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How Kelsey Plum Took Over Women’s College Basketball

University of Washington senior Kelsey Plum doesn’t spend much time thinking about her accomplishments on the basketball court. It’d be too easy to get lost amid all the points the point guard has scored in her UW career (3,498, the most in the history of women’s Division I hoops) or even how many she’s netted in just her final season (1,080, another D-I milestone). Although she views the accolades as nice, they’re a distraction from bigger goals: In 2016, she led UW to the program’s first ever Final Four, and with her team a No. 3-seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, she’s hoping for more.

“I should probably relish the attention a bit more,” she said. “But right now, I don’t really care. I don’t just want to be remembered as a scoring champ, and personally, it’d be kind of sad if that’s what ends up happening.”

According to FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions, the Huskies’ chances are slim — they play No. 2-seed Mississippi State on Friday night but have just a 5 percent chance of returning to the Final Four and a less than 1 percent chance of winning the tournament — but there isn’t another player in women’s hoops who can carry her team offensively like Plum can. Of the 31 D-I players who have scored or assisted on more than 600 plays in the halfcourt this season, Plum has been the most effective, contributing 136 points per 100 halfcourt plays, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Even as opponents know Plum is the focal point of the Huskies’ offense, Plum still manages to score with ease.

Against No. 6-seed Oklahoma in the round of 32 on Monday, Plum used a variety of shots to net 38 points, helping dismantle the Sooners 108-82. “The first time you are on the floor with [Plum], you don’t really know what to do,” OU coach Sherri Coale told the Oklahoman ahead of the game.

Pac-12 opponents have had four years to figure out Plum, and those teams have done little to slow down the guard. This season, she has encountered an array of defensive approaches, including face guarding,1 flat hedging picks2 and box and 1s.3 Yet she posted a true shooting percentage of 66.3 percent in 2016-17. Considering that she essentially never leaves the court, playing more than 90 percent of possible minutes, that level of efficiency is remarkable.

“At the end of the day, no matter how familiar you are with her, you have to figure out how to stop her or at least figure out how to slow her down,” Coale told the Oklahoman. “Nobody has been able to do that, really. Nobody.”

Plum’s game is buttressed by her ever-growing comfort operating within Washington’s pick-and-roll sets — according to Synergy, nearly a third of her plays are pick-and-rolls, a career high, and she scores 108 points per 100 plays, which ranks in the 98th percentile for all of D-I. That’s a significant uptick from her junior (83 points per 100 plays) and sophomore (89) seasons. A student of the games of both Chris Paul and James Harden, Plum relies on a variety of counters the moment she gets a window of separation from her defender. She’s converted 42.9 percent of her threes this season and often attempts a shot as soon as she steps behind a pick.

Plum isn’t the quickest guard, but like Harden, she has a keen sense of how to use hesitation moves to generate extra space between herself and her opponent, and she often unveils those herky-jerky pauses after she dribbles off a pick. “I appreciate the left-handed craftiness,” Harden, a fellow southpaw, told WNBA.com earlier this year.

Standing just 5-foot-8, Plum has long learned how to use her shiftiness and agility to her advantage. She does it in a variety of ways: On some sets, she keeps the ball nearly behind her body at her hip — which helps mask her dribbling from the defender’s vision — and breaks a defender down with just a slight shuffle or jab step. On other plays, she looks ready to shoot, but by the time a defender approaches, Plum has already blown by her and is in the lane (she’s averaging 124 points per 100 plays on drives off the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy). She can also suddenly pull up mid-drive, causing her opponent to wave frantically at her shot (she generates 116 points per 100 plays on dribble pull-ups, ranking in the 94th percentile), or immediately attack the interior, bulldozing through opponents and either scoring a basket or getting fouled.

One of Plum’s most rewindable possessions happened in a late February game against Colorado — situated in the left corner, Plum feinted a step-back three, causing the defender to lurch forward, at which point the UW guard crossed her up, drove baseline and was fouled.

Harden and Plum are both masters of contorting their bodies to draw fouls. Plum, who shoots more than eight free throws per 40 minutes, splays her various limbs much the same way that Harden does. Not only does she cock her elbows and raise her arms above her head, she seeks out the angles that will maximize the contact between her and a defender. She spent this past summer training with ex-Husky (and former NBA guard) Nate Robinson, who advised her on how to use her size, ball-handling and hesitation mastery to get to the line even more frequently.

For Washington, making the Final Four will probably require scoring from more than just Plum. UW’s offense can devolve into four players waiting for Plum to make a move, and that stagnancy is compounded when she goes through an in-game scoring drought. When those brief periods occur, Plum isn’t without talented teammates: Chantel Osahor is a unique DI talent talents, a 6-foot-2 center who launches threes with profound accuracy (37.9 percent), and freshman Aarion McDonald averages nearly 10 points per game.

The Oklahoma game might provide a good blueprint — Plum had 11 assists and the first double-double of her career, and UW immolated the Sooners defense, scoring 1.47 points per possession. If Washington wants to get out of its region (which will probably require beating No. 1-seed Baylor in the process) — much less accomplish the unthinkable and defeat UConn (likely waiting in the national semifinals) — it, and Plum, will need more games like that.

Check out our March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. When a defender turns her back to the ball to deny an entry pass.

  2. When the screener’s defender stays near the ballhandler after a pick to prevent a 3-point attempt, while allowing the opposing guard a chance to recover.

  3. A four-person box zone defense with the remaining defender playing man defense on what is typically the opponent’s best player.

Matt Giles has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.

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