WNBA playoffs 2022 - The price and payoff of Kelsey Plum's lifelong obsession with winning

2022-08-26 19:58:12 By : Ms. Eva He

Get an inside look at Kelsey Plum's journey as she hopes to take home her first WNBA title. (2:09)

PLASTIC BAGS DRAPED over her arms, a 9-year-old Kelsey Plum stomped across the backyard at her family's Poway, California, home. She bent down and scooped up the sunbaked droppings that her dog, Riley Jane, had left behind. Riley Jane was a greater Swiss mountain dog who weighed more than 120 pounds. The bigger the dog, the bigger the poop.

Kelsey's dad, Jim, had just beaten her in HORSE. Again. Her reward was picking up Riley Jane's poop. Piles of it. This wasn't a dainty, one-plastic-bag operation, like taking a beagle on a walk at your local dog park. Plum had multiple bags. And she'd fill them all. She could hear her dad gloating while she traipsed through the yard.

"It's so nice not having to pick up poop," Jim said as he took a long sip of cold water.

Kelsey hated this. She hated picking up dog poop, but mostly she hated losing.

After finishing her task, Plum went back to the family's backyard basketball court. She planted her feet at the makeshift free throw line, bent her knees, and arched her left hand toward the sky to send the ball through the net. She did it again, and again, and again, pounding the ball on the pavement between shots with the fury of a third grader angry at her father.

She spent hours and weeks and years working on her shot. But those games of HORSE still ended with Plum trudging through the grass picking up after Riley Jane, listening to her father taunt her from yards away.

Until one day, she beat him. Then, she beat him again. She kept beating him, and throwing taunts Jim's way as he cleaned up Riley Jane's poop.

"Finally he stopped playing me," Kelsey says now. "It took me years, but I got it."

Plum isn't afraid of the long game; she relishes it. After falling short of expectations during her first few years in the WNBA, the 2017 No. 1 draft pick is having a career year in what could be a historic season for the Las Vegas Aces. She was the WNBA's second-leading scorer in the regular season at 20.2 points per game, including shooting 42% from beyond the arc, and was ninth in assists at 5.1 per game. Her 113 made 3-point shots were the second most in WNBA history and a single-season franchise record, surpassing the mark set by first-year Aces head coach and WNBA legend Becky Hammon (80) in 2012. She was named the MVP of the 2022 All-Star Game. After tearing her Achilles in 2020 and going through a yearslong process of self-discovery, "Plum Dawg" is playing at the level many expected from her when she entered the league after setting the NCAA all-time scoring record at Washington. She's playing like the Kelsey Plum that was promised.

After averaging 22 points and 3.5 assists in a first-round sweep of the Phoenix Mercury, Plum and the top-seeded Aces will play the Seattle Storm in the semifinals starting Sunday. Plum, the reigning Sixth Player of the Year, is in the conversation for Most Improved Player and has an outside shot at MVP. But her individual play matters less to her than it used to. Plum wants to hang a banner from the rafters and capture the franchise's first WNBA championship. "It doesn't matter unless you win," Plum says.

Plum didn't win a championship in college, and she has yet to do so in the pros. But from scooping poop to a long walk home in the rain, Plum might have finally discovered how to realize her lifelong obsession with winning.

KELSEY GREW UP as the second youngest of four children, and the youngest of the three Plum sisters. Her two older sisters, Kaitlyn and Lauren, played volleyball like their mother, Katie. Younger brother Dan was a football player like their dad. Everything the family did turned into a competition.

First to the family car. First to buckle their seat belt got gum. Fastest to finish washing the dishes. Right-handed dinner. Left-handed dinner.

"My family is kind of ridiculous," Lauren says. "Everything's a game. Kelsey would take things very personally and she would use all of that to fuel her fire. It's tough being the youngest girl. Everyone already has two years of development on you."

Kelsey looked to cut her own path. She played a different sport than her sisters, and also went to different schools. When she transferred schools in fourth grade, Kelsey didn't like her teacher. Jim and Katie told Kelsey that if she wanted to switch classes, she needed to talk to the principal. If nothing changed after that conversation, then they would provide backup.

So fourth grader Kelsey marched into the principal's office and asked for a meeting. When the receptionist asked why, Kelsey replied, "It's personal." Just as her dad instructed. Kelsey was ushered into the principal's office, and she calmly laid out her desire to change classes. The principal listened, and moved her to a different classroom.

"She has been a great advocate for herself," Jim says. "I've never fought her battles, she always fights her own battles. I just stay out of the way."

It wasn't uncommon for Jim and Katie to empower their kids to make their own decisions. After putting an addition onto their home, Lauren and Kelsey were told to settle who would get the new, big bedroom, between themselves. The two sisters had been sharing a room; now they'd each get their own. Lauren argued that Kelsey should want to keep their old room because it had a nice view of the pool. Twelve-year-old Kelsey thought that sounded pretty good, so she opted to stay. It wasn't a week before she realized what happened. "Lauren's one of the best swindlers I've ever known on this Earth," Kelsey says now.

"I had two more years of brain development," Lauren says. "I had to get the room somehow."

As Kelsey entered middle school, she often accompanied her dad to play pickup. He called her K-money or sometimes just Plummer, which Jim used for all the kids. Kelsey and Jim ran a devastating two-person game -- Jim in the post and Kelsey on the perimeter. Kelsey knew that once the ball went into the post, Jim might not be kicking it back out. She called Jim the Black Hole. "He'd hit maybe one or two shots and he'd think he was the hottest thing ever," Kelsey says.

One game, she passed the ball into Jim, who was working hard in the post. Kelsey got her feet set and hands ready, calling for the ball on the 3-point line. Instead, Jim turned to the baseline and shot a fadeaway over a double-team. The ball clanged off the rim, and the opposing team took the ball to the other end. They hit a shot, and Kelsey's and Jim's team lost.

Kelsey was so mad she refused to get in the car with Jim. "I was like 'I'm not getting in the car with you,'" Kelsey says. "'You suck. Your ego cost us the game.'"

"It was a couple miles," Jim says.

For high school, Plum asked to go to La Jolla Country Day. During one of the first conversations Plum had with coach Terri Bamford, she told her that she was going to go to Tennessee and play for coach Pat Summitt. "She is the most competitive person I've ever met," Bamford says. "It doesn't really matter what it is, she'll compete in anything, any little game, anything we're doing."

In high school, Plum loved playing half-court 3-on-3. If the defense gets a stop, they move to offense. If the offense scores, then they stay. One practice during Plum's freshman year, Bamford put her on a team with the starting point guard. Bamford figured it would be fun for them to play together. Plum was insulted. Did Bamford not believe she could win without help from one of the team's best players?

"After practice, Kels was really mad at me," Bamford says. "She said, 'You don't think I'm any good, do you?'"

From that point on, Bamford always gave Plum a team that would be challenging to win with. And, as Bamford tells it, Plum never lost in her four years.

DRESSED IN A BLACK gown with her hair curled past her shoulders, Plum walked past Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak. Although Sisolak's daughter Carley works in the Aces' front office, Plum didn't know him and wasn't expecting to talk to him at the IX Awards hosted by the Aces at Allegiant Stadium in June. But as Plum walked by, Sisolak barked at her. Yes, the Nevada governor let out what can only be described as a few high-pitched "ruffs" in the direction of Plum.

Plum stopped and looked at him. "Sir," she said. "With all due respect, it has to come from your diaphragm." And she proceeded to rattle off a chain of "WOOFs" from deep in her abdomen. For five minutes, Plum and Gov. Sisolak traded barks at the black-tie event.

"Now he barks at me at games," Plum says.

Plum has a thing for barking. Fans bark at her, and she's affectionately referred to as Plum Dawg. Sisolak isn't even the biggest VIP Plum has barked at this season. Tom Brady got the royal treatment when he attended an Aces game. Plum went so far as to call him a dog -- a story that was relayed in a postgame news conference. "We all have dog in us," Plum says.

Plum's dog is high energy. When she gets on the court now, in her fifth WNBA season, she teems with it. She bounces on her toes, she'll pick up anybody full court, she sprints with the ball in her hands, and she sinks her lefty shot from anywhere at anytime. She might not be a big dog in terms of her stature -- standing at 5-foot-8 -- but she's definitely more bulldog than Chihuahua.

During the last game of the regular season against Seattle, Hammon motions for Plum to come out of the game. She has picked up two quick fouls, plus a technical, and Hammon doesn't want her to get another quick one. Plum starts barking before she gets to the bench. Hammon reaches up and cups Plum's cheeks. "Two minutes," she says. "It's just two minutes."

Plum, like Hammon, always wants to be on the floor. Two minutes is a lifetime. Looking at her guard on the brink of superstardom, Hammon sees a bit of herself staring back at her. "Except for she's going to be better than me," Hammon says. "It's not going to be close."

Plum is known for her bark and bite on the court. But it took a long and lonely walk to understand the impact her competitiveness can have off it.

RAIN POUNDED THE parking lot outside Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle. Plum opened the door and peeked outside, but quickly retreated once she saw the sheets of rain. Washington had just beaten Utah 53-52 in overtime. Plum scored a layup with 1:46 left to give Washington enough cushion to hold on for a win. Her 14 points shared the team high with junior Jazmine Davis.

Plum, a freshman, didn't have a car. There were no coaches in sight. With the rain pouring down, Plum looked around to try to grab a ride. Her teammates, however, left her standing there. Plum had only one option: walk the 2½ miles home alone in the rain. "I've never felt so ostracized or alone in my life," Plum says now.

When Plum got to her room, tears streamed down her cheeks, mixing with her rain-soaked clothes. She was a freshman, named captain before stepping foot on campus, and playing 37 minutes a game. Her team just won in overtime, and she helped them do it. "I walked home in the rain because no one liked me," Plum says now. "And not even not liked me, but no one cared enough to make sure I was home. It just kind of sucked."

During the walk, she considered transferring. In the 2013-14 school year, rules would have required Plum to sit out an entire season before playing elsewhere. If the rules then were like they are now? "My name would have been in the portal before I got to my dorm," Plum says.

She'd come to Washington to help build a successful program, something she'd seen her sister Lauren do playing volleyball at Oregon. Plum was ESPN's 26th-ranked recruit in her high school class, a McDonald's All American; she had plenty of options. If she opted to transfer, she likely would have had plenty of options then, too. Instead, Plum stayed. And she asked herself an important question: "What am I doing to make people feel some type of way about me?" Plum says.

"Everything was about me. I was young and I didn't know much better, but I was selfish. I felt like I played selfish. I was competitive to a point that I was angry. And I would rub people the wrong way."

Bamford, for one, had seen it coming.

"Some kids that are really, really competitive, they demand so much of themselves and they hold other people to those same standards and expectations," Bamford says. "So if you're going to be a leader, those are the right things to see, but I always talked to her about this. It's not the message that you said, it was your delivery. The delivery wasn't great."

Fueled by her competitive childhood, Plum was often the first to the gym. She'd come in at 5 a.m. to do a shooting workout, usually with an assistant coach to rebound for her. Then she'd practice with the team for two or three hours. And at night, she'd come back to shoot or play 1-on-1 with one of the men's players. "She was an overdoer," former Washington assistant coach Morgan Valley says. "She wanted to be great in everything. It doesn't matter if you're playing Go Fish, she is trying to kill you."

It was hard for Plum to see teammates not having the same killer instinct or working out the way she did. But even as she has become more patient, that fire hasn't gone away completely. "I take a lot of Kelsey's heat because I know where it comes from and I just let her do her thing," Aces forward Dearica Hamby says. "She's aggressive and that's the way she had to be at home. But she thinks twice now before she speaks."

During Plum's final two years at Washington, she lifted the Huskies onto the national stage. She led Washington to the program's first Final Four appearance her junior season, averaging 24.4 points in the NCAA tournament. As a 7-seed, Washington upset Maryland, Kentucky and Stanford en route to Indianapolis. As a senior, Plum was the consensus player of the year. She set the NCAA single-season scoring record with 1,109 points and set the NCAA career scoring record with 3,527 points, passing Jackie Stiles. She scored 40 or more points in five games and dropped 57 against Utah in Washington's regular-season finale to set the record.

"She scored [over 1,000] points in her senior year," former Washington coach Mike Neighbors says. "One year. We give 1,000-point balls to people for their career."

To outsiders observing her dominance, Plum looked joyful. Washington was winning. She was one of the most recognizable people in the sport. She was setting records and playing in front of huge crowds. But instead of feeling full, Plum began to feel empty. "I was super unfulfilled," Plum says. "I don't have any identity outside of basketball. I don't know who I am. I don't know what I even like to do. I don't know if people would like me if I wasn't going to play basketball anymore."

The louder and bigger the crowd, the worse Plum felt. After Washington's Final Four run, she started having panic attacks, and she even passed out while running on a treadmill. Blood tests and EKGs revealed nothing out of the ordinary. She asked Neighbors for elevated security at the arena because fans were pushing to get her autograph before games. There was a countdown to her breaking the scoring record in the local paper. Fans ripped her if she didn't live up to their scoring expectations. Her professors brought it up in class. "People don't mean to, but you're taking on these blown-out-of-proportion expectations of what a basketball player should be producing," Plum says now. "I just couldn't get away from it. So it just felt like the deeper I got, the less fulfilled I was."

Plum felt like her worth was inextricably tied to her ability to put a basketball through a hoop; to rain 3-point shots and lead an underdog Washington on improbable tournament runs like the second coming of Stephen Curry. She struggled with depression and anxiety. Her family was also coming apart. As Kelsey marched her way through the record books, Jim and Katie were separating. But when Kelsey had a game, the whole family was together. "I don't know if I took it on subconsciously but it was like, the better I play, the better chance we have to stick together," Plum says now.

Leaving Washington, Plum was a record breaker and an elite scorer who seemed destined for success in the WNBA. But sometimes destiny takes a detour.

WHEN PLUM HEARD her name called first at the 2017 WNBA draft, she felt nothing. She stood and hugged her family and her college coach; held the No. 1 San Antonio Stars jersey and waited for the night in New York City to end.

"It was supposed to be this beautiful day and accomplishment," Plum says. "And I just remember feeling super empty."

As the draft festivities wound down, she sidestepped invitations to go out and celebrate by telling everyone that she left her wallet in her hotel room and that she'd meet them after retrieving it. But when she got back to her room, Plum turned out the lights, ignored her phone, and went to bed.

"I was just so checked out," Plum says. "I felt numb. Very detached."

The attention that comes with being the No. 1 pick only added to the pressure Plum experienced at Washington. "Let's be real," Plum says. "It doesn't help that I'm straight. I'm white. I'm probably, to that point, one of the most overhyped, overmarketed college players that we've seen in the national spotlight. And then all of a sudden I come into the W and everyone wants to just kill you."

Plum rolled her ankle during the preseason and missed the first three games of the 2017 season. In the first three games she played, she averaged 10 minutes. When she finally got her first start against Connecticut in the Stars' seventh game, Jasmine Thomas picked her up for 94 feet from the jump, forcing her into a couple of early turnovers.

"That's unfair," former San Antonio coach Vickie Johnson says of the notion that Plum underachieved early in her career. "College is totally different. She's coming into the best league in the world, with the best athletes in the world. Players know that, players are not going to let her just sit there and shoot shots."

During her first season, Plum started 23 of the 31 games she played and averaged 8.5 points and 3.4 assists in 22.9 minutes. She made the WNBA All-Rookie team, though Allisha Gray, the No. 4 pick at Dallas, was named Rookie of the Year. It wasn't a dominant debut season by any metric, but Plum still saw her face promoting her team and her league and felt it was undeserved. She blocked the WNBA on social media. She has said that she still has the league blocked today.

"They were trying to milk everything out of me in my rookie year and it was brutal," Plum says. "I wasn't ready for it. I didn't want it. I just wanted to, like, play basketball. My rookie year, man, it was worse than picking up the dog poop for sure."

The Stars became the Aces and relocated to Las Vegas under new ownership following Plum's first season. Plum spent that offseason playing overseas in Turkey for Fenerbahce. She averaged a little over 20 minutes per game, but wanted more. She wasn't performing offensively like she had at Washington, so she committed herself on the defensive end. "We spoke every day, all season," Johnson says. "She wanted to be an on-ball defender. Stopped thinking about offense so much."

When Plum returned from Turkey, she was in a new city with a new coach: Bill Laimbeer. Johnson stayed on as an assistant. Plum's minutes marginally improved during her second season, and so did her shooting percentages, but her offensive output barely budged.

"I didn't enjoy basketball. I didn't enjoy life," Plum says. "I just felt like my value was all in my performance and now I'm not performing. You're questioning everything that you've ever done. And you're like, 'Am I even good enough to play at this level? Did I forget how to shoot?'"

Plum internally begged herself not to mess up before every game. "I was living in, like, survival mode," Plum says.

Beginning in college, Plum experienced thoughts of suicide, and as she returned from Turkey, those thoughts continued. "It's not a consistent, everyday thing," Plum says. "But in the darkest moments, [I just felt] super empty and low."

Grasping for something that would give her encouragement, she heard her father's voice. "Plummer! Keep the faith."

Etched into the skin on her right forearm are those words: "Keep the faith."

It's the only tattoo she has, and it helped her push forward. To get to the next practice. The next game. "There was this voice that just kind of talked to me and said 'It's gonna turn. It can't be this bad for this long,'" Plum says. "You always talk about percentages, right? Like the percentages are going to even out."

Plum started to break through late in the 2019 season, even as she lost her starting role. In an August game against the Los Angeles Sparks, she erupted for 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting, including 17 points in the fourth quarter to deliver a crucial 92-86 victory for Las Vegas. She struggled to hold back tears as she was called "The Kelsey Plum of old" in a postgame interview.

Plum averaged 15.2 points and shot 52.9% on 3-point attempts across the Aces' five games in the 2019 playoffs. It seemed like Plum found what had been missing, and her expectations soared for 2020.

But a devastating injury halted that optimism.

PLUM WAS READY to go again. It was June 2020, and she was playing 3-on-3 with five guys at a gym in Portland, Oregon. The series was even at two games apiece. Plum wasn't going to let that stand. There was always a winner and a loser; it didn't matter if it was a race to the family car or 3-on-3.

"You guys," she said, looking at the group of tired, sweaty dudes sitting on the floor, "we're not ending on a tie. We're going to play Game 5."

With the game on the line, Plum called for the ball. She ripped through to dribble right when a loud pop stopped her cold. "It sounded like a gun went off," Plum says now.

Kelsey grabbed her phone to call her mom, who previously worked as an athletic trainer. Katie answered from the home she and Kelsey shared in Las Vegas. Kelsey didn't just come out with why she called. "We had this rule in our family growing up," she says. "You can't just call Mom and say, 'What's for dinner?' You need to ask her how her day is and stuff like that."

So Kelsey asked how Katie's day was going. After a few minutes, Kelsey finally told her what was up. "Mom, I think I tore my Achilles," she said.

Katie instructed her to get on her stomach and told one of the guys to squeeze Kelsey's calf. If Kelsey's foot moved up and down, that was a good sign. Kelsey's foot bobbed like a buoy. Thinking her Achilles might be OK, Kelsey stood up and tried to walk. She immediately fell over. "So I was like, 'Oh it's gone,'" Kelsey says.

When Plum got back to Las Vegas, her teammates had left. The WNBA had moved to Bradenton, Florida, for the 2020 bubble season because of COVID-19. Plum didn't have trainers or facilities easily available to do her rehab. But she managed to get into the UFC Performance Institute through a relationship the UFC has with the Aces organization. They'd never had a basketball player rehab there before, so Plum and the UFC trainers were feeling each other out.

Appointments were scarce. Plum bribed people with doughnuts, cupcakes, breakfast burritos, Nike shoes, whatever she could do. If a trainer wanted something, Plum tried to get it. "I did what I had to do," Plum says.

Plum pushed herself during her recovery, taking chances that she might not have otherwise been able to do if she'd done a traditional basketball rehab. "There was no baby-stepping our way into anything," Plum says. "And so I actually thought it was a perfect fit because I'm a little off the edge too."

Through training at the UFC home base, Plum met UFC president Dana White. She was brought in to do matchmaking for a UFC card, and she and White hit it off. When Plum returned to the court, White went to his first WNBA game. Now he's a season-ticket holder. "I love killers," White says. "She's out there to win. She plays hard. She trains hard. She takes this sport very, very serious. I think she's honest, and real, and funny. She's just an all-around badass, and I love her."

White even introduced Plum to her current agent, Zack Miller at WME. Plum and White still talk frequently even though she finished rehabbing her Achilles injury well over a year ago. White loves to watch her play. "Have you ever seen Bruno Mars?" he asks. "Him and his band look like they're having the greatest time of their life. And it's like the first time they've ever done it, they're having so much fun. That's what Kelsey reminds me of when she plays basketball with the Aces."

While she worked diligently to come back from tearing her Achilles, the injury forced Plum to slow down and try to answer some of those questions that had nagged her since college. She'd been playing year round since she entered the WNBA, and basketball dominated her life for years before that. She'd been going from one thing to the next, and hadn't stopped to reflect on what she wanted out of life, what her purpose was beyond putting a ball through a hoop.

Plum grew up going to church, and her injury rekindled her relationship with God. Lying in bed with stitches in the back of her leg, Plum thought there had to be more for her than just basketball. "I think he did it for me to stand still and completely reset the trajectory of the way my life was going," Plum says now. "I'm super grateful for it because I feel like without that, I would've just kept living the way that I was living. I wanted to have my identity in something else besides performance. My value comes from my relationship with God and not how many points I could score."

Plum came back in 2021 and won the WNBA's Sixth Player of the Year Award. For the first time in her WNBA career, she didn't start a single game. But she averaged 14.8 points, 3.6 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.0 steals and showed flashes of the Kelsey Plum everyone had been waiting for since college.

She took that success to Tokyo and won her first Olympic gold medal in the inaugural 3x3 basketball competition. Each game was 10 minutes or first team to 21. They played twice a day for multiple days in the hot, humid Tokyo climate. "It's like snorting bath salts and trying to play basketball," Plum says. "It's like 10 minutes of hell. You're running around amped up. Never again. Count me out."

But it was a springboard for what has become a breakout year.

PLUM BURSTS INTO the Aces' postgame news conference in the middle of Hammon's opening statement following an 89-78 victory over the Chicago Sky on Aug. 11. Plum had a team high of 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. She also chipped in five assists.

"Come on in, Plum," Hammon calls from the dais, waving the guard over to the seat next to her.

Plum wants to sneak in and do media a little early because she's hungry and desperately wants to go eat something.

"You give an opening statement," Hammon says. "Go ahead."

Plum smiles and starts talking. She heaps praise on her teammates and their defensive effort. She calls out Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray, Kiah Stokes, Riquna Williams and A'ja Wilson all by name. "And I think that I was solid," she finishes with a smile. A far cry from the college freshman who walked home in the rain.

Hammon speaks at length about how Plum's game has evolved, particularly her ability to attack the basket and make the right reads when she gets into the lane.

When Plum entered the league, Johnson compared Plum to Hammon. Johnson finished her playing career alongside Hammon in San Antonio, and she saw a similar tenacity in Plum. "They're both stubborn; I'd love to be in one of those meetings," Johnson says, laughing. "Because neither one of them is backing down."

Plum's relationship with Hammon is different than what she experienced early in her career with Laimbeer. "I was told I'd be the third option on a championship team for four years," Plum says. "I would show up to practice and it was like, 'Hey, we're trying to trade you.' In front of the team. I think that he thought that motivated me. I'm not shading him, I'm saying that it built a lot of just a toughness of like, 'F--- you. I'm just going to keep being me and I'm going to wear you down. You're going to learn to love me, whether you like it or not.'

"But now playing for someone like Becky, it's just been a dream. I would run through a wall for her. It really does feel like someone cares about my life."

When asked to be interviewed for this story, Laimbeer said, "I made a commitment to myself not to comment on the team this year. They will find their own way."

After Hammon got the Las Vegas job, Plum asked her to guarantee her starting position. Hammon, of course, would do no such thing. "Then we showed up first day to training camp and it was over," Hammon says. "It was a wrap. She's a pro 365 days of the year."

Plum, who turned 28 earlier this month, has focused on her conditioning and strength in recent years. She trains with Susan King Borchardt, the same trainer used by Sue Bird. Though they've never been teammates Plum has looked up to Bird and sought her advice going back to her days at Washington.

"What I love about Plum's story is that the way she's playing now is not necessarily how she started," Bird says. "But it didn't knock her off her path. She stayed focused. She stayed true to herself. And now she's reaping the rewards of that."

Wilson, who has played alongside Plum her entire pro career, has a similar admiration.

"She came from a place where a lot of people were calling her a bust," Wilson says. "She worked her ass off to get to where she is. She doesn't need validation from anyone. The only man that can judge her is God, and I love that about her."

If Plum has her way, the journey from poop picker-upper to NCAA scoring champion to WNBA first-round pick will add a key chapter next month with the Aces winning their first championship. Las Vegas made it to the WNBA Finals in 2020 but fell in the semifinals to the Mercury in 2021. Plum always plays to win. She wants to win everything, on every level, but cares less about her individual performance than she used to. "I don't want to be a stat-stuffer guard," she says. "I don't want to be someone that shoots 20 times and scores 20 points. I'm over that. At this point, I want to be the best impactful, high-level guard that can play both ends of the floor and impact the game to help my team win."

Kelsey Plum knows who she is as a player and a teammate. She's working on discovering herself.

"It's evolving," Plum says. "Can you ask me next year?"