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By the Numbers: Can Anyone Slow Down Washington’s Kelsey Plum?

Update (3/20)

Kelsey Plum entered the NCAA Tournament needing to score 50 points to surpass Jackie Stiles for the single-season scoring record (1,062). After scoring 29 points in Washington’s first-round win over Montana State, Plum was just 21 points shy of the record and set to play the final home game of her career in Seattle. Can you script the scene any better than that?

Behind a rousing crowd, Plum inched her way toward the record early in the third quarter – a quick jumper on the first possession, followed by a free throw and a 3-pointer with 9:07 left in the third to tie the record. Two-and-a-half minutes later, after an Oklahoma 3-pointer, Plum brought the ball into the frontcourt and ran a play the home crowd had seen many times.

As many of her buckets came this season (more on that below), the record-breaking shot came on a pick-and-roll play. Plum took a screen from Chantel Osahor near the 3-point line, moving from right to left, and drove the lane against the Oklahoma defender. Before the post player in the paint could make it over to help prevent the shot, Plum elevated and hit a running lefty layup to increase Washington’s lead to 65-54 and add to her collection of NCAA records.

Plum finished with a game-high 38 points to go with 11 assists and three rebounds in Washington’s 108-82 win to advance to the Sweet 16. Plum shot 12-21 from the field, 6-9 from beyond the arc and 8-10 from the free throw line. After having a rare off shooting night from 3-point range in the NCAA opener (1-7), Plum missed two of her first three from long range on Monday before making four straight over the span of the second and third quarters.

The question that remains for Plum is how high can she take the single-season and career scoring records that will continue to grow as long as the Huskies stay alive in the tournament. Up next is No. 2 seed Mississippi State in Oklahoma City on Friday.

Original (3/11)

No player in the history of women’s college basketball has scored more points than Washington’s Kelsey Plum… and she’s still not done. On Monday, she and the 12th-ranked Huskies will learn where they will open the NCAA Tournament as Plum looks to lead the team back to the Final Four after making the program’s debut appearance a season ago.

Plum enters the tournament with 3,431 career points, having passed the previous record holder Jackie Stiles (3,393 points) with a 57-point performance in Washington’s regular season finale on Feb. 25. That game was not only a career-best for Plum, but the fifth-best single-game performance in NCAA women’s basketball history. And who did she edge out of the top five? Jackie Stiles’ 56-point game back in 2000.

Plum most likely isn’t done knocking Stiles down in the record books. The senior guard enters the NCAA Tournament having scored 1,013 points this season, which places her third behind Stiles (1,062) and Odyssey Sims (1,054) for the single-season scoring record. If she stays close to her 31.7 points per game scoring average, Plum will need just two games to add that record to her long list of college accolades.

However the next few weeks play out, Plum will be in attendance for the 2017 WNBA Draft in April and her name will certainly be one of the first that WNBA President Lisa Borders calls to welcome to the league.

Upon entering the WNBA, Plum will join four other members of the NCAA 3,000 point club — Brittney Griner (3,283 points at Baylor), Rachel Banham (3,093 points at Minnesota), Elena Delle Donne (3,039 points at Delaware) and Maya Moore (3,036 at Connecticut). How good of company is that? Outside of Banham, whose 2016 rookie season was cut short by a knee injury, the rest of this group is among the most decorated players in the WNBA.

  • Two Most Valuable Player Awards (Moore in 2014, Delle Donne in 2015)
  • Two Defensive Player of the Year Awards (Griner in 2014 and 2015)
  • Two Rookie of the Year Awards (Moore in 2011, Delle Donne in 2013)
  • Two Scoring Titles (Moore in 2014, Delle Donne in 2015)
  • Four WNBA Championships (Moore in 2011, 2013 and 2015; Griner in 2014)
  • Seven All-WNBA First Team Selections (Moore 4, Delle Donne 2, Griner 1)
  • Three All-WNBA Second Team Selections (Moore, Delle Donne, Griner)

Looking at the current landscape of WNBA players, only four reached the 3,000-point plateau in college, and only 16 even score 2,500 points. In all, 43 current WNBA players scored at least 2,000 points in college.

One player that is pretty far down that list is Diana Taurasi, who finished her career at Connecticut with 2,156 points, but has been the most dominant scorer the WNBA has seen over the past decade.  Taurasi owns a WNBA record five scoring titles and her career average of 19.9 points per game ranks third all-time and first among players that have played at least 125 games.

Which, of course, begs the question: Does being a dominant scorer in college translate to being a dominant scorer in the WNBA?

There is no clear-cut answer to that question as there are examples on both sides. Delle Donne owns the third-highest scoring average in NCAA history (26.7 ppg) and the second-highest mark in WNBA history (20.5 ppg). Breanna Stewart went from averaging 17.6 points during her four years at UConn to finishing her rookie WNBA season at 18.3 points per game. On the flip side is Alysha Clark, who finished with 2,865 points in 123 collegiate games and has scored 875 points in her first 156 games in the WNBA.

There are plenty of factors that come into play here, including playing time, role on a particular team, and how a player works within a team’s offensive strategy. But one of the key factors is the dramatic increase in the level of competition. Some players, especially those from smaller schools, are able to put up huge numbers in college, but are unable to translate that to the WNBA.

Stiles (above) had a promising start to her WNBA career coming out of what was then called Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State), winning Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 14.9 points in her debut season. Unfortunately, she would play just 21 more games in the WNBA as her career was cut short by a rash of injuries.

When it comes to projecting how Plum will fare at the next level, both the numbers and the eye test indicate that her skill set should translate well to the WNBA game. Not only is she an outstanding shooter (.533 FG%, .429 3P%, .888 FT%), she is a playmaker both for herself and her teammates. Her ability to create her own shot, either in isolation situations or using the pick-and-roll, should make her an asset to any WNBA team that lands her in the draft.

After her 57-point outburst against Utah to break Stiles’ record for most career points in NCAA history, Plum did a number of interviews to discuss the accomplishment. After recounting the game — how she wasn’t feeling very well that day, what the record meant to her and the added attention that it has brought to both her and her team — Plum was asked a question that has baffled opposing coaching staffs for years.

“How would you defend you?” she was asked on SportsCenter.

A smile immediately came to her face as she began her response with a laugh: “That’s a great question. Well, I don’t know if I should give that away though, because I feel that’s some good juicy information,” she said. “I would just try to play me really tough, I’d try to make me give up the ball a lot and not let me get it back and hope I have an off night, I guess. I don’t know.”

‘I don’t know’ might be the right answer when it comes to the strategy to shut down — or even slow down — Kelsey Plum.

Let’s dig into her stats a little deeper with the help of Synergy data just to show how dangerous Plum is for opposing teams to defend.

She is unbelievably efficient in nearly every aspect of offense. The only exceptions are plays she either does not utilize (post-ups, putbacks, pick and roll – roll man) or uses very infrequently (coming off screens).

Plum and the Huskies get out in transition often — accounting for a quarter of Plum’s possessions — but when things do slow down in the half court, Plum takes over with a heavy dose of pick-and-roll (31.9% of possessions) and isolation (12.5%). This is where her creativity shines and the comparisons to the NBA’s James Harden spawned.

James Harden on WNBA Draft Prospect Kelsey Plum (Washington)

With every defense she faces focused on slowing her down, Plum is still able to create open space to get her shots off. The lefty utilizes a deadly step-back to create just enough distance to square up and fire with her ultra quick release.

When we dig deeper into the pick-and-roll stats, we can see that she is patient (taking an early jump shot just 2.1% of the time) as she lets the play develop to survey all of her options. Most often she dribbles off the pick and either takes a dribble jumper (68.2% of the time), takes it all the way to the basket (23.6% of the time) or takes a runner in the lane (6.7% of the time). And, as expected, her shooting percentages (eFG%) are outstanding across the board — 58.1%, 52.9% and 54.5%, respectively.

With nearly all of the attention focused on Plum’s scoring, her playmaking skills often get overlooked. She leads the Huskies in assists at 5.1 per game as she is able to find her teammates when opponents send help to try to stop her from scoring. Rather than take a difficult and well-defended shot of her own, she’ll find an open teammate for a better look. And her 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio maintains this theme of efficiency in all aspects of her game.

Plum is nearly as dangerous in isolation as she is in pick-and-roll situations. When it comes to isolations, opponents must force the lefty to drive right to have any chance of slowing her down. On drives to the right, Plum scores 1.0 points per possession (which ranks in the 86th percentile of all players) as compared to 1.33 points per possession when she drives left (which puts her in the 99th percentile). Plum’s effective field goal percentage rises by over 10 percent on drives to the left as opposed to the right. She scores on just 45.5 percent of her drives to the right compared to nearly 61 percent of her drives to her strong side partly due to the fact that she turns the ball over twice as often when driving to the right.

In another parallel to Harden, Plum avoids taking inefficient long 2-pointers, with under 10 percent of her jumpers coming from between 17 feet and the 3-point line. And she does so with good reason as she only connects on 29 percent of those shots. Instead, Plum either looks to get into the paint and to the rim or work beyond the arc.

After reviewing the scouting report, Plum may have been right all along. The best way to defend her is to make sure she can’t get her hands on the ball. And if she does, try to force her right and into taking long mid-range shots. Then hope that she has an off night.

Considering she’s scored 3,431 points in her career, there haven’t been many of those over the past four years.