Washington Huskies basketball star Kelsey Plum is a woman of mystery, for better or worse. Inevitably, it’s better for the Huskies and worse for opponents.
Plum, the Pac-12 scoring leader heading into Thursday’s opening round of the conference women’s tournament at KeyArena, says she faces postseason surgery for a right knee injury she suffered in late December. She’s worn a brace ever since, but she refuses to let anyone publicly disclose what is wrong with the knee.
“I just don’t think that’s important,” Plum said politely.
Plum says doctors have assured her that she risks no further damage by continuing to play, and she says her knee is “doing pretty good right now.” However, Washington coach Mike Neighbors says “Ninety percent of the kids in America would be out with what she’s got.”
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Kelly Graves does not doubt Plum is injured. Still, the Oregon coach wondered aloud about the severity of the injury when Plum played 33 minutes and scored a game-high 20 points in a recent win over the Ducks.
“She can’t be hurt that bad,” Graves muttered.
Graves noted that Plum continues to drive to the basket with abandon when she isn’t knocking down silky-smooth jumpers. Plum says she’s 2 inches shorter than her listed 5 feet, 9 inches and weighs 150 pounds “on a good day,” but she ranks among the national leaders in free throws made and attempted.
“She does a very good job of getting in there and drawing contact,” says teammate Talia Walton, a 6-2 forward who has attempted 39 free throws all season. Plum has made a league-leading 214 trips to the line, an average of 7.1 per game.
Plum, a sophomore shooting guard from the San Diego suburb of Poway, also leads the Pac-12 with 23.0 points and 90.2 percent shooting on free throws. She hits a team-leading 40.0 percent of her 3-pointers and ranks second on the Huskies with 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals.
“She’s just a phenomenal player,” Walton said. “I love playing with her.
“She’s a hard worker. She’s always trying to be the first on the court and the last one off it.”
Plum was a consensus All-America point guard as a senior in high school before joining the the U.S. gold medalists at the 2013 Under-19 World Championships in Lithuania. With gold medal in tow, Plum headed straight for Seattle from Lithuania so she could join her new teammates.
“Every other member on that team flew to their homes,” Neighbors said. “Kelsey flew to Seattle. She never even went to San Diego. Her mom and dad didn’t even know.
“She came straight to Seattle from Lithuania, got to work (practiced) that night. Got picked up at the airport, and they were playing 2-on-2 that night at midnight.”
Plum said every Pac-12 school and perhaps “70 or 80” schools overall offered her a scholarship. She chose a Washington program that was rebuilding.
“I loved the coaches,” Plum explained. “I really liked my teammates. I really liked that they were trying to build something.
“I think a lot of players, especially in the women’s game, that are recruited highly go to the same schools. You know: UConn, Stanford, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Duke.
“I felt like, ‘You know what? You’ve got to do something different. You’ve got to build something.’ ”
The rebuilding progress gained steam during Kevin McDuff’s two years as head coach, and Plum remained loyal to the Huskies after McDuff left for Ohio State before her freshman season. Neighbors was promoted to replace McDuff, and in Neighbors’ second season in charge the Huskies are 22-8 and eyeing their first NCAA tournament since 2007.
Plum has led the way in almost every way. She’s 21 points away from the school record of 712 points she set as a freshman (when she ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with a 20.7 average), and she’s a team co-captain for the second year in a row.
That’s right. Neighbors made Plum a captain before she ever dribbled a ball in a college game.
“Sure, I was worried,” Neighbors admits. “But she called me. She said she was ready for it, wanted to do it.
“I told her, ‘It’s going to be hard.’ She said, ‘I came here because I wanted it to be hard.’ ”
Both of Plum’s parents were college athletes. Neighbors says Jim Plum (a football and baseball player at San Diego State) and Katie Plum (a volleyball player at UC Davis) helped her develop grit. She credits teammates like senior point guard Jazmine Davis for helping her transition to the college game and learn how to lead teammates as a freshman co-captain.
“I’m the type you have to throw in the fire,” Plum said. “I kind of like that.
“He (Neighbors) really threw a challenge at me. There were a lot of mistakes I made (last season) that kids make. Hopefully, I can continue to get better as a leader and player.
“But I think it (serving as a co-captain last season) was really crucial for just growing up. Not only on the basketball court, but in life.
“You mature in a lot of ways. You’re no longer responsible just for you, but for other people. I’m grateful for the experience.”
The Washington Huskies, in turn, are grateful for Kelsey Plum.