I’ve heard people say that when they tear their Achilles tendon, it feels like they got kicked in the back of the heel. Former Washington basketball star Kelsey Plum had a different description.
“It felt like I got shot,” she said.
But the most intense pain didn’t stem from the physical side. It was the emotional gut punch of knowing how long she’d be sidelined.
If the proposed 22-game WNBA season gets underway next month, Plum will not be part of it. The Las Vegas Aces point guard’s undulating pro career will endure its most frustrating setback yet.
For Plum — who broke the all-time NCAA women’s scoring record during her time with the Huskies — it’s particularly maddening because of how much she felt she’d improved. A year she hoped would be defined by leaping forward will instead be defined by walking in a boot.
“I had gotten 150 percent better,” said Plum, who tore her Achilles without contact while playing hoops in a private gym. “Knowing what I was going for, what I had worked for — it was all off the table. For me, that was the hardest part.”
College stardom made the transition into the WNBA harder for Plum than the average draftee. A few weeks before San Antonio (now Las Vegas) selected her with the No. 1 overall pick, she dazzled the country with one of the greatest college seasons ever.
Averaging 31.6 points while shooting .537 from the field and .436 from deep, she broke the NCAA’s all-time single season scoring record her senior year. Against the best female basketball players in the world, though, scoring at will turned into how will she score?
At 5 feet 7, Plum had to adjust from going against palm trees in college to Redwoods in the pros, and given her 8.5-point scoring average and .346 field-goal percentage, you could say it took her a while to do so. As for the pressure of expectations? That didn’t make it any easier.
“You come out of college — our seasons are right back to back, and what I did was fresh in fans’ minds. They’re going ‘what’s going on?’ You want to give the people what they want,” said Plum. “I had to learn to play basketball a completely different way. I had to play defense for the first time in my life. In college, I had the ability to fail and not fear getting taken out. Here, if you aren’t performing, you don’t keep your job.”
But the next year, Plum responded in the way most would expect her, too. She averaged 9.5 points, four assists, and shot .467 from the field and .439 from deep. Her three-point percentage was the fourth best in the league. Her regular-season stats regressed the next year, but in her five playoff games, she posted a remarkable 15.2 points and 7.8 assists per game while shooting 53 percent from three-point distance. There was also a 17-point fourth-quarter performance near the end of the regular season against the Sparks.
Is she ever going to be the scorer that she was in college? Probably not. But she’s fine with that.
“I accept the nature of the WNBA, and it’s not one where I’m going to score 20 points a game,” Plum said. “If that’s what people are going to judge me on, they’re not the people I care about.”
Plum was in San Diego when I talked to her Saturday, as her brother had just graduated from college. But has spent the bulk of her quarantine in Washington state, doing Pilates, yoga, and sand-pit running before eventually getting access to a private gym. She said she was in great shape and was clearly bummed out by the injury. But she also has a healthy outlook.
“For me, it’s having perspective. Right now hundreds of thousands of people are dying of COVID,” said Plum, adding that her and her teammates have also been having conversations about race in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “For me to pop my Achilles, I think I’m OK.”