Kelsey Plum is superb and unsatisfied

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports /

Kelsey Plum and University of Washington coach Mike Neighbors have a tight bond. The latter was Plum’s lead recruiter, and it was his ascension as UW’s head coach four years ago that convinced the highly-decorated 5-foot-8 Plum to spurn the decorated high-major legacy programs and enroll as a Husky—the move, at the time, was akin to LeBron James actually committing to Akron.

Neighbors has never tested Plum’s decision: he pitched Washington as a place where she would receive the very best in skill development, and even she acknowledges she wouldn’t be on the precipice of breaking the all-time NCAA women’s scoring record—a decades-old mark—without Neighbors’ tutelage.

But when Plum got the first look at the 2017 UW schedule during the summer before her senior season, she was, in Neighbor’s words, “very upset.” The reason? Neighbors hadn’t scheduled enough east coast games. “I tried,” he says. “Most teams don’t want a return game out here, and it was hard to get games with who we had coming back.”

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Fresh off the program’s first Final Four run, Washington might be the most intriguing team in women’s basketball this season: a west coast outlier amidst the sport’s pseudo east coast bias. That rise is wholly due to Plum, who bypassed the WNBA for one more chance to win a national title. And if she breaks a record that had largely been deemed to be unbreakable, well then, she’s fine with that too.

“To be honest, I haven’t thought of the record at all,” says Plum, referring to Jackie Stiles’ NCAA-record 3,393 points. “It’s an honor, and it’s probably something I should relish a bit more, but that’s not where I want to spend my time. Right now, I don’t really care.”

“To be honest, I haven’t thought of the record at all.”

Which is why she was so hard on Neighbors when she viewed UW’s upcoming slate. Other than the preseason NIT, a tournament in which Washington reached the finals before dropping the title game to Notre Dame, the Huskies haven’t played an opponent located in the Eastern Time zone all season. If Washington is going to contend like Plum believes it can, the squad needed those high-profile games. For many, women’s college basketball starts in Storrs and Knoxville with brief detours to South Bend and Palo Alto, but it’s hard to ignore Plum’s scoring prowess and offensive brilliance (even it means staying up a bit later to catch a UW game).

“Kelsey keeps telling me, ‘Coach, if we win enough games, people will notice,’” says Neighbors. “We don’t talk about her being overshadowed because I don’t think she needs to be motivated by that. Motivation has never been an issue with Kelsey.”

Plum grew up in an uber competitive family—her parents and siblings were all college athletes—and that environment clearly influenced not only her personality (the morning of this interview, she raced her teammates through the streets of Seattle to the UW bookstore) but her playing style.

The left-handed Plum has a streamlined game that was built after countless early morning hours spent in gyms throughout her entire life. Her jump shot doesn’t appear unstoppable, starting near her face and barely rising from her hand before a defender closes out, but she is equipped with a sneaky quick release and a classically perfected form. What transforms Plum into a truly transcendent talent is identifying holes—however briefly they appear—on the floor and then attacking, often drawing a foul in the process. Her speed isn’t blazing, but it is steady; once she gets an edge on a defender, she keeps the player on her hip for as long as possible before launching into the air, seeking out contact while still making the layup.

She is a nightmare to defend off the bounce in isolation because even when she is executing a seemingly simple move, she has so many different counters. “She is so good at making the defense wrong,” says Neighbors, who enhanced Plum’s already robust film study with clips of James Harden and Chris Paul. “Icing the ball screen became more popular in the women’s game about two years ago, so we wanted her to attack in a manner similar to Harden or Paul,” says Neighbors.

“She is so good at making the defense wrong.”

During a mid-January win against Arizona, a team coached by former UW assistant Adia Barnes, Plum faced a gamut of ever-changing defenses, including at least eight different types of screen coverage, zone flooding, and shading. Plum wasn’t fazed, dropping 36 points and handing out 5 assists, a performance that prompted Neighbors to describe as a “a 40-minute microcosm of Kelsey doing whatever she needed to do to make the defense wrong.”

It’s rare that Plum doesn’t score 30 or more points a game (that includes the four times she’s scored 40-plus). And though she is one of the game’s most electric talents in recent memory, Plum had outlined goals that even the headiest of women’s players might find challenging to reach. But as Neighbors adds, “Kelsey is laser focused.”

There really wasn’t a reason for Plum to come back for her senior season. The guard was nearly perfect—that was enough to warrant a lottery pick in the WNBA draft—but life in the Plum household, coupled with early childhood experiences, formed an unshakable concept of how the ‘real world’ could sink someone unprepared to be challenged.

Despite all those accolades and praise from idols like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, Plum’s shoulder will always have a chip. “I remember going to a USA tryout, and my mom telling me, ‘There are five other really good point guards here, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t make the team,’” she says. “When I was younger, I’d ask, ‘Mom, why can’t you just tell me I’m amazing?’ But she was always realistic and honest with me, and I’m grateful for it now.”

Without that mentality, Plum doesn’t tell Neighbors “within a second” last spring that she’ll return for her senior year. It also explains why she innately understood that improvements had to be made to her game. According to both Plum and her coach, there has been a marked difference between her junior and senior seasons, which is astounding since Plum scored nearly 1,000 points in 2016.

“I could have gone pro, but my game wasn’t as refined as it could have been.”

For the first time since she arrived at the Pac-12 school, Plum rarely left UW’s campus for the summer. Typically, Plum would spend a few weeks at her southern California home, but she realized that by leaving the school, she’d forego an opportunity to fix the holes that only Plum sees in her game. “I felt like I could get more consistent and more efficient,” she says. “During my junior year, there were a lot of shots I didn’t make that I should have, and once I get to the WNBA, the window is a bit smaller to get my shot off.”

She continues, “I could have gone pro, but my game wasn’t as refined as it could have been, and I want to be as ready and prepared as possible.” Her summer goals were multi-tiered—she needed to add range to her jump shot; elevate her shooting off the dribble; and, perhaps most crucially, improve her conditioning, which included training her heart rate to remain balanced (even after series and series of sprints) and her diet. “I don’t necessarily eat bad,” she says, “but I didn’t pay attention to all the sour creams, cheeses, and butter I ate.”

She played pickup at local runs several times a week with former NBA guard Nate Robinson and possible future top pick Michael Porter Jr, honing her skills against what might just be the most talented collection of practice players. “You have to be a lot more decisive when you are playing against grown men,” she says. “I’d dribble into the paint, and Michael is unlike anyone I’ve played against, with his size and skill. I’d dribble right back out.”

But Robinson, himself an undersized guard, dropped knowledge throughout their workouts. “He’d spray little tidbit stuff,” explains Plum, such as raising her form against certain players to get a shot off quicker or seeking out the body more often.

The change in her offseason routine has been transformative. Only one other high-major guard converts more of her attempts from the field than Plum (52 percent) in 2017, and she is just a few made free throws away from registering a 50/40/90 stat line—so far—for the entire season. What’s been most interesting, though, is how the growth of the UW program has benefitted her performance.

Washington isn’t just Plum; Chantel Osahor is making nearly 40 percent of her 3-pointers, and since transferring from Nebraska, Natalie Romeo has helped complete a triumvirate of scoring options that UW can depend on every possession. “It’s not a goal for me to play 40 minutes anymore,” says Plum. “I can play 32, and get out of there. That’ll maybe change when we get to the postseason, but I can take a break and watch the young guys get in the action.”

The added bonus of all that help has alleviated the defensive attention paid to Plum. As Neighbors explains, “As a freshman and sophomore, we needed her to create some shots no one in the country made more than 20 percent from. With Chantel and Natalie, she gets more open shots per game than she ever did before, so we’ve had to work on what exactly does she do when she is open. Does she catch-and-shoot? Does she work on pausing?” She’s even played off the ball and in the post to open more areas of the court for her to create from.

So while everyone around the Husky program fully stresses the ultimate end goal is getting back to the Final Four, it’s hard to dismiss the profound accomplishment should Plum break Stiles’ all-time scoring mark. She doesn’t often talk about what would have happened if she bypassed UW for a more established high-major program. “I do know I wouldn’t have had a green light like I do, and I wouldn’t have been able to be as creative as I have become,” she says.

She continues, “I’m very open about what I think I need to work on, and how much further I need to go. In order to grow as a player, you have to be able to recognize you’re not perfect.”