LAS VEGAS -- Kelsey Plum climbed into a taxi in Manhattan. Just hours earlier she had been selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft. She knew it was supposed to be one of the happiest days of her life. But it didn't feel that way.
"I cried," she recalled of the ride to her hotel. "It felt like, 'No matter what I do, I don't know if I'll ever be able to live up to the hype that I created in college.' It was like, 'This might be the pinnacle for me.'
"I had a bunch of friends and family, and we were supposed to go out to celebrate, and I just went back to the hotel. I just felt very, very overwhelmed. Kind of like swallowed by something a lot bigger than me."
Plum left the University of Washington as the NCAA all-time scoring leader. Now she's a guard for the Las Vegas Aces, who face the top-seeded Washington Mystics in Game 4 of their WNBA semifinal series on Tuesday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET). She averaged 8.6 points and 3.0 assists in the regular season and is at 14.8 and 8.5 in four playoff games.
She has had to learn to be a different player than the Husky who scored 57 points on senior day and averaged 31.7 PPG her final season in Seattle. Plum also had to figure out how to not let others' assessment of her career get to her and sometimes make her feel like, as she put it, "less of a person."
"That is a continuous type of growth," Plum said Monday at Mandalay Bay Events Center, the Aces' home court. "I was not prepared for that, especially my first two years in the league. Because I could have 10 points, six assists, no turnovers, play good defense, and we win, and some people would be like, 'Man, I miss the old Plum.'
"And that's hard because it's like, 'Do you know who I'm playing with? Who I'm playing against? Who I'm playing for?' I'll say right now, that scoring machine I was -- you will not see that. I will score, but not at that rate. It's a power forward's league. I don't think I'll average 20 points in the WNBA. I know that will disappoint some people. But if I'm winning and I'm playing the right way ... you can't please everyone. That's what I've learned."
Harden impressed by Plum's buzzer-beating 3
Kelsey Plum dribbles behind her back and hits a tough 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter, as James Harden looks on impressed.
There's no bitterness. Instead, Plum says it with a great deal of thought and some genuine smiles. She's extremely driven, and even when her confidence has taken its hits during a three-season WNBA career, she has leaned on her roots. Her parents and older sisters were athletes. It's in both her DNA and her upbringing to have one mindset about adversity.
"Fortunately, I was raised in an environment where we don't quit anything," Plum, 25, said. "And it's like, 'Life's not always fair.' I've been taught you have to keep your head down, keep working, and what you do will eventually come to light."
Then she added with a chuckle, "Did I think it would have taken me three years? And not even saying I'm 'there' yet because I'm not. But no, I didn't. Still, I can control what I can control, and that's my attitude and my effort."
"I don't think I'll average 20 points in the WNBA. I know that will disappoint some people. But if I'm winning and I'm playing the right way ... you can't please everyone. That's what I've learned." Kelsey Plum
Plum had no control over where she started her WNBA career. She led Washington to its first Final Four and broke the NCAA scoring record with that 57-point game near the end of her senior season. She finished with 3,527 points and just missed being a 50/40/90 player as a senior (her free throw percentage was 88.7).
But Plum heard the rumblings that there was no clear No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft. San Antonio had the selection, but former WNBA players Ruth Riley and Vickie Johnson were new in their roles as general manager and coach for a franchise that was dying on the vine. The Stars didn't really know what they wanted to do; a strong rumor was that they would trade Plum if they took her.
She expected that to happen. The Stars already had guards Moriah Jefferson (No. 2 pick in 2016) and Kayla McBride (No. 3 in 2014). But they kept Plum, and things never felt quite right for her in San Antonio, where she averaged 8.5 points per game. Then the franchise moved to Las Vegas, with Bill Laimbeer becoming coach and president of basketball operations.
"At San Antonio, I think because of all that happened in my senior year, they felt like they had to take me," Plum said. "But at the same time, it felt like, 'Not only do we not want you, we don't need you.'
"And coming to Vegas, I'm playing for a new coach who also didn't pick me. He inherited me. And it's not like I had a Napheesa Collier or Arike Ogunbowale kind of rookie season. So then why would he like me anyway? And I missed training camp because I was in Turkey, so I couldn't even prove I was worth anything."
Still, Plum started most of the Aces' games last season, averaging 9.5 points and 4.0 assists. Laimbeer said Plum will work harder than anyone in the gym, but that wasn't the issue. It was a matter of her understanding that being the player she was in college was not a realistic approach to her pro career.
At Washington, Plum was always supposed to make something happen scoring-wise. Not open? Get yourself open. Shoot from all over. Drive wildly to the rim if you have to. Just score, score, score. It was her identity.
"She's had to go through the school of hard knocks, for lack of a better cliché, because she was fighting herself," Laimbeer said. "She still fights herself sometimes. Those two plays [in Game 3] where she took off down the court and throws up some bulls--- ... you can't do that. Stop that. That's what she has to fight ... I won't call it demons. I would say she has to fight her past."
"She's learning how to balance being [a scoring guard] and a playmaker. That will still be a process. ... She's a really good player, [and] right now, her confidence level is starting to match her skill level." Mystics coach Mike Thibault on Aces guard Kelsey Plum
But Plum is not alone in that, Laimbeer said. He hopes this Aces team compares to the start of the Minnesota Lynx teams that went on to win four titles: a group of very talented players who learned how to play together and share the ball.
"Individual sacrifice is the name of the game if you want to win," Laimbeer said. "That's very difficult for young players especially because they want to go out and make a name for themselves, be an All-Star every year."
Plum knows Laimbeer is going to be brutally blunt, and when asked how she responds to that, she smiled and made a waving motion with her hand of peaks and valleys.
"The first year with Bill it was, 'You can't guard anybody.' This year, I've guarded pretty well, and it's, 'You can't pass to anyone,'" she said. "I see that it's his way of motivating. However, I do think it's the right way for me. It helps me.
"So yeah, it's been a very character-building, resilience-building road for me. But I think it's been a blessing in disguise. Because I know there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and me going through the things I've had to go through is going to make that so much more fulfilling."
Near the end of the regular season, Plum found herself in tears again. But this time, they were happy, relieved, cathartic tears. She had 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting with five assists in a much-needed victory over Los Angeles. During the postgame interview, Plum was overcome with emotion. She said later that she felt like a large weight was lifted off her shoulders.
"I think the biggest mental breakthrough for her was that game," Washington coach Mike Thibault said. "She was already playing better, but I think that game proved it to herself. In college, she was a scoring guard. She's learning how to balance being both that and a playmaker. That will still be a process. But if she keeps getting encouragement, that will continue to get better.
"Being the No. 1 pick isn't easy, and we're in an instant gratification society. I don't think young players are allowed to develop enough by fans, media, even coaches sometimes. She was the No. 1 pick for a reason. I would have taken her No. 1. She's a really good player who, right now, her confidence level is starting to match her skill level."