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‘Had to grow tough skin’: Aces’ Plum relates to Clark’s start in WNBA

Amid the national discussion surrounding high–profile Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark’s welcome to the league, it seems no one is more qualified to weigh in than Aces guard Kelsey Plum.

Plum entered the WNBA as the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 after she became the all-time leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball. She was blanketed with attention before she left Washington as a senior. Cameras followed her around campus. Fans flocked to her at games.

The fanfare continued once she entered the pros, a reality that contributed to her struggle with anxiety and depression.

Clark had a similar introduction to the league. She was the No. 1 overall pick of this year’s draft, which she entered as the NCAA all-time leading scorer for men and women. Plum has learned to try and tune out most media opinions now, and she thinks some aspects of the discussion surrounding Clark are unfounded.

“It was a hard time for me,” Plum told the Review-Journal on Thursday as she reflected back on her own highly anticipated rookie year. “I think that the expectations for myself and then also the outside world were very unrealistic. … Definitely a lot of pressure. A lot of headlines, but that comes with the territory. So you just kind of had to grow tough skin.”

Wrong narrative

Recently, basketball analyst and former NBA player JJ Redick asked NBA all-time leading scorer LeBron James — the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick deemed the “Chosen One” — about the “hate or vitriol from older players” that Clark seemed to be receiving on and off the court as she starts her pro career.

“Don’t get it twisted, don’t get it (expletive) up. Caitlin Clark is the reason why a lot of great things is gonna happen for the WNBA,” James said on their podcast, “Mind the Game.”

NBA great Charles Barkley supported James’ comments, admonishing WNBA veterans live on TNT.

“Hey LeBron, you’re 100 percent on these girls hating on Caitlin Clark. Y’all petty, girls,” Barkley said. “Y’all should be thanking that girl for getting y’all ass private charters. All the money and visibility she’s bringing to the WNBA. What she’s accomplished — give her her flowers.”

Plum doesn’t agree that WNBA veterans have extra animosity toward Clark.

“If they watched me play my rookie year, they wouldn’t be saying that,” Plum said. “I got picked up full court, trapped — basically I was in a UFC fight every night. Ask anyone that has hype coming into the league; this is no different.”

Plum said her “welcome to the league” treatment lasted for at least three years.

“I don’t think (new fans and critics) fully had a grasp on the league, how good it is, how physical it is, how different it is in college, how differently officiated it is,” Plum said. “Also, just being real, everyone’s competitive. It’s a big game, there’s a lot of eyes on it. No one’s gonna give anyone anything ever.”

Success as a rookie

Plum didn’t see a WNBA win until her 11th game as a professional. She averaged 8.5 points per game for the season, landing on the All-Rookie team as the San Antonio Stars (now the Aces) finished with the second-worst record in the WNBA.

Six years later, the league has grown exponentially, and the attention is even more unrelenting.

“I think Caitlin’s in a different spot than I was,” Plum said. “I just always tell people, give (the rookies) grace. They’re young. They’re trying to figure it out. There’s a lot of things going on. I think that they’ve handled it tremendously well. I just try to ask the media to always lead with grace.”

Plum’s method is to never engage too much with the highs or lows of how she is perceived. If she could go back in time, she said she would give her younger self a hug and tell her about the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Success as a rookie, I think, is maintaining your peace,” Plum said. “It’s not easy to do. And so I don’t think it has anything to do with statistics. I don’t think it has anything to do with your team record or individual accolades. I think it’s maintaining your peace in a world of chaos.”

Now a two-time champion, Plum can look back and know it all turned out the way it should have. After earning the 2021 WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year award, she became a two-time All-Star and 2022 All-Star Game MVP. Her medal chest is loaded with hardware, as she’s a 2018 and 2022 World Cup gold medalist and 2020 Olympic 3-on-3 gold medalist with Team USA.

As far as her inner peace now, she joked that she’ll provide an update at the end of the season.

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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