Kelsey Plum’s First Impression

It was supposed to be a simple drill.

Take some 3-pointers from different spots on the court, tally up the points, move on to the next station. Of all the high school players at the University of Washington for a summer shooting camp, Mike Neighbors picked Kelsey Plum to take some shots.

Before she started, Plum asked Neighbors what the point record was. She would make a few, but then a miss. Plum stopped.

Again. Can I run it again?

“She kept going until she was satisfied, and this was a drill in the summer circuit,” said Neighbors, Plum’s head coach at Washington. “That was my introduction to her, even before she got to college, she had this crazy standard for herself.”

Plum’s high school coach, Terri Bamford, remembers their first meeting at La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego. Plum looked at a banner and trophy of an alumnus, Candice Wiggins, who was a McDonalds All-American and an All-American in college before an eight-year NBA career.

What do I need to do to get there?

For the next four years, Plum would be there at 6 a.m. when Bamford unlocked the gym.

“I was amazed,” Bamford said. “That mental toughness, that competitive drive, and she’s shown her passion for the game ever since.”

Those were Kelsey Plum’s introductions four years ago for college, and four years before that.

Her next first impression has a few more expectations behind them, now that she’s the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft and the holder of the NCAA scoring record.

Plum goes to a Spurs game and it turns into a viral video. She gets compared to James Harden and Harden joins her for dinner.

With all this attention, she has no choice but to take all the acclaim in stride. Good thing she has a quicker stride than almost any other woman on the court.

“Even if we didn’t say there was an expectation, there’s a huge expectation,” Plum said. “People’s expectations for me are unreal, and that’s ok. I think for me if I look at that it takes the fun out of basketball. I love to play the game, so the last thing I’m doing is looking at statistics or votes, because at the end of the day, expectations don’t win games.”

The expectation is clear:

Eight of the past nine No. 1 overall picks went on to win the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award.

“You all love throwing that stat out there,” Plum said.

Plum earned that high standard when she set the NCAA women’s records for career scoring (3,527) and points in a season (1,109 in 2016-17). As a junior, she took Washington to its first Final Four in school history.

At the moment, her career WNBA stats are all zeroes. Plum said she’s trying to prove herself like any other rookie.

“There was a lot of pressure on me my senior year, and you can probably triple it coming into this,” Plum said. “You’re never given more than you can handle, and I’m going to focus on playing and learning.”

Plum was nation’s leading scorer with a 31.7-point average, setting the career scoring record with 57 points on the Huskies’ senior night. She shot .428 from 3-point range even as she faced constant double-teams.

And now she will have to prove how the points will come for the 5-foot-8 guard at the WNBA level.

“We didn’t know if her skillset was going to translate to the big, athletic college basketball world either,” Bamford said. “Look how that worked out.”

Plum’s first month as a pro has not been easy by any measure.

The two weeks between the end of the college basketball season and the start of training camp were mostly spent on flights to various award ceremonies and the WNBA Draft. Plum’s itinerary took her from Seattle to Dallas, to Boston, to Philadelphia, to Los Angeles, to Portland, to Seattle, to New York, back to Seattle, then San Antonio.

Plum led the Stars in scoring in her first preseason game but suffered a sprained ankle in training camp the following week. The best glimpse of Plum’s attitude and intensity might have come with her on the sidelines.

In a boot, Plum was still itching to get on the court and take shots, pleading to get cleared for at least a few minutes. When Stars coach Vickie Johnson ran practice, Plum had a clipboard and marker in her hands, taking notes the entire time.

“She’s going to be a superstar,” Johnson said. “She’s open to learning, and I think this transition will be easy for her because of the way she studies and prepares for the game.”

Her work ethic and pure shooting became viral videos at Washington long before she started tossing T-shirts at the AT&T Center. That T-shirt video, by the way, was the most shared video in Stars history.

During one practice, with the Huskies band drumming a few feet away, Plum sank 145 straight free throws.

Another, called the 99 shooting drill, counts three points for every made 3-pointer and minus-three for any consecutive misses until the shooter gets to 99. Plum’s record time for finishing the drill is 1 minute, 53.10 seconds.

ESPN Sport Science measured her wrist flick and release time with similarity to Golden State stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

“San Antonio is getting a kid who is a great leader and a great follower,” Neighbors said. “We stopped setting preseason goals with her, because I didn’t want to set the bar too low. We just kept striving for excellence. And the hardest thing for me is that I’m not sure I ever really got as much out of her as I could have. There’s still a lot of room to grow.”

Plum’s current coach has already spotted many of the same qualities. When asked for a comparison, Johnson was quick to answer.

“Becky Hammon,” she said. “Kelsey reminds me of Becky, for the time and work she puts in and the respect she has for the game.”

Comparisons, though, are not Plum’s favorite subject.

She was compared to James Harden since they’re both crafty lefties who can create their own shots, and Plum has spent hours looking at film of Harden’s eurostep. Harden said to WNBA.com that he appreciated her game. When he was in San Antonio for the playoffs, they had a meeting at a dinner.

But Plum never had any intention of becoming the female James Harden. When she was growing up, she looked up to Diana Taurasi.

“It’s cool for him to pay respects and recognize a female playing,” Plum said. “Anything we can bring to the women’s game is good for us. In the future, it would be nice to have female-to-female comparisons. I never compared myself to men. Hopefully, in the future we can do a better job of that.”

If there’s a team that gets San Antonio talking about Stars basketball, it may be the 2017 lineup. Plum joins a Stars core that includes 2016 No. 2 pick and fellow Staley and Lieberman Award winner Moriah Jefferson, and 2014 No. 3 pick Kayla McBride.

It’s a young core and a new one. Kayla Alexander, who joined the Stars in 2013, is the team’s longest-tenured player.

Johnson is in her first season as a head coach and is joined by first-year assistants Latricia Trammell, Joi Williams.

Two months ago, Plum was adding to her NCAA career scoring mark. Now, she’s the rookie, making a first impression.

According to some of those who know her best, Plum will be just fine.

“Being in Seattle, I’ve met Bill Gates and I’ve met Jeff Bezos,” Neighbors said. “Kelsey has the ability to focus better than anyone I’ve ever been in contact with. People like them can probably identify with her, but I certainly can’t.”

– Lorne Chan
lchan@attcenter.com