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Kelsey Plum: A Sharp Shooter with Something to Prove

ByShawn Medow|@ShawnMedow| May 13, 2021
kelsey-plum-wnba

In June of 2020, Kelsey Plum had a major setback. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the WNBA season was postponed. There was no plan yet in place for a 2020 season. But if one would be put in place — and one eventually was — Kelsey would not be a part of it. 

The 25-year-old Las Vegas Aces guard announced on Twitter she had torn her Achilles’ tendon, which Kelsey Plum revealed was during a pickup basketball game in Portland, Oregon. 

“I’ll be back, better than ever,” Kelsey tweeted. “Just wait on it.”

Kelsey watched the 2020 bubble season from home. She watched as her Aces made a run to the championship series where they lost to the Seattle Storm

“It feels great to put the jersey back on and be around this group,” Kelsey said ahead of the 2021 season on a media call. “Being away makes you miss people and miss opportunities and just the joys of playing basketball. So I’m excited to be back.”

After missing out in 2020, Kelsey enters her fifth year as a pro with three years under her belt and a point to prove as she looks to help elevate the Aces to a first WNBA title. The NCAA points record-holder is yet to have a breakout season in the WNBA, but her valuable consistency could be the trick to get the Aces over the finish line. 

The difficulty of watching her team from afar during the 2020 bubble season was especially hard due to the circumstances of the pandemic. In other years, a player who is hurt would be able to go see their team and watch them play in person. Instead she was miles away. 

Through the season, rehab and an offseason, Kelsey had time to reflect and try to better herself going into the next season and rest of her career with a new outlook.

“I learned a ton about myself,” Kelsey said. “Obviously, physically I learned there’s a ton of things I needed to work on in terms of my strength, getting there with my balance because with your achilles you need to learn to walk again, learn how to run again, all that stuff.”

“I think for me as a person I’ve been able to do a ton of growth. I think mentally have done a ton of growth in terms of the ways I know of see things and the way I react to things that I’ll continue to do throughout the [2021] season.”

Part of her road back came through self-care for herself to be mentally on track to get back to the top and help the Aces succeed.

“For me, just a ton of meditation and mindfulness,” Kelsey said. “I’m really excited. I have a different perspective on basketball right now and I think it’s going to translate onto the court.”

Kelsey Plum’s basketball evolution 

Kelsey first started playing basketball when she was 10 while growing up in Poway, California. She told the Athletic that her father threw her straight into the deep end at an open gym, telling opponents to treat her the same way they treat everyone else. 

At that age, she knew what she wanted to do. 

“It’s kind of sad to say now — I mean, it’s funny because it worked out — but I told my mom when I was 10 that I was going to play in WNBA,” Kelsey said to the Athletic. “That was really it. I never really thought I’d be doing anything else. There was no Plan B. That was it. I never really looked back. As soon as I picked up a ball, that’s what I knew I was going to do.”

Kelsey’s basketball career began to take off when she chose the sport over volleyball while attending La Jolla Country Day High School in the San Diego area. She decided to attend La Jolla Country Day over Poway High School, where her two older sisters — both volleyball stars — attended. 

On the court, Kelsey Plum averaged 19.9 points per game, 2,246 points and 677 total rebounds while dishing out 381 assists and making 370 steals. She led La Jolla Country Day to the 2012 state title. Kelsey earned multiple national honors. Her high school career led her to many options for college in 2013. 

She chose to stay on the west coast, playing for the University of Washington. Prior to her start with the Huskies, Kelsey earned a U19 FIBA World Championship gold medal with the United States national team.  

As a freshman, Kelsey set six Washington records on her way to averaging just under 21 points per game and earning the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award. 

Kelsey’s sophomore year had more records, starting with a 45-point performance in the season-opener against Oklahoma. In the NCAA Tournament, Kelsey and Washington earned a No. 6 seed, but the Huskies were upset by No. 11 Miami in the opening round of the tournament. Her junior year would be a revenge tour of sorts.

The Huskies got the best out of Kelsey, who averaged 25.9 points per game her junior season, and led the Huskies deeper than they had ever been in an NCAA Tournament. The team reached the Final Four, the furthest Kelsey would go in the tournament in her four years, but couldn’t get by Syracuse in the national semifinal game. 

In Kelsey’s final collegiate season, the senior stepped up her game even more, averaging a whopping 31.7 points per game, 5.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. Her shooting percentage skyrocketed from 40.5 percent in her junior season to 52.9 percent in her senior year. 

Kelsey was destined for national accolades, earning multiple 2017 national player of the year honors. She finished the regular season off in style with a conference record-setting 57-point night to beat Utah 84-77. The 5-foot-8 guard broke the 33-year-old NCAA career free throw record with 912, became the NCAA all-time scoring leader with 3,527 points and set the single-season NCAA scoring record with 1,109 points in her final year in Seattle. 

“I don’t want to be remembered for the points,” Kelsey Plum told the Pac-12 Networks. “At the end of the day I want to be that kid that’s remembered by ‘did you watch Plum play? That was fun to watch.’”

2017 with San Antonio 

After her four years at Washington, Kelsey headed to the WNBA draft where she was selected No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Stars. 

It was reported that the Stars were hesitant to pick Kelsey until as late as the day of the draft. 

Her agent spoke out, criticizing the team after potential trade talks to move the top pick. 

Kelsey spoke about the whirlwind experience of getting drafted to the Las Vegas Review-Journal

“It kind of happened so fast,” Kelsey said. “These women play college, within a week they’re getting drafted and then they’re in the city that they’re drafted in the next day. Everything happens so much faster. Then you add in other media stuff and you’re trying to sign with maybe a shoe brand. There’s a lot of stuff going on.”

“I think I was so caught up the whole year with so many different things, that when the moment finally came, I didn’t enjoy it. … For me, looking back, if I could tell somebody now, I would say really soak it in. And it sounds so cliche, but you know, I didn’t.”

Amid the pressure to perform as the top pick in the draft combined with the struggle for a sense of belonging, Kelsey’s rookie season went as well as it could. 

She averaged 8.5 points per game but the Stars finished second-to-last in the league. Her season-high 23 points, still her career-high in points heading into 2021, came against Seattle while she continued to dish out assists in the professional game with a season-high 12 against Washington. Kelsey did earn a spot on the WNBA All-Rookie Team at the end of the season. 

After the season, Kelsey did what many WNBA players do in their offseasons: she went abroad. Kelsey Plum helped take Fenerbahce to a Turkish Women’s Basketball League title before returning to the WNBA for the 2018 season. 

Things would start to look up for her. 

Kelsey Plum’s 2018 WNBA season

Kelsey wouldn’t be returning to Texas after her stint abroad, instead heading to Las Vegas where the Stars relocated to, becoming the Las Vegas Aces. It couldn’t have been a better thing for Kelsey after her rocky start in the WNBA. 

Aces new head coach Bill Laimbeer instilled faith in Kelsey, giving her more minutes, starts and confidence. 

“I really still don’t know who she is, but I thought that it was important for her to get the time,” Bill Laimbeer told Vice. “Just to see what she can do. Especially with the starting unit. Now, [Aces backup point guard] Lindsay Allen did a great job for us. I told [Allen] that, but at the same time it’s still a situation [where] we have to build a team and understand who we have and what we are about our future, not so much [play for] this year. I don’t see a 1 percent chance of us winning the championship this year. So, I need to do player development and understand what we have going forward.”

From a bizarre situation where the top pick is iced out to the extent Kelsey was, the move to Las Vegas possibly saved her young career. 

In 2018, Kelsey came more into her own, getting more minutes on the floor, averaging a point better per game and improving in every other category. One of her best improvements was her shooting efficiency. Kelsey was getting better looks and making better decisions on offense, leading to a 12.1 percent improvement in field goal percentage from 34.6 to 46.7 percent, including 43.9 percent three-point shooting from 36.5 the year before. 

“I can’t let other people’s opinions come in,” Kelsey Plum said to Vice. “But you know, they look at stats. They look at playing time. They look at very different things. I know myself. I know the work I put in. I know the type of player I am. I’m just trying to help my team. If that makes me look like I am not getting any better, it’s out of my hands.”

The Aces failed to make the playoffs in their first season in Vegas, finishing in ninth place while gaining six more wins than in the season prior. 

Kelsey went back to Fenerbache for the offseason, and took home silverware by winning a second Turkish League title and a Turkish Cup. 

Kelsey Plum’s 2019 WNBA season

Kelsey was now into her third season in the WNBA. The Aces were improving, and so was Kelsey. It was now her chance to take the next step. 

Statistically, Kelsey had a season that combined aspects of her rookie year and second year. She improved defensively on the boards while maintaining a similar points per game average. However, her shooting did drop off to 36.5 percent in 2019. 

She was part of an Aces team that was putting pieces together to win. With some more top picks, including A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young, the team started to click and made the playoffs with a 21-13 record, the fourth best in the league. 

In the playoffs, Kelsey picked things up offensively, finishing second on the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game, first in assists with 7.8 and first in three-point field goal percentage at 52.9 percent. In the five games the Aces played in the playoffs, Kelsey recorded double digit points in four of them, including just her second career double-double in a 19-point, 10-assist game against Washington Mystics in game two of the semifinals. 

It was a big postseason performance. It was what was expected of Kelsey, of a No. 1 pick. 

After a 20-point performance with 7-for-10 shooting in the fourth quarter of a 92-86 win over the Sparks where the Aces won the final frame 34-20, Kelsey couldn’t contain her emotions postgame. Wiping away tears as A’ja Wilson hyped her up and the crowd cheered, Kelsey took her a moment before thanking her family and close friends for helping get through a difficult time. 

“I’ve been struggling through a lot this year,” she said

Bill Laimbeer was full of praise

“When she has the confidence and she has that feeling of free-reign that she did in college, she’s a very fine basketball player.”

The Aces would fall to the Mystics, who went on to win the WNBA title. 

Kelsey Plum’s 2020 WNBA season

With the season postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WNBA was on hold. But Kelsey got to work, signing a two-year extension with the Aces worth a reported $355,250, jumping in front of her expiring rookie contract at the end of 2020. 

But then Kelsey’s achilles tendon injury and surgery meant she would miss the 2020 season. Sadly for Kelsey, she could not be a part of the best Aces team yet. Las Vegas went 18-4 to grab the No. 1 overall seed for the playoffs before ultimately losing in the finals to the Seattle Storm in a three-game sweep. 

2020 was a difficult time for Kelsey, as it was for many people suffering through the pandemic. Since then, Kelsey has emphasized the importance of maintaining good mental health. 

“It’s tough. In the world right now, there’s a lot going on and we need human connection and I think it’s very tough when we limit some of that connection and I understand that safety is first and I respect that but mental health takes a toll on you,” Kelsey said. “It takes a toll when you don’t see your family, it takes a toll when you can’t connect and as much as we love the Zoom digital, it’s different if you’re here talking to me in person. 

“So I just think finding ways to uplift ourselves — and I know for me personally I have to take time every day to do self love whether that’s meditation or trying to sit outside and do some breathing and stuff like that because I think it can become super challenging and build and that’s when bad things start to happen.” 

Kelsey Plum’s stats

Kelsey Plum's college stats
Via GoHuskies

Kelsey is arguably the best women’s college basketball player ever. With the records in career scoring, single-season scoring and made free throws, the 2017 national player of the year put up jaw-dropping numbers over her four years. 

As a consistent starter playing nearly the entire game on average, Kelsey had the minutes to do the damage she did every season. Her incredible senior season in 2016-17 produced 1,109 total points for an average of 31.7 per game. 

Kelsey Plum's per game WNBA stats
Via Basketball Reference

 The breakdown of Kelsey’s per game statistics show how Kelsey’s managed to stay consistent throughout her first three seasons in the WNBA. Her sophomore professional season was an improvement in all areas. 

While her stats dropped off her third season, Kelsey was still effective but will look to play a bigger role in the box score as she goes further in her career. 

Kelsey Plum WNBA totals stats
Via Basketball Reference

Kelsey’s confidence surely grew as she took more of her chances in her second season. With fewer attempted field goals, shot selection became key and the addition of A’ja Wilson to take shots, Kelsey improved. 

Kelsey Plum’s career highlights 

  • 2013: WBCA High School Coaches’ All-America Team
  • 2013: McDonald’s All-American 
  • 2014: Pac-12 Freshman of the Year
  • 2017: espnW National Player of the Year 
  • 2017: AP National Player of the Year 
  • 2017: Naismith Trophy winner 
  • 2017: Nancy Lieberman Award winner
  • 2017: Dawn Staley Award winner 
  • 2017: Wade Trophy winner
  • 2017: WNBA No. 1 overall pick 

Kelsey Plum’s strengths

1. Jumper 

Kelsey Plum’s jump shot is her most clinical part of her offense. She honed it over her years in high school and at Washington in college, earning her the title of NCAA highest points scorer. In the WNBA, the jump shot still looks smooth but it may not be as plentiful as it was in her college days. 

From beyond the arc, Kelsey Plum can knock down catch-and-shoots with a silky shot off her left wrist.  

2. Passing

Some of Kelsey Plum’s best passing comes from her pick and roll (see below). On moves at the top of the key, Kelsey manages to free space for players like A’ja Wilson or Liz Cambage inside for easy buckets. As a guard, Kelsey’s passing is a key to getting things clicking on the offense for the Aces. 

3. Pick and roll

When you have forwards like the Aces have, the pick and roll becomes your bread and butter. For Kelsey, the pick and roll is a mouthwatering opportunity to get points and assists. 

From the pick and roll, Kelsey is able to get off jump shots from the mid range and from behind the three-point line. She uses it to get to the rim, where she simply scoops a shot up off the glass and in. Whether it

4. Driving

At 5-foot-8, driving to the rim might not come to mind when thinking of strengths for Kelsey. But she’s able to find those small spaces near the rim that allows her to get shots off the glass and in as she weaves her way to the basket. 

Kelsey is fast. She gets to the rim with a surprising amount of ease, sprinting by opponents who have no chance in stopping her. This is also a huge advantage for Kelsey when the Aces play quickly in transition, allowing her to take the ball and go for it all. 

Kelsey Plum’s opportunities 

1. Confidence

It’s not as visible as a skill set on the court but it comes down to turning a game on its head by taking it over. Kelsey has yet to have a dominant year in the WNBA. Her career high in points was set in her rookie season. 

After missing out on the 2020 season, Kelsey will ease back into things while working to improve upon her first three seasons on the WNBA stage.

What’s next 

Heading into the 2021 season, Kelsey and the Aces will look to go for it all after coming so painstakingly close in 2020 and 2019. The team has plenty of experience now and a lot of talent that includes Kelsey.

“It takes time to build the chemistry that you need,” she said. “We’re going to continue to work through some of those bumps early and this team has had a core group that’s been together. We’ve added some veterans and players with experience so I think that experience is going to help when we continue to be in tough situations.”

It will be a strange season for Kelsey and all the WNBA players after they played the 2020 season in a bubble without the COVID protocols they will have in 2021. 

“I think for me I wasn’t in last season’s bubble so I don’t have anything to compare it to but I will say that it’s definitely challenging,” Kelsey said. “There’s no way getting around it, those protocols. I think it will continue to be challenging because when we start traveling, going on the road, being restricted in certain aspects, not being able to have our families and friends possibly come to games or things like that.”

Kelsey’s experience now means she’s a different type of leader, trying to take young players under her wing, including 2021 draftee Destiny Slocum. 

“She’s done a phenomenal job preparing herself physically, being ready to go for camp,” Kelsey said of her fellow guard. “I think it’s nice when you have a couple years under your belt in terms of college, being a little bit older. Experience makes a difference. I think she’s done a phenomenal job. It’s tough, we have a very experienced roster so for her to come in and be able to make the transition, credit to her.”

Kelsey has experience with Team USA, which she hopes to be a part of for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. She could very well be a part of the 3×3 team with the likes of Allisha Gray, Stefanie Doloson, and Katie Lou Samuelson. Playing with the team in camps allowed Plum to get back on the court with top-level opponents after her achilles injury.  

“I think just getting back out there, going up and down, going up against high level competition, getting some of those first hesitations out of the way because you know when you come back from a major injury like that sometimes you’re not really sure how your body’s going to handle certain physical transitions,” Kelsey Plum said.

“For me, I was really grateful that I got that opportunity that I got to go back to multiple camps and continue to learn what my body needed to do to go to the next camp. I’ll continue to get better mentally and physically as we go.” 

Up next, read more about Kelsey’s teammate A’ja Wilson.

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