Kelsey Plum of La Jolla Country Day High School in San Diego California is one of the top point guards on the west coast and in the nation for the class of 2013.
Guards -- and especially tall ones -- were the name of the game at the Nike Skills Academy's West Coast session held at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California last weekend. Backcourt stars outnumbered the bigs three-to-one among the top girls' high school basketball prospects invited to participate in the prestigious event. It's hard to stand out in a crowd like that one, made up of 74 of the best-of-the best players, engaged primarily in fast-paced, high-intensity, back-to-back drills for a day-and-a-half, but some find a way to shine.
Take Kelsey Plum, for example. It was hard not to take note of her energy, enthusiasm and transparent love for the game, or to fail to observe her floaters and NBA-range three-pointers slicing time-and-again through the nets.
As the third of four children in a family of top-notch athletes, Plum has always had to deal with the challenge of establishing her individual identity. Plum’s mother, the former Katie McBride, is an athletic trainer who once starred in volleyball at University of California Davis. Kelsey’s two older sisters followed in mom’s footsteps, with Kaitlyn, the eldest, heading to Davis where she plays as a digger for the Aggies and middle sister Lauren earned All-Pac-12 and honorable mention All-American honors as a setter for the Oregon Ducks, while also helping USA Volleyball’s Junior National Team to a fourth-place finish (its best placement ever) at the World Junior Championships.
Kelsey, too, showed early promise in volleyball. “Super-talented,” according to her mother, she excelled in the USA Volleyball junior system in both the indoor and beach versions of the sport.
But Kelsey had been following her dad to the local gyms and rec centers where she discovered basketball, discovering, too, that she loved the game and, in her own words, “had a bit of a knack for it.”
What appealed to her most was the contact and physicality of the game.
That’s something her mother says many women volleyball players seek to avoid.
“People ask all the time, when they see a tall girl, ‘Why aren’t you playing basketball?’ The truth is,” she said, “most of us don’t like the contact.”
Still, it didn’t come as a surprise that Kelsey relished the greater physicality of basketball. Her dad Jim, a four-year letterman in both football and baseball at San Diego State, had rough-housed with all three of his daughters, well before his youngest, son Dan (who plays football as a freshman at Cathedral High School), came along. Kelsey seemed to love the rough-and-tumble horseplay the most of all.
When time came for high school, Kelsey passed up Poway High, where her two older sisters had attended.
“With three girls, all of them looking pretty much alike,” said Katie Plum, by the time her teachers got to Kelsey, “they pretty much assumed they knew just what she would be like.” Kelsey wanted no more of living up to the expectations set by her sisters; instead, she chose to carve out her own path at La Jolla Country Day School, some 15 miles away, and alma mater to Minnesota Lynx star Candice Wiggins.
La Jolla girls’ basketball coach Terri Bamford, the California Girls’ Basketball Coach of the Year, is certainly happy that Plum came her way. She can’t sing the praises of the 5-9 guard highly enough.
“She’s one tremendous leader,” said Bamford, “as competitive as they come. Her work ethic is off the charts – and not just on the court, but also in the weight room, in individual skill work.”
Bamford also described the rising star as “tenacious,” “fearless” and “dynamic.” Add to that, she's just plain "one tough kid." All those qualities came to the foreground a year ago at the Nike Tournament of Champions near Phoenix, Ariz., where Plum’s love of contact was put to the test.
Plum was diving for a ball in the second game of the tournament against Northern California’s Daughterty Valley when she caught an elbow square in the face knocking her four front teeth out, leaving them hanging by mere threads.
“I was a bloody mess,” Plum recalls with a smile.
“She didn’t want to come out of the game,” her mother remembers less cheerily.
Plum’s mother rushed her to a nearby dentist, who was able to perform reconstructive surgery, saving the teeth. On the way there, the athletic trainer in Katie Plum came out.
“’I told you, you should have worn a mouth guard,’” Kelsey recalls her mother telling her when they got to the car.
One indication of the kind of kid this is, during Country Day's return visit to the Tournament of Champions this past December, Katie Plum suggested to Kelsey that they drop by the dentist's office and thank him. "I already did that," Kelsey reported. She had gotten an assistant coach to take her.
Despite missing seven games due to the injury, Plum was named Cal-Hi Sports Sophomore of the Year after averaging 19.6 points and 4.8 assists per game. No San Diego-area player – not even Wiggins -- had won the award since 1985.
This year, Plum took home honors as Junior of the Year and Division IV Player of the Year.
“She’s a great teammate,” said Bamford, “the girls love to play with her,” and even though she’s clearly a “special player, it’s not just about her.” Still, come “crunch time, she wants the ball in her hands.”
As a junior, she averaged 22 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. She put up a game-high 32 points, including five three-pointers, in the finals of the Division IV state tournament last month to help carry the Torreys to the state championship for the first time since 2002 when they were led to the title by Wiggins.
Plum has a skill set “you don’t see a lot in high school basketball,” says her coach. She combines great three-point range with an arsenal of mid-range moves – a soft floater, a sweet spin move, a step-back jumper and shot fakes that make her very difficult to defend. She moves well without the ball.
Plum averaged more than 22 points per game this season at La Jolle Country Day High School in San Diego, California. (photo by Lee Michaelson/Fullcourt.com)
Plum, whose favorite players are Diana Taurasi and Courtney Vandersloot, describes her own game as “smart, hardworking and passionate.”
Her coach agrees that Plum has an incredibly high basketball IQ for her level and believes she has even more within her – “she could average 30 [points] in the flow of the game,” says Bamford. If so, LaJolla will be glad to have the added firepower as they bid farewell to the Hood twins, Maya (who posted a 19-point, 13-rebound double-double in the championship game) and Malina (who added 10), who will be heading to the University of San Diego next year after they graduate this spring.
Bamford, who also coaches the squad as they shed their Torreys jerseys to become the Wiggins Waves in AAU play over the summer, sets goals for her players each year. This season, Plum focused on three-point consistency, reaching the point where she could regularly knock down 70-80 percent from beyond the arc when shooting in practice. They also worked to develop a quick release when coming off screens, a skill that has now become an integral feature of Plum’s game.
They will be working on offensive rebounding as well as sharpening her defensive skills in anticipation of Plum’s senior season at La Jolla, says Bamford. Plum is currently working with the team’s strength and conditioning coach to develop her lateral quickness, heightening her ability to get out in front of quick guards.
Off the court, Plum also marches to her own beat. Unlike many in her age group, she spends very little time on Facebook, Twitter or texting and her mother has to push her to carry a cell phone. She is active in a school spirit group known as the “Jungle,” that dons camouflage attire and heads off to everything from baseball games to academic decathlons to cheer on their schoolmates.
As for the future, as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2013 and perhaps the best point guard on the West Coast, there are a lot of schools that have come calling, says Bamford. In the mix are a handful of ACC and PAC-12 schools.
Plum says she would love to check out Stanford, but worries that her grades might not be good enough for the program where athletes are first required to earn admission under the school’s rigorous academic matriculation standards before being considered for scholarships.
That’s likely a misplaced concern, says Bamford, adding that Plum’s “GPA is fine, 3.5 or 3.6 unweighted,” despite the heavy load of AP classes she handles in La Jolla’s demanding college prep program. “She has the grades to get in pretty much any place she might decide to go.”
Plum has taken recruiting visits on both the East and West coasts. On the east there is interest in Maryland and Virginia. Head coach Joanne Boyle’s success this season with the Cavaliers has impressed her.
On the west coast, Plum had this to say about California coach Lindsey Gottlieb, "I just love the energy of their new coach." Gottlieb, who was Boyle's successor, guided the Bears to an impressive 26-10 record and a second-round NCAA tournament appearance.
Plum says Oregon is a front runner. Her sister plays volleyball for the Ducks and coach Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun style appeals to her.
In early February, Plum took a visit to Washington, who is rebuilding under first-year coach Kevin McGuff.
When the topic of Gonzaga came up, Plum’s eyes lit up. “I just love the ‘Zags!” she exclaimed.
Plum says she is “nowhere close to making a decision” at this point, though her coach says her star is working on cutting the list of candidates down to 10 schools.
What are the key factors in that decision? Plum, who was initially interested in pursuing a career in either sports medicine or business but now is leaning heavily toward journalism and communications, says she is looking a very good academic program and a “family atmosphere,” but “above all, I want to win a national championship.”
Does that mean Connecticut is in the picture?
“I want to beat Connecticut for the national championship,” Plum grinned.
Mom says her daughter isn’t necessarily looking to stay close to home: “Unlike a lot of kids, Kelsey wouldn’t think twice about packing up and moving 3,000 miles across the country. She’s more concerned about finding the right fit.”
“We’ve had a lot of great kids coming through here,” says Bamford, who has coached some of the best, Wiggins included, in her 15 years at La Jolla Country Day. Bamford says Plum ranks as one of the best she has seen in her coaching career, from her outgoing and fun-loving personality to her versatile skill set, focus and work ethic.
“She just a fun kid to coach,” says Bamford.
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