<
>

High-scoring Kelsey Plum learning how valuable she can be as a passer, too

She's just a junior, but only nine active players in Division I have scored more career points than Kelsey Plum. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

SEATTLE -- Even as the rest of the world wiped sleep from its eyes and stumbled in search of coffee, early-morning pickup games were a bond between Kelsey Plum and her dad throughout her adolescence. She was usually the only girl on the court, but with Joe, she always got a game.

Not that such sentimentality stopped Plum's fury at her dad's shot selection.

Nor did it stop her from occasionally walking home, too angry with him to endure the car ride.

There was the time she had already hit perhaps half a dozen jumpers in a back-and-forth game. Her eyes lit up as she passed the ball to her dad and watched her defender double team him. She all but did jumping jacks to gesture to him to pass the ball back for an open shot. Instead, he tried the kind of fadeaway jumper from the baseline that made Kobe Bryant both famous and, sadly for Plum in this instance, unique.

The shot missed. The opposing team scored. Joe told her he thought he had it. She told him that no, no he didn't. And she started walking.

"When I started to get older, I realized my dad is such a black hole," Plum said with a rueful shake of the head. "When the ball goes inside, it is not coming back out. There have been so many pickup games we lost because he thought he should hit the game winner."

"One of the things that makes basketball unique is you don't need anything but a ball. You don't even need a basket. ... Basketball you can just be out there on your own, and I think I loved that element about it." Washington junior Kelsey Plum

It can be a helpless feeling to watch someone else take the ball and decide your fate. And yet the next step in Plum as one of the nation's premier players, and the University of Washington thus one of its ascendant programs, is learning just how valuable she can be even then.

Few players are better suited to take the last shot, or any shot, than Plum. There are only nine active players in Division I who have scored more career points. That's impressive on its own, but it is startling in that she is only a junior, the only one among the top 20 active leading scorers.

With the basketball in her hand, she can do almost anything. Her mom played volleyball in college. So did two older sisters, one of whom still plays professionally in Europe. Plum played volleyball, too -- even loved it. But basketball, in some ways literally the ball itself, proved her passion.

"I think one of the things that makes basketball unique is you don't need anything but a ball," Plum said. "You don't even need a basket. In volleyball, you kind of need the net, you need some people to play with, you need someone to throw you a ball to set it.

"Basketball you can just be out there on your own, and I think I loved that element about it."

She scored 23 points in her first college game. But named a captain as a freshman, she struggled to understand what to do with that responsibility. Confidence and competitiveness earned her the distinction, but the endless hours in the gym on which those traits were built and sustained, left little room for nuance. The kind of nuance that is the difference between leading and waiting to be followed.

"We didn't have a kid who was in the gym as often, in the office as often watching film, seeking out advice and criticism from coaches," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "So it's only natural that when it's a young kid, it has kind of been viewed as being a brown-noser or a suck-up. ... That's human nature. And that happened. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that it didn't."

To better understand what Plum sees when she looks at a court, it is helpful to understand what Neighbors, then the associate coach, and former Washington head coach Kevin McGuff saw when they looked at the potential crown jewel of their first full recruiting class. Following one of his initial conversations with Plum, then a high school junior, McGuff walked into the office and told Neighbors to get on the phone with her. That wasn't normal. His mind more attuned to scouting and skill development, Neighbors took the recruiting lead on only rare occasions.

Great recruiters accentuate culture, campus and legacy. Washington surely pitched all of that, too. But McGuff felt something might connect.

"We were going to feature her so much that somebody who had a great knowledge of our X's and O's may deliver our pitch better than somebody I might normally have recruit who was just good at recruiting in general," McGuff, now Ohio State's coach, said of his reasoning. "She's such a basketball junkie that (it seemed as if) she would really enjoy learning the nuances of our offense before she got there and how she was going to fit in."

Neighbors told her she wouldn't be among the best freshmen he had coached. She liked that. Give her the ball and let her prove otherwise.

By the end of last season, when Washington made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, Plum's approach no longer made her the outlier. She led the team in scoring. Alongside the seniors, she simply led. Maybe not perfectly yet. But better by the day. And now, as the program graduated its assists leader from each of the past two seasons, Plum is the de facto point guard, too.

While spring knee surgery proved an obstacle, playing for the United States in the Pan-American Games proved an opportunity. As much as the games were an experience, practice gave Plum the chance to compete against the likes of Connecticut All-American guard Moriah Jefferson, who offered advice on playing the position.

"She became a better passer," Jefferson said. "She was out there making passes, and normally you see Kelsey getting a lot of shots up. I think she really turned into a point guard over the summer."

Neighbors isn't trying to turn her into a distributor. He guaranteed before the season that she would take more shots in 2015-16 than in either of her first two seasons. Through six games, Plum is averaging 28 points, including 34 in a victory this past week against Texas Tech. That is what she does as well as anyone in the country and has since the day she arrived. But just as naming her captain was in part about using her own drive to make her a more complete player, so is the new role.

It is evident in listening to her talk about the hours of film of Chris Paul running the pick-and-roll with Blake Griffin she studied in the offseason.

"[Paul] comes off these screens and his head is up. He's always setting up the screen so well. It's amazing to me how slow he goes off the screen," Plum said. "We look at him and think he's so quick, and he is quick and athletic, but the way he comes off the screen, his body is going slow but you can see the wheels turning in his mind."

And you could see them turn as she spoke about it.

There are limits to even the greatest player's ability to control her own fate in a game. At some point, as Plum was reminded that day her dad's fadeaway jumper clanged off the rim, the ball ends up in someone else's hands.

You can either get angry at the result or figure out how to influence it and avoid a long walk home.