In Super Squads, The Athletic follows the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces in their quests to win a WNBA championship. Our reporters will tell the stories of the players on two of the most star-studded teams in league history and examine how their paths shape the future of the WNBA.
LAS VEGAS — Kelsey Plum missed her lone game of the 2023 regular season on July 5, a home contest against the Dallas Wings. The Aces fell behind early, and the Las Vegas broadcasting duo of Krista Blunk and Carolyn Peck commented on Plum’s absence.
“Kelsey Plum brings some swag,” Peck said.
“A little spark, a little firepower for sure,” Blunk added.
After the game, coach Becky Hammon enumerated the many assets Plum brings to the Aces. She’s fast and can blow by her defender. She gets downhill and sprays the ball out for easy buckets. She’s a defensive pest. And she’s feisty.
More than a month later, Plum’s feistiness was on display off the court. As she exited a shootaround, Plum approached Blunk and Peck and objected to the weeks-old characterization of her as a “spark.” According to Plum, a spark is tiny and fleeting. She was more akin to a blow torch, even mimicking the motion of a flamethrower as she made her case.
That fiery spirit is endemic to the guard. Hammon says Plum is “cut from a different cloth” more than any other athlete she’s been around. Plum calls herself a “firecracker” and says that she merely likes to “stir the pot.”
Sometimes it’s in a joking manner, like to goad former Las Vegas assistant Tanisha Wright into using a challenge on a clear call or lead a team-wide prank against Sydney Colson. Other times, it’s for the purpose of initiating candid conversations, like when talking about equal pay or the scheduling challenges the Aces have faced this season.
Haaaay Coach 😘 #challengeunsuccessful 😝😂 https://t.co/9ARfqpt826
— Kelsey Plum (@Kelseyplum10) August 14, 2023
Whether that’s having honest talks with herself about how she can improve or offering better vocabulary choices to broadcasters, Plum is forever looking forward. She continues to grow as a person and a player as she nears the end of her sixth season in the WNBA.
“As good as you can get, there’s still a lot more things you can accomplish,” Plum says. “When I think of arriving, the work is just getting started.”
For the first quarter of the 2023 season, Plum’s signature skill was failing her.
The sharp-shooter was connecting on under 28 percent of her 3-pointers, well below her career average of 40 percent. Opposing defenders were picking up Plum higher, closer to the timeline or even in the backcourt; they were blitzing her regularly; and in the halfcourt, they were top-locking her, preventing Plum from getting her usual looks from long range.
And yet, the guard’s impact on winning had never been more pronounced, thanks to improvements in other areas of her game.
Even after a first-team all-WNBA season, when Plum finished third in MVP voting as the Aces won the franchise’s first title last year, complacency never set in. She worked on her strength and fitness in the offseason to become better defensively, focusing on getting through ball screens. Hammon started giving Plum tougher defensive assignments, allowing Las Vegas to move Jackie Young to a helper role, where she could create takeaways and jump-start the Aces’ transition attack.
“I might not get steals or blocks or anything, but I just try to make people get really annoyed,” Plum says.
The two-time All-Star has also been working on her rim reads. At 5-foot-8, she can sometimes get lost in the trees in the paint, so her attacks to the basket have to be accompanied by smart decision-making, whether that’s spraying out passes to shooters on the perimeter or knowing when to try to finish over bigger defenders.
She’s shooting 73 percent at the rim this season, the highest mark of her career by far, because she’s being judicious about when to take those shots. Her 3-point percentage has climbed to 39.2, the second-highest mark of her career, and she’s scoring 18.7 points per game, good for seventh in the league.
“Before people were just like, oh, she could only shoot or she can only do one thing with the ball offensively and that’s put it in the basket,” Hammon says. “I think she’s just expanded her game so much more, become that much more dangerous and a threat with her finishing.”
Plum has become increasingly efficient out of the pick-and-roll, which she credits to being “unattached.” She doesn’t go into any possession with a specific goal — she wants to take only what the defender gives her. If they step up, she can thread a pocket pass to her big; if they drop, she’ll pull up for a jumper; and so on.
Las Vegas is 23.3 points per 100 possessions better when Plum plays, the largest on-off differential on the team. The only time the Aces have a negative net rating is when Plum sits. Even when A’ja Wilson or Chelsea Gray take the bench, the Aces manage to be a positive team.
On the night Wilson tied Plum for a franchise record 40 points in a single game — Plum presciently pointed out that Wilson would “break it again in some capacity,” which happened 11 days later — Wilson was more interested in Plum’s 10 assists when the game ended.
“That is some growth right there,” Wilson said. “We talk about KP being a dog, but that’s really her through and through. Every single day she’s coming in and getting better. … I mean, we joke around with her not passing the basketball, but she shows us every single day that she’s worked towards that aspect of her game, and that’s why her name’s going to be at the top in the talks about WNBA guards and two-way players.”
Plum has been open about the difficulties reinventing herself as a WNBA player. She was the all-time leading scorer in college basketball, which made her a ball hog, but she’s become more well-rounded as a pro. Now, even if she isn’t making shots, she has value.
Plum also is trying to make her mark on the league as a whole. During the 2022-23 offseason, she was elected first vice president of the WNBA players’ association, her first term on the union’s executive committee after serving as a player representative in previous years.
She’d been an active participant on union calls in her prior position but was eager to take on a larger role with negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, since the PA can opt out of the existing agreement at the end of 2024. “The upcoming CBA has a lot of things at stake, and I think that will continue to progress as it goes along,” Plum says. “I feel like at the end of the day, you want to leave it better than you found it. Being a part of being able to impact and make changes, I think it’s really cool.”
The 29-year-old has a wide swath of experiences from which to draw, a collection she believes helps her understand what almost every player in the league is going through. Plum was a No. 1 pick, but she also came off the bench for a full season. She missed a year with injury. She plays for USA Basketball. She has been in a small market and a big market and witnessed the highs and lows that players experience.
Plum and the PA have been sending out surveys to figure out what matters most to their membership, and strategizing how to accomplish those goals has been one of Plum’s biggest challenges. “As a player, you think that you have a perspective from a certain side, but then if you go a little bit behind the scenes, there’s a reason why the other side thinks what they do, and there’s always a middle ground,” Plum says. “I’ve learned that you have to fight for certain things, but you have to be very strategic about how you do it. And I also think that you have to be very open to hearing out that process and being patient, because change is not just an overnight thing.”
Of particular concern to Plum is a developmental pathway between college and the pros — something she attempted to address with her Dawg Class during the offseason — so that players don’t wash out of the league within a couple of years. But she still entertains the perspective that league expansion is necessary to drive more revenue, that being in more markets will create more TV opportunities and help increase the league’s bottom line. Even if expansion wouldn’t be the top item on her to-do list, she’s representing more than just her own interests. The self-described ball hog in a previous life can’t always be looking to score for herself.
“This role is really not about what I want,” Plum says. “This is not selfish benefits or whatever, this is representing the totality.”
At the heart of Plum’s quest for improvement is an undercurrent of intense competitiveness. She wants to put on a show for the fans and create an entertaining product, and she wants to push the boundaries of what women’s sports have been historically. But she also really, really wants to win.
When the Aces reeled off seven wins to start the season, Plum looked up the WNBA regular-season win record and kept the 1998 Houston Comets (27-3) in the back of her mind as the standard. Nevertheless, Plum was clear in June that another title would mean more to her than any single-season win record. A diehard Tom Brady fan, Plum maintains that the year the quarterback won his seventh Super Bowl when Tampa Bay finished 11-5 was more successful than when the Patriots had an undefeated season but didn’t win the title.
“Highlights are great, but if you don’t win the game, then who cares? Who the f— cares?” Plum says.
Las Vegas’ recent slump (2-3 in the last five games heading into Thursday night’s contest) means that a historic season is likely off the table, even if the team ends the year with some hardware. That means Plum won’t be lacking for internal motivation no matter the result of this postseason. The journey is nowhere near complete. She’s still arriving.
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(Illustration: Ray Orr / The Athletic; Photo of Kelsey Plum: David Becker / NBAE via Getty Images)