But,” she adds, “I do love the officials. I always know them on a first-name basis, so I can joke with them: ‘Hey, Nancy, you look great! Did you lose weight?’ I mess with them, and they appreciate that.”
“You say a slight remark (of criticism) to her and it makes her ears pop up. That’s what drives her, that’s what brings her to the gym all the time.” — Fred Castro, UW assistant coach
The calls have come at 2 a.m. They’ve come at 6 a.m. Fred Castro has to be ready to open the gym for Plum any time and all the time.
“It’s a 24-hour deal,” the Huskies assistant says.
On a typical weekday, in an otherwise quiet arena, it’s common to find Plum and Castro working at one end of the court an hour or two before the start of a team practice. They’re usually alone, except for two strategically placed folding chairs acting as screener and defender. Plum relishes these moments — the tedious chessboard work when no one else is watching. She loves more the moments when they come together in a game, when the chairs become pawns and she maneuvers for a kill shot.
“Her skill set has always been really high,” Castro says. “But now her basketball IQ is starting to really reach new levels.”
“Her willingness and desire to want to get better,” he adds, “I’ve really never seen an individual who’s so good at what she does and then continues to try to get better. That’s really what sets her apart.”
Plum has accomplished much in three seasons at UW. She’s eager to learn, eager to work and eager to be greater … which is really what made her her in the first place … on her way to being the greatest, perhaps.
|Pac-12 career scoring leaders|
|With her senior season still ahead, Kelsey Plum has a good chance to shatter the Pac-12 career scoring record:|
|1. Chiney Ogwumike||Stanford (2011-14)||2,737|
|2. Candice Wiggins||Stanford (2005-08)||2,629|
|3. Nnemkadi Ogwumike||Stanford (2009-12)||2,491|
|4. Lisa Leslie||USC (1991-94)||2,414|
|5. Tanja Kostic||Oregon State (1993-96)||2,349|
|6. Kelsey Plum||Washington (2013-present)||2,296|
|Most free throws made in a season by a Pac-12 player|
|Kelsey Plum has already surpassed her own conference mark for free throws made in a season:|
|Player||School (season)||Free throws|
|1. Kelsey Plum||Washington (2015-16)||229|
|2. Plum||Washington (2014-15)||207|
|2. Cassie Harberts||USC (2012-13)||207|
|4. Plum||Washington (2013-14)||203|
|4. Jenni Ruff||WSU (1995-96)||203|