In Madison Square Garden, Kelsey Plum played like the No. 1 pick. She ran the offense, found the open teammate, drained the three, drove to the basket, and made all her free throws. She kept the San Antonio Stars within striking distance of the New York Liberty until the final minutes of the game, an 81-69 defeat Sept. 1.
From the opening tip, Plum was all heart and hustle. In the first few minutes, she delivered a bounce pass for an assist, knocked down a corner three, drew a foul on a drive, sank both free throws, and had a hand in each of the Stars’ 13 points during that early stretch. She played tough defense, infused the offense with energy, and finished with a team-high 18 points and four assists.
It wasn’t Plum’s best game offensively – she dropped 23 on Seattle and dealt 12 assists against Washington – but she looked a lot like the player fans expected after the Stars made her the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft.
The following night, Plum helped the Stars end their league-worst season (8-26) with a come-from-behind 75-71 win at Indiana, scoring 11 points and adding five assists and two steals.
The Plum of September looked nothing like the player in June who scored just 12 points during a six-game stretch. Or like the player in May who shot 30% from the field. Or like the player who struggled for months with a sprained right ankle, which hampered her performance and led to limited minutes and much frustration.
How and when did she find her groove?
The All-Star break in late July allowed Plum three days to rest her body and clear her mind, to find respite from the pressure that weighs on No. 1 picks. The ankle she sprained during the preseason felt completely healed. When the team resumed practice, she approached her struggling head coach, who had lost 13 of her first 15 games, and had a heart-to-heart.
The conversation was candid, the emotion raw. The discussion went beyond Xs and Os to mindset and teamwork and a future that glimmers with greatness.
“I played 13 years in the WNBA and 15 years overseas and I retired from the WNBA because I wanted to, not because I had to,” Coach Vickie Johnson told Plum. “I want you to have a long and successful career and when you decide to retire, you retire on your terms and not on anyone else’s.”
Johnson considers the conversation a turning point.
“That’s when she realized that I’m here for her, that I’m here to make her better, and I’m very happy and proud to be her coach,” Johnson said. “Basketball is about growth. If you come in with a mindset that 'I’ve already arrived' and that 'I’m already good and can’t get better,' then the game is gonna leave you behind.”
To understand Plum’s growth, consider the two halves of her season. She averaged 5.9 points and 2.4 assists before the All-Star break – and 12.3 points and 4.8 assists after the break. Not surprisingly, her playing time increased from 18 minutes per game to 30.
All at once, Plum seemed to regain her health and confidence, her shot, and feel for the game as well as the trust of her coach. She considers the first game after the All-Star break – a loss against Washington – a pivot, a point when she found her rhythm. In 19 minutes, she scored 15 points and had three assists.
“The second half I didn’t think, I just played,” she said. “I was pretty productive. I just kind of felt like myself.”
Plum spent much of her college career practicing and scrimmaging against NBA players. If she could score and assist against the likes of Cleveland Cavaliers' Isaiah Thomas, the Spurs' Dejounte Murray, and the Chicago Bulls' Quincy Pondexter, it stood to reason she could compete with the WNBA elite. But it took half the season for Plum to heal and figure out the new league. The adjustment, Johnson said, was more mental than physical.
“She changed her mindset from a college mindset to a WNBA mindset,” Johnson said. “She didn’t understand the speed of the WNBA game. The second half of the season, she understood.”
Plum admits she arrived to the WNBA on a cloud. She came with awards and records, with some calling her the greatest women’s college player of all time. As the leading scorer in NCAA women’s history, the hype was understandable. But then came the rookie surprise: hitting earth with a thud.
“It was a very humbling experience,”
Plum said. “That’s where you grow the most. It’s been a difficult year, but I think that’s really gonna help me in the long run.”
Plum leaves for Istanbul, Turkey, soon to play with Fenerbahce in the FIBA EuroLeague Women. Johnson believes the overseas competition will take Plum’s game to another level. “I think she will lead the league in assists next season,” Johnson said. “And I think with that she will have the ability to truly organize and run the team.”
Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky led the league in assists this season with 8.1 per game. Plum averaged 3.4. To approach the WNBA leader, Plum would have to more than double her production.
What does she expect? “I hope to win Most Improved Player,” Plum said. “I think that’s very reasonable.”
Reasonable seems like a fair assessment. After the All-Star break, Plum started playing like The Most Improved.