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Kelsey Plum aims to bridge ‘massive gap’ for WNBA prospects

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Kelsey Plum isn’t just hoping for change, she’s taking an active part in it.

This April, nine of the top amateur guards in the country will descend upon IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. as part of the inaugural Dawg Class. There, they will participate in a weekend camp put on by the Las Vegas Aces guard and Under Armour.

The idea for the camp came from Plum’s own experience with the transition from college to the WNBA in 2017. The former No. 1 draft pick opened up to Just Women’s Sports’ Rachel Galligan last year about her mental health journey, which included severe bouts of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Choosing to share her story at that moment, she says, was something she felt called to do.

“I know that mental health is something that people are struggling with immensely, especially our youth, and particularly our young women,” Plum tells JWS. “It was time to really just peel back some of the layers of the onion.”

Now, Plum is taking those lessons and imparting them on the next generation of WNBA prospects. Women’s professional basketball, Plum believes, isn’t set up to help them succeed.

Currently, athletes have a short period of transition from college to the WNBA. This year’s WNBA Draft takes place just eight days after the NCAA championship game on April 2. Then, for draft picks who earn one of the limited WNBA roster spots, training camp begins on April 30 and the regular season tips off on May 19.

All the while, many incoming rookies will still be completing their final year of college.

“The women’s game has such a massive gap in the transition from college to pro, unlike any other professional sport,” Plum says, comparing it to the support NBA players receive from middle school all the way through college. “There’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of support, there’s a ton of resources to help them get to that point and be prepared.

“On the women’s side, it’s not like that. You’re just kind of thrown into the fire and you’re on your way, it’s like sink or swim.”

While much of the weekend with the Dawg Class will be about preparing the athletes for the pros, including lessons on what to look for in an agent and what to expect in the WNBA, Plum intends to treat them as she would anyone else.

“I’m there to train. I’m not above them,” she says.

“This is what I wish I would have gotten. A lot of these things I’ve learned in the last year or two, I’m like, man, how much would it have saved me, just like, quality of life, if I would have been able to learn these skills earlier? So, that’s the whole point of this class.”

Plum plans to be a resource for players beyond the weekend’s events, giving them her phone number for texts and calls. And if she can’t help them herself, she’ll find someone who can.

Launching the initiative with Under Armour, Plum says, was one of the reasons she signed with the brand in the first place.

“Even before I signed, Under Armour and I, we sat down and I said, ‘This is my number one, this is what I want to attack. I want to make an impact in young women’s lives, and I feel like this is the best way that I can do it,’” she says. “There’s a massive need that’s not being met.”

Under Armour’s proven investment in women, starting with their No. 1-ranked AAU high school circuit, was what really sold the deal.

“I’m really proud to be a representative of their brand because they really put their money where their mouth is,” she says. “For them to allow me to do this is massive, and I think it’s going to be huge for the sport.”

Throughout this process, Plum has also been thinking about her own future. The 28-year-old guard shined for the Aces last season, starting all 36 games, averaging a career-best 20.2 points per game and earning a spot on her first All-Star team, where she won All-Star Game MVP. Named to the All-WNBA First Team, Plum was also a part of the Aces’ first WNBA championship.

She attributes the success to her own mental well-being after hiring a mental health coach in her fourth year in the WNBA.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve felt at peace as much as I’ve ever been, and I’ve also performed at a high level,” Plum says. “For me, it’s more of a lifestyle, on the daily what I do to maintain that peace.”

Plum and 2022 WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson are just two stars on Las Vegas' WNBA superteam. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Plum knows that the Aces have a target on their backs heading into the upcoming WNBA season. The reigning champions added new signings Candace Parker and Alysha Clark to a roster that already includes Plum, two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, Finals MVP Chelsea Gray and All-Star Jackie Young.

With one of the most talented rosters in the WNBA, Las Vegas has been dubbed one of the league’s superteams alongside the New York Liberty.

“This is the thing when you amass that much talent, the biggest kryptonite is ego. And I gotta start with myself. To try and be a good player in the WNBA, you have to kind of have an ego. You’ve got to have this, like, unfazed confidence about yourself,” Plum says.

“Everyone’s like, repeat, repeat, and I just laugh because I’m like, people don’t understand how hard it is to win. You just gotta go a day at a time. And I think that it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

Plum is having more fun playing basketball, which she realizes now is the key to seeing beyond the pressure and enjoying success. And that’s exactly the example she wants to set for her new group of mentees.

“We have the sports world’s attention, bigger than just the W,” Plum says of her and her teammates. “When you have that, you can look at it as pressure, but I honestly think it’s a privilege, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Emma Hruby is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @EHruby.