As Kelsey Plum neared the NCAA women’s basketball career scoring record during her senior season at Washington, her game became equated with that of another prolific left-handed shooter.
Type Plum’s name into Google, and the first result under “People also search for” will be James Harden, the Houston Rockets guard.
Several news outlets, including WNBA.com, advanced the comparison, which was framed as a compliment to Plum, placing her on a level with a leading candidate for the NBA’s MVP award.
Plum, who was picked first overall in the WNBA draft by the San Antonio Stars on Thursday, has appreciated the analogy. But she also wondered whether it suggests that female players can be validated only through association with their male counterparts.
“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 NBA MVP in 2014 for Oklahoma City.
Stewart said 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. (Diana) Taurasi. Maya (Moore). Tamika Catchings. Delle Donne. Candace Parker. They deserve to be rewarded for that.”
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 NBA 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 WNBA draft because she is such a great player,” Lapchick said 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 they understood how comparisons across gender lines could be seen as a slight, but they also thought of those analogies as signs of growth for the sport.
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 WNBA.
“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 it was a positive development for the women’s game when fans and the news media noticed resemblances between the athleticism in the NBA and the talents of players like Plum and Stewart.
“You want to whenever possible try to compare WNBA players to other WNBA 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 her game might not line up exactly with many left-handed WNBA 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.
But, Plum said, “I do think if I do have a comparison, maybe Becky Hammon.”
Like Hammon, who became the NBA’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. “As an athlete, I have a platform to promote and create change.”
Plum averaged 20.9 points as a freshman at Washington. By her junior year, she led the Huskies to an unexpected Final Four appearance. In February, she became the NCAA 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 past 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.”