Humbling start for prized rookie Plum

For those unable to read this fine story about Kelsey Plum due to subscription issues, I’ve received permission to reprint it in its entirety. Great stuff:

By Melissa Rohlin
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — A video produced in January compared NBA star James Harden to Kelsey Plum, who at the time was starring for the Washington Huskies. Both players are left-handed guards who can seemingly score at will.

Harden is a household name, a recent runner-up for the NBA Most Valuable Player award who earned $28.3 million in 2016-17.

Plum went on to be the No. 1 pick by the San Antonio Stars in the 2017 WNBA draft.

While their playing styles may have similarities, their earning potential is starkly different. Harden made $26.5 million this past season. Rookie pay in the WNBA is about $50,000, while the veteran maximum is $115,000 per year.

Yet it was Plum who was not thrilled with the comparison.

“I never wanted to aspire to play like a man,” Plum said. “I think it’s really important to show that women are just as capable. And comparing a woman to a man is like apples and oranges, because it’s not that we’re limited, we’re different.”

After Harden saw the video, he tweeted at Plum, saying, “I see you.”

Harden and Plum did eventually meet in May when Harden was in town for a playoff series against the Spurs.

Plum was having dinner at Ruth’s Chris with Irv Roland, a family friend who works in player development for the Rockets. Roland asked Harden to stop by.

When Harden joined them, he handed Plum a pair of signed basketball shoes. Plum responded accordingly, autographing a pair of her own shoes for Harden.

Early years

Plum’s father, Jim, can pinpoint the moment when he saw his daughter gain her voice.

She was in third grade, and came home upset from school one day. She didn’t think her teacher liked her because she wore basketball shorts every day, didn’t do her hair and always had dirt streaked on her face from playing basketball at recess.

Her father then gave her an ultimatum — he told her she needed to confront the teacher or else he would.

Plum approached her teacher the following day and told her how she felt.

“The teacher cried and said I actually have more respect for you than anyone,” Jim recalled. “That seemed to jump-start her being independent.”

Growing up in the Plum household was not easy.

Plum’s mother and two older sisters played college volleyball. Her father played college football. And her younger brother plays college football.

Everything was a competition. After they would go out to dinner, Jim would quickly pay the check and sprint to his truck. His kids would immediately run after him. Anyone who didn’t make it to the car in time would be left behind.

Plum would play shooting games in the backyard with her family over who would have to clean up the dog poop. There would also be competitions over who would have to clean the dishes and who would get the best dessert.

“I got picked on my whole childhood,” Plum said. “They always ganged up on me. I was kind of sensitive growing up, so I’d always go to mom and cry. That never worked. It was difficult. I had to find my own way. My outlet was basketball. It was my thing. It was different from what everyone else was doing.’

Enter basketball

Plum began seriously focusing on basketball when she was 10. By 12, her father was taking her to local gyms to play pickup games with men three times her age.

She quickly learned that she could make the biggest impact on the court with her shot.

She was too small to defend effectively, but opponents would often leave her open because they didn’t see her as a threat. If she could score, she was valuable.

After she learned how to shoot over men, she had an almost unfair advantage playing against girls.

Plum, who is from Poway, California, attended La Jolla Country Day for high school. She made an immediate impact as a freshman. During her junior year, Plum’s team lost just one game and won the state title.

“She would score 30 or 40 points whenever we needed it,” said Terri Bamford, the girls basketball coach at La Jolla Country Day for the last 20 years. “She would get in a mode where she’d take the game over. Everyone knew if you could stop Kelsey, you could stop our team. That year, she was triple-teamed and she’d still put up those types of numbers.”

While Plum was an extraordinary player in high school, Bamford never imagined what her star would accomplish in college.

But then again, Plum was always in the gym, always improving.

She would practice before school from 6:15-7:30 a.m. three or four times a week, then attend practice, then stay afterward for a few hours to work out with the team’s assistant coach.

“Her work ethic was off the charts,” Bamford said.

College success

Plum chose Washington because she wanted to play for an up-and-coming program.

She averaged 37.3 minutes a game her first season, a freshman record. She was named a team captain because her attitude impressed her coaches.

Ever since Plum was a little girl, she would write down her goals. When she was young, she used to write them on her mirror. Before her final college season, she typed her goal into her phone — she wanted to be the best player in women’s college basketball.

Plum averaged 31.7 points a game during her senior year, nearly six points better than anyone else in Division I. She scored an NCAA-record 1,109 points and led her team to the program’s first Final Four.

The 5-foot-8 guard had developed into a crafty scorer. Her mid-range game was unstoppable, she could attack the rim and she was deadly from beyond the 3-point line.

Over her four seasons as a Husky, she scored 3,527 points, the most in the history of women’s Division I hoops.

This past season, she won the Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy, the Wade Trophy, the Nancy Lieberman Award, the Associated Press Player of the Year award, the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award and the Dawn Staley Award. She was also named Pac-12 Player of the Year and ESPNW Player of the Year.

“What happened toward the end of my career, I could have never imagined,” she said.

WNBA becomes reality

Despite all of her success, Plum didn’t think she would be selected No. 1 in the WNBA draft. And, yes, she knows that sounds ridiculous.

When her name was called, she was stunned.

“I didn’t know where to go,” she said.

Plum explained that her ascent had been so gradual for so long, that when she reached the top, it felt unreal. Her self-image hadn’t quite caught up with her skill level.

“You have to understand, I came out of high school, and I was like top 50 in the country, but I wasn’t like the No. 1 player,” she said. “In college, even coming into freshman, sophomore, junior years, I wasn’t one of the best players in the country. My senior year, when we started playing, I think I had worked really hard that summer and I proved I was. But it was like, I started here (holds hand low), and I was like boom, boom, boom (she incrementally moves her hand higher and higher). I never thought that I was like this (holds hand high).”

So when Plum’s name was called, it was an awe-inspiring moment for her family. Her father cried. Plum realized she had finally accomplished something she had written on her mirror when she was a child — reach the WNBA.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of media. In April, she was introduced to San Antonio at a Spurs game and made a huge impression by tossing T-shirts to the crowd at the AT&T Center. Media around the country had fun with her athleticism.

A New York Daily News headline read: “Top WNBA pick Kelsey Plum puts T-shirt cannon out of a job” while an SB Nation headline described her as having a “QB arm.”

It seemed like everything she touched was turning to gold.

Rough start

Then things began to go in a different direction.

She sustained an ankle injury during practice in early May. It sidelined her for three weeks.

Once she was able to play, she had trouble scoring. She failed to reach double figures in any of her first 11 games and was twice held scoreless. Averaging just 13.5 minutes per game, Plum scored at a 3.4 point per game pace, while shooting 23.3 percent from the field.

It was a tough coming-back-to-earth experience for a player who was expected to make an immediate impact.

“It’s no secret that I’m struggling right now,” she said. “I’m not playing at the level that I think I can play at. It’s frustrating.”

Stars coach Vickie Johnson said Plum is undergoing a huge transition. She has confidence Plum will eventually live up to her lofty expectations.

“It’s like going from high school to the NBA,” Johnson said. “Some players are ready. LeBron James was ready. Kobe (Bryant), when he went in, he wasn’t ready. It took him a year or two to get ready. This is the best of the best.”

Eight of the last nine top picks in the WNBA draft have won the Rookie of the Year award. Plum does not want to be the second exception.

Her work ethic as a pro is the same as it has been at other levels. She is the first player to show up at practice and the last to leave. After a recent session, she stayed on the court for an extra hour to work out with Becky Hammon, a former Stars great who is an assistant coach for the Spurs.

“She was saying that you’ve got to become a wizard off the pick-and-rolls and passing with the right hand versus passing with your left,” Plum said “Just like gold nuggets of information.”

Forget Harden. Plum would rather follow in Hammon’s footsteps.

“Just to be able to see someone still dominate the game with your mind, that’s the level you want to get to as a point guard,” Plum said.

Throughout the last two months, when she has gotten down, Jim Plum has been there to guide her.

He told her this drought will be temporary. He has encouraged her to use this time as an opportunity to be a sponge around her coaches and to be the loudest possible cheerleader for her teammates.

Plum is once again deeply focused. She has written down new goals for herself, and she’s dead set on achieving them.

According to Jim, these are the times when she excels the most.

“I think this is very humbling and actually very positive because she’s just going to have to work,” he said.

That’s something she’s always been good at.