Kelsey Plum Is a Lot Like James Harden. But Is It a Left-Handed Compliment?


“It is tough because it was thrown at me like that,” said Plum, a 5-foot-8 guard who can score in a variety of ways. “I heard it a ton of times and tried to digest the comparison. I think hopefully in the next couple of years, maybe we get to a different comparison of woman to woman.”

Last year’s No. 1 pick, Breanna Stewart of Connecticut, had one of college basketball’s most storied careers. As a star who could play any position on the floor and seemingly take over at a moment’s notice, Stewart was often discussed as the female equivalent of Kevin Durant, a member of the Golden State Warriors who was the N.B.A. most valuable player in 2014 for Oklahoma City.

Stewart said that she was flattered but that she preferred to be discussed in relation to the titans of women’s basketball.

“What we do is different,” she told The Times last year. “How we play is different. So, you know, I think we need to start making more comparisons to women who are equally successful as K. D., but in our sport. Taurasi. Maya. Tamika Catchings. Delle Donne. Candace Parker. They deserve to be rewarded for that.”

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James Harden (13) is one of the most dangerous scorers in the N.B.A. and a common reference point for Plum’s style of play.

Credit
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Andrei Markovits, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who has written books on women in sports, said female basketball players are often compared to N.B.A. players as a point of reference for a broader audience.

But Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, said such analogies had become tiresome.

“Kelsey is slotted to be the No. 1 pick in the W.N.B.A. draft because she is such a great player,” Lapchick said on Wednesday. “If we need to compare her to another player, don’t slight her amazing achievements by comparing her to a male player, no matter how good he may be.”

Former players and analysts of women’s basketball said that they understood how comparisons across gender lines could be seen as a slight but that they also thought of those analogies as signs of growth for the sport.

The ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a former UConn player who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this summer, said there was no real point of reference for Plum in the W.N.B.A.

“When have we seen a player with this skill set, with this efficiency, with that body type?” Lobo said. “I can’t think of one. So I think that’s why sometimes you go to comparing them to the men’s players.”

LaChina Robinson, a basketball analyst for ESPN, agreed that it was a positive development for the women’s game when fans and the news media noticed resemblances between the athleticism in the N.B.A. and the talents of players like Plum and Stewart.

“You want to whenever possible try to compare W.N.B.A. players to other W.N.B.A. players,” Robinson said, “but I think we’re just seeing a generation that’s doing things we haven’t seen before in terms of the talent level, the skill, the athleticism, and so we find ourselves making a different comparison at this point.”

Plum said she understood the Harden comparison and gave those who made it “the benefit of the doubt.” She also agreed that her game might not line up exactly with many left-handed W.N.B.A. guards of the past, whereas Harden is her contemporary. “That’s a person they can think of that’s left-handed, draws contact and things like that,” she said.

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Breanna Stewart was the top overall pick by the Seattle Storm last year. Her multifaceted style of play has meant that her name is often mentioned in the same breath as Golden State’s Kevin Durant.

Credit
Jessica Hill/Associated Press

But, Plum said, “I do think if I do have a comparison, maybe Becky Hammon.”

Like Hammon, who became the N.B.A.’s first full-time female assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, Plum has sought to redefine perceptions of women in sports.

“My career, even if it could be 15 years, is very short compared to the rest of my life,” said Plum, who supported the United States women’s hockey team’s battle for pay equality on social media last month. “As an athlete, I have a platform to promote and create change.”

By any measure, Harden or otherwise, Plum had a transcendent college career — starting even before she played her first game at Washington.

The coach, Mike Neighbors, in his first season with the Huskies, was looking for a captain and created a list of 27 qualities that would be valuable in that position. As the preseason wound down, he realized that Plum, a freshman, had 24 of the 27 traits; the next closest player had about nine.

But could he really bestow the honor on a newcomer?

Plum felt similar trepidation. Concerned about resentment from her elders, she called the opportunity “social suicide.” But she accepted.

“By midseason, everyone understood what we did,” said Neighbors, who recently left Washington to coach at Arkansas.

Plum averaged 20.9 points as a freshman. By her junior year, she led the Huskies to an unexpected Final Four appearance. In February, she became the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball career scoring leader, eventually finishing with 3,527 points.

For the future, Plum said she has found motivation in two players she idolized growing up — Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi — whom she met through Morgan Valley, an assistant coach at Washington who played at Connecticut.

She said that regularly consulting with Bird and Taurasi — two players who have been among the league’s most prominent faces over the last decade — had given her confidence that she might one day influence both girls and boys to want to play like Kelsey Plum.

“I think my message is a lot of different things, but I try to inspire people to feel you can do whatever you want and not allow people to put limits on you, box you in or say you’re good for a girl,” Plum said. “That’s why I tell people I play basketball; I don’t play women’s basketball.”

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