In the summer of 2015, Kelsey Plum walked into the pickup game of her life. Inside Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle, nine guys were looking for a 10th player. With nobody available from the University of Washington men’s basketball team, the nine were assessing their options when Plum entered the gym.
“Oh, perfect,” one of them said. “We need you.”
Plum, 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, looked across the floor and wondered whom she would guard. In front of her stood 7-1 Spencer Hawes of the Charlotte Hornets, 6-7 Quincy Pondexter of the New Orleans Pelicans, and 6-6 Tony Wroten of the Philadelphia 76ers. Also on the floor were 5-9 Isaiah Thomas, a future All-Star with the Boston Celtics, and 5-9 Nate Robinson, who won three slam dunk championships as a New York Knick.
“It was like, ‘Wow,’” said Plum, the San Antonio Stars’ selection and the No. 1 pick overall in last month’s WNBA draft. “[They were] straight out of the NBA.”
It was a wonderful and humbling experience. In one blink-of-an-eye sequence, Robinson picked Plum at mid-court and went the other way for a basket.
“I won’t forget that,” Plum said, laughing at the memory, “because I didn’t do very well.”
Dejounte Murray, the San Antonio Spurs rookie point guard whose lone season at Washington coincided with Plum’s junior season, did not play in that contest. But he has played so much pickup basketball with her that the games tend to blur together. One contest, however, stands out. The nine guys on the floor included Murray, Hawes, Thomas, Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers, and a sprinkling of NBA Development League players. The 10th player was Plum.
“She could facilitate, score at all three levels, and create her own shot,” Murray said. “She played defense. She was the only woman out there playing with a bunch of pros and held her own because of the work she puts in when nobody is watching.”
When nobody was watching in 2015-16, Plum and Murray spent hours at the University of Washington gym alone at night, dribbling, shooting, honing their game. When nobody was watching, Plum competed against an array of elite males – from 6-9 Michael Porter Jr., a forward from Seattle who’s the nation’s No. 1 high school prospect, and 6-4 Huskies point guard Markelle Fultz, the probable No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, to so many pros she can’t remember them all. From the crucible of testosterone-fueled high school, college, and NBA competition, Plum emerged as the leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball history, a WNBA rookie with an astonishing skill set.
Plum possesses a quicker release than Golden State All-Star Klay Thompson – .41 seconds compared to .45 seconds – and a wrist flick almost as quick as the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the best shooter in the world, according to an ESPN Sport Science report.
The science squares with experience. Ask Will Conroy, an assistant men’s basketball coach at Washington. Two years of playing one-on-one and plenty of pickup with Plum inspired a startling assessment.
“She’s got an NBA game,” Conroy told the Seattle Times, “because she plays against a lot of the NBA guys in the summers.”
The University Washington, in effect, served as a four-year NBA camp for Plum. To play pickup at UW often meant facing a future NBA lottery pick, such as Fultz, and three top 10 picks, such as Hawes and forwards Terrence Ross (Orlando Magic) and Marquese Chriss (Phoenix Suns). It meant challenging four other first-round picks — Robinson, Pondexter, Murray and Wroten — and a second-rounder, Thomas.
Look at her freeze and go, blow past a defender, and score. Plum learned the hesitation move from Robinson. Look at the lightning release. She mastered it under Thomas. Look at her separate and shoot, knock down the mid-range, hit from distance, finish at the rim. Plum studied the elite, practiced against the best, and became unstoppable.
Another takeaway: “You have to be decisive,” Plum said. “You can’t go in hesitant. Because any second of hesitation and they’re going to steal it or you’re not gonna get the play off. The other thing is you’ve got to be fearless. You can’t show any signs of weakness or fear.”
Women understand. To elevate their game, they need to hoop against guys. Elite middle school and high school girls practice against boys. Women at the college and WNBA level take on men. Vickie Johnson, the Stars’ head coach, scrimmaged against Isiah Thomas – the Hall of Famer who won two NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons – when she played for the New York Liberty. When Johnson left New York for San Antonio, she and a teammate, Becky Hammon, went to the gym at Tony Parker’s house to practice against the Spurs’ All-Star point guard.
Johnson notes that one of the Stars, shooting guard Kayla McBride, practices with NBA players. But Johnson doesn’t know anyone at the college level who’s played against as much NBA talent – and as often – as Plum.
“I don’t think anybody has practiced against nine NBA guys,” Johnson said. “That’s impressive. That’s why she’s able to get her shot off so quickly. That’s why she was able to score so much in college.”
Jim Plum knew he had to get his daughter stronger competition. It wasn’t simply that Kelsey, at the age of 10, informed her mother she was going to play in the WNBA. It wasn’t only that Kelsey could outplay her peers. There was a certain safety and sensitivity issue at play.
“She would throw passes and hit girls in the face and make them cry,” said Jim, who played football and baseball at San Diego State. “And then she would yell at them, ‘You gotta have that!’”
At 12, Kelsey accompanied Jim to LA Fitness near their home in San Diego to play pickup games against men. Eyes rolled. Guys groaned. No one wanted to guard her. Then Kelsey began draining 3-pointers. The conversation changed – “Who’s got the girl?” – and respect followed. Soon, Jim taught Kelsey how to use her knee and hip, how to land a forearm shiver to the spleen.
“Don’t let them use you like a dishrag,” Jim would tell her, and the girl became a bit of a beast.
Jim is 6-3 and competitive, a kind man with a strong faith and a sharp sense of humor. To avoid one particular household chore, Jim engaged Kelsey in a free throw shooting contest or a game of H-O-R-S-E in the backyard. The loser had to pick up pine needles and shovel dog poop.
“I’d crush her like a grape,” Jim said. “And we had a Greater Swiss Mountain dog that weighed about 130 pounds and left a big mess.”
Jim offered no mercy. As Kelsey fulfilled her duty, he pulled up a chair and began thanking the makers of Geritol for sponsoring his victory. When Kelsey got good enough to beat him, the shooting contests ended.
The competitive fire in Jim’s daughter, though, grew stronger. That should not come as a surprise. Kelsey comes from a family of athletes. Her mother, Katie, played volleyball at the University of California-Davis, as did her sister, Kaitlyn. A second sister, Lauren, played volleyball at Oregon.
Kelsey played volleyball, too, and excelled until she got her first taste of basketball. Then she knew. Her future was in the WNBA.
How does an aspiring athlete at the age of 10 know such a thing? Consider the case of Jackie Stiles. Before the WNBA existed, Stiles told her second-grade teacher she would become a professional basketball player. And she did – but not before setting the career scoring record in NCAA women’s history, a record Kelsey broke on Feb. 25. Needing 54 points to become the new scoring champion, Kelsey dropped 57. She finished her career with 3,527 points.
Call it coincidence. Call it providence. Whatever you choose, the fact is Stiles and Plum are both 5-8, made history, and knew, at an early age, they would become pros.
Now here is Plum, a groundbreaking pro, generating excitement among her NBA counterparts. During a recent broadcast of the San Antonio-Memphis playoff series, color analyst and former Spur Sean Elliott gushed about the arrival of Plum. Elliott said he couldn’t wait to see her play for the Stars.
After a recent Spurs practice, Murray gushed, too.
“She has the whole package,” he said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll hang out and play pickup. She loves the gym.”
For Kelsey, time stops in the gym. It’s as if she’s living in a realm where there is no beginning, no end. Jim saw it when she was a child. He’d tell her to stop shooting for the night, that she had school the next day, that there were neighbors to consider – but Kelsey would protest.
“Ten more,” she would say. “Ten more.”
In high school, in college, and in San Antonio, Kelsey has been the last one off the floor. The one most likely to play pickup after practice or a personal workout, and it shows. She scored 19 points, dealt five assists, made two steals, and had zero turnovers in her preseason debut against the Dallas Wings on April 29, an 87-81 victory for San Antonio.
Her future? It looks a lot like one of her pickup games against a court full of NBA players. Driving. Stopping. Finishing at the rim. Separating. Rising. Hitting from distance. Taken together, the snapshots paint a portrait of a player, perhaps, taking the WNBA where it has never gone before.