Kelsey Plum is much more than a viral video (or even two). In her 22 years, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft has already won a gold medal with the USA Basketball women's under-19 team, led the Washington Huskies to three NCAA tournament appearances and very casually broken the NCAA women's single-season scoring record (1,109 points, beating both male and female predecessors). Last season, she also set the NCAA record for career scoring in women's basketball with 3,527 points, just 140 shy of all-around record holder "Pistol" Pete Maravich. Her shooting technique has been compared to those of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Aside from being a bona fide star on the court, Plum represents a generation of women in basketball who are defying stereotypes by ignoring them. She can hang with the guys (during her last year at UW she grew close to probable fellow No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, and her time there meant occasional games of pickup with Boston Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas and former NBA dunk champion Nate Robinson), but she's an unrepentant advocate for women in sports, supporting the U.S. women's hockey team in its strike earlier this year and telling the press repeatedly that comparisons to men are nice, but there are plenty of women she admires as much or more.
Plum spoke with Bleacher Report ahead of her WNBA debut with the San Antonio Stars on Saturday about going pro, bringing new fans to women's basketball and, of course, how she got a T-shirt cannon for an arm.
B/R: With all the stuff you've had going on—going No. 1 in the draft, breaking the NCAA scoring record, getting the Nike deal—how do you stay focused?
KP: The scoring record, going No. 1...it's been great that that's happened, but I didn't plan it like that. I try to keep in mind that the reason it's all happening is because of my ability to play basketball. Before the draft, you're right: It was hectic. I was trying as much as I could to enjoy it, but I'll be glad when things slow down. Like, "All right y'all, let's just play basketball now." That's the fun part.
B/R: I spoke with [the Seattle Storm's] Breanna Stewart around the same time last year, right when she was going pro. She talked about the challenges of going from a super-passionate college fanbase to the slightly less fervent fandom of the WNBA. Do you feel that at all? How do you want to help bring that kind of fandom to women's pro basketball?
KP: I came from a college team that didn't start out very good. We probably had a couple hundred people at our games, so I understand what an empty arena looks like—I've played in a lot of them. But that means I know what it feels like to build [a fanbase], so I'm excited to be a part of what the Stars are building. It's funny that you mention that, because I don't have the same...like, poor Stewie, it's not sold-out like in Connecticut [Laughs]. I love Stew to death, but that's one thing I don't have to overcome.
B/R: How would you like to see the WNBA (and the recognition for it) change over the course of your career?
KP: I'd like to be a catalyst to help transition some people over to the league. I know that this year, we had some new fans tune in because of the whole James Harden comparison. There are some amazing women that play basketball in this league, and when people tune in, they'll see that. It's all about getting people to reach out—once we get 'em, we can keep 'em.
B/R: I know we did a video about your stylistic similarities to Harden, and in the wake of it going viral (and Harden even commenting on it), you pointed out that you'd like to be compared to women and not men.
KP: It started off as really flattering, but hopefully we can move past that because I think comparing men to women is kind of...disheartening. Fans come in expecting something specific, and then they leave disappointed. I don't even really want to play like other women—I want to play like me, the best version of me. Of course I learn things from the games of Diana [Taurasi] and Sue [Bird] and maybe Becky Hammon. But I wasn't in the backyard as a kid being like, "I want to be like someone else." I want to be like me.
B/R: You've talked about how you've been playing against men for basically your whole basketball career, from your local gym when you were 12, to pickup with people like Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson while you were in school. Where did that self-assurance come from when you were so young, to step on the court with men twice your size?
KP: I realized at a young age that if you want to be able to hang with these guys, you can't show any lack of confidence. The only way I would be able to stay on the court is if I could put the ball in the hole—I'd be chilling out all game at the three-point line, where I was probably going to get two shots and I'd need to knock both of them down. It was good practice: Like, I'll have this one moment, so I've gotta make sure I make the most of it.
It also came from my dad. I'd go with him to these pickup games, and he was just like, "Come on Plummer, let's go! Let's do this!" It was never, "Oh, here's a little girl." Just, "Let's go, roll the ball out."
B/R: Another thing I know is important to you is using your platform to promote change—what's one issue you want to focus on?
KP: I tell people, I don't play women's basketball, I play basketball. Putting the "women's" next to it shouldn't be an asterisk, like it's "less than." I have been given a little bit of a spotlight, and I hope to show that we can keep moving forward in convincing people that women are just as capable as men.
We'll think we're getting there because one thing changes, but then we're actually further behind. Like, when ESPN posted something about my breaking the scoring record, I remember reading the comments section—which I know you should never do—but it was all like, "Why isn't she in the kitchen?" Or sexual comments. Or like, "It's women's basketball, of course she can break the record." People's perspectives need to be challenged, and if I'm able to help change people's idea of what it means to be a female and play basketball, then, shoot, I want to by all means.
Like, you have to fight so hard to just get your foot in the door while so-and-so over there is just eating cheeseburgers and he's already in the room, just because. Like, why? We could go on about this all day, but basically I always try to ask questions and push and push. What's the worst they're gonna say? "No?"
B/R: So with this clip of you throwing alongside the Spurs' T-shirt cannons that went viral, did you anticipate the response at all?
KP: No, I was so genuinely surprised. I came to the game and they asked me if I wanted a T-shirt gun. I was like, "Nah, I'll throw 'em!" It was funny because when they said, "The No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Kelsey Plum!" people were like "Woo-hoo!" and then when I threw the shirt out, people were like "WHOOOOAAAAA!" They went crazy, like it was so much cooler that I could throw a shirt than it was that I was the No. 1 pick. But I didn't care, so I just kept throwing them further and further—I didn't think it was a big deal.
The next thing you know, I get a text from my cousin, like, "Yo, you're on Worldstar." And I really didn't know why! But then I looked, and it was like, "Really, the T-shirt?" So I just said [on social media], "Throw like a girl." Basically my dad had put me in baseball when I was a kid—I was a pitcher.
B/R: Since now people are talking about your prospects as a QB, did you hang out with any football players while you were at UW?
KP: I did. I'm really cool with John Ross and Kevin King. I know Jake Browning, and even, like, Bobby Wagner—he came to a bunch of our games. I was talking trash to Russell Wilson during our Stanford game [Laughs].
B/R: As far as UW connections, how are you feeling about the possibility of Markelle Fultz going No. 1 also? Wasn't he there when you got drafted?
KP: Yeah, he surprised me at the draft. We're good friends. Kelle's great, and regardless of what number he goes, I'm just proud of him and how far he's come. I might be biased, but I do think he's by far the best player in the draft, especially with how his athleticism translates immediately into the game. It would be the first time in history: one and one [UW players taken first overall in the WNBA and NBA drafts].
B/R: Did you play much with him while you were there?
KP: Yeah, we played Horse and shooting games—he'll try to tell you that he won, but that is a lie. He never even came close. [Laughs.] That's OK, though. You gotta let him have his glory moments. We'd work out all the time at school—he's a gym rat, so after games he'd come rebound for me and stuff.
We became friends because there were a lot of expectations of both of us, so we connected on certain things that we'd both go through. Markelle doesn't look like the No. 1 pick—like he's obviously big, but the way he carries himself is so humble and low-key. He's not flashy. We'd be at a store in Seattle together, and people would be like, "Hey Kelsey, can I have an autograph?" while Markelle's standing right next to me. I'm laughing, because it's like, do you know who this is?
B/R: With the Nike deal, do you want to have a signature shoe?
KP: Well, I've actually worn the same shoe for, like, four years—I'm low-maintenance. For me, I was just really excited to be a part of the Nike family, and hopefully we can collaborate down the line.
B/R: Any frustration that your Nike deal will prevent you from wearing Big Baller Brand?
KP: Ha! That is a no. [Laughs.]