The San Antonio Stars aren’t answering the Kelsey Plum questions

San Antonio Stars guard Kelsey Plum brings the ball up court. Photo by Abe Booker, III
San Antonio Stars guard Kelsey Plum brings the ball up court. Photo by Abe Booker, III /

Back in April, every key stakeholder—player, coach, general manager and agent—expressed a vision for how Kelsey Plum to the San Antonio Stars would work.

This agreement came after a tumultuous period leading up to and following San Antonio’s selection of Plum with the top overall pick in the 2017 WNBA draft, capped by Plum’s agent expressing concern about the plan.

Plum would start alongside Moriah Jefferson, last year’s second overall pick, and the former lottery pick and 2015 all star Kayla McBride—”our three marquee players”, Stars head coach Vickie Johnson called them in an interview last month—in a three-guard offense.

Johnson, who’d expressed reluctance to choose Plum during internal conversations prior to the draft, described player development as her number one job as coach in that interview. “It’s my duty to give back to these young players, to the W, for giving me so much,” Johnson said.

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And so the fit, for all the acrimony that preceded Plum’s signing, seemed plausible, if not ideal.

“We’re the same,” Johnson said of Plum. “I’m direct, she’s direct.” As a player, Johnson had played for years in a multi-guard set with Teresa Weatherspoon and Becky Hammon in New York, then with Hammon in San Antonio.

“Just imagine Kayla pushing the ball,” Johnson said with evident relish, “and you have Plum and MJ running the wing. And then you have Plum and Kayla on the wing: great shooters! Or you have Plum pushing it, and then Kayla and MJ on the wing. Great things. I see great things.”

But 14 games into San Antonio’s season, that hasn’t happened. It isn’t that the Stars are struggling to integrate Kelsey Plum into the offense alongside Jefferson and McBride. It’s that they haven’t even tried, and no one can figure out why that is.

The Stars repeatedly declined to make Johnson or general manager Ruth Riley available for interviews on the subject, instead sending an emailed statement from Johnson Wednesday afternoon.

San Antonio Stars head coach Vickie Johnson observes the action in a game against the Minnesota Lynx. Photo by Abe Booker, III
San Antonio Stars head coach Vickie Johnson observes the action in a game against the Minnesota Lynx. Photo by Abe Booker, III /

“We realize that it has been a challenging season,” Johnson said in the statement. “We have overcome a lot of injuries early on. We are working out different lineups and although we haven’t played Plum, MJ and McBride together a lot these first 14 games, we still believe there is great potential for them in the future. We are a young team and we’re trying to figure out how we can grow together and be productive together.”

The Stars then said The Summitt could email a question for Riley to answer, and after receiving it, declined to answer this: “You have said you expect Kelsey, Moriah and Kayla can co-exist but the three have yet to play any meaningful minutes together. Why is that? Has your opinion about building around them changed? How much more do they need to play together to properly evaluate them as a trio? And do you have reason to believe that will happen this season?”

It is a remarkable turn of events for both a coach and general manager to refuse to answer basic questions about lineups or the usage of a top overall draft pick less than halfway into that pick’s first professional season.

The questions Riley and Johnson avoided (or were instructed to) are central to why the entire league is buzzing over the situation in San Antonio. The 0-14 record by the team is incidental to this: the Stars are a young, rebuilding team. 0-14 feels worse than 2-12, say, but this was always going to be a long-term project.

What nobody can understand is why the Stars aren’t even trying to answer the very real question of whether the trio of Plum, Jefferson and McBride can play together, and if so, how well.

“She definitely can be doing more and should be playing so she can figure out how to play on this level,” one WNBA coach opined of Plum, wondering if “maybe VJ is mad she was made to pick her.”

It seems incredibly self-defeating, but the league is left scrambling for answers about the unprecedented situation, and the Stars aren’t providing them, in word or in deed.

San Antonio Stars guard Moriah Jefferson drives to the basket. Photo by Brian Few, Jr.
San Antonio Stars guard Moriah Jefferson drives to the basket. Photo by Brian Few, Jr. /

There are really two components to the apparently inexplicable choices made by the Stars. There’s how often Plum is playing. And then there’s who she is playing with. Let’s take each in turn.

As of right now, Plum is averaging 13.6 minutes per game. Johnson has been asked about Plum’s playing time over the course of the season, and repeatedly invokes the idea that rookies take time to develop, which is true.

“People—fans and media—don’t understand that this is the best league in the world with the best athletes in the world,” Johnson told reporters after San Antonio’s game in Seattle June 18. “Even (Jewell) Loyd is a different player this year than she was a year ago. Moriah Jefferson is a different player than she was when she came out. It took her half of a season to get the speed of the game. Same thing with Kelsey—it’s going to be a little slower for her because she sprained her ankle and is still working through that.

“But overall, I think she’s doing fine. She can’t get caught up in other people’s expectations and where she should be. One thing I would say is that everybody that’s in the WNBA has been an All-American – these are the best players in the world. When you’re running athletes against athletes, that’s when your basketball IQ has to kick in and your pride just can’t take over with ‘Well, I did it in college and now I can do it here.’ You have to step back, read the defense and let the game come to you. Create for your teammates then on the second touch you can create for a shot.”

Johnson’s done that a lot—invoked basketball IQ as a seeming rationale for not playing Plum, universally acclaimed for her basketball IQ coming out of college. It’s puzzling, particularly when she is getting less of a chance than any top overall pick in the history of the league to improve that basketball IQ, which everyone agrees can only come from actually playing.

Plum’s minutes per game would be by far the lowest in recent memory of any WNBA top pick. Not since Janel McCarville with the 2005 Charlotte Sting has a draft pick played fewer minutes per game, with McCarville checking in at 11.1 per contest. And to get a sense of how well that Sting team planned for the future, after 2005 they played one more season, then folded.

The players Johnson invoked, Loyd and Jefferson? Well, Loyd played 25.6 minutes per game her rookie season in 2015 after getting picked first by Seattle. Jefferson, the second overall pick by San Antonio last year, averaged 30.4 minutes per game in 2016.

And while the ankle injury Plum suffered in the latter stages of the preseason is often presented as a reason for her slow integration into the Stars’ lineup, it isn’t as if she’s playing more lately: just 11 minutes per game over her last five contests. On Sunday in Minnesota? She played 4:12, all in the first half.

San Antonio Stars guard Kayla McBride looks to drive against Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus. Photo by Abe Booker, III
San Antonio Stars guard Kayla McBride looks to drive against Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus. Photo by Abe Booker, III /

“This is why you never force a player on a coach,” another WNBA talent evaluator said.

And while Plum is playing as little as any top pick in recent memory, more inexplicable still is that she simply isn’t playing with Jefferson and McBride—which, as you’ll recall, was the entire idea behind drafting her in the first place.

The fact that the Stars haven’t made any apparent effort to integrate the trio has reinforced the idea around the league that Plum is available in trade, a driver of tremendous activity and conversation up to and even beyond the moment Plum was picked by San Antonio back on April 13.

Multiple teams have discussed, at least internally, what it will take to get Plum lately, while Riley faces the difficult reality that those teams do not think it necessary to offer as much as they did back in April, now that the Stars seem to have proven they don’t intend to play Plum with their two other “marquee players”, as Johnson put it back in May.

And even Johnson’s future with the team—Johnson received a one-year deal—is in question for those around the league, considering how central to the future planning of the Stars it is to find out whether Plum fits.

“I don’t think VJ survives this,” a WNBA coach said.

Even on Sunday in Minnesota, Johnson was still preaching the long-term vision in a conversation with Mike Peden, a reporter for The Summitt.

“It’s bigger than winning and losing,” Johnson said. “It’s about growth. Teaching these kids the right way. Building a foundation we can stand on. And we’re still building that foundation.”

But no one can figure out what the Stars are building. And the Stars aren’t willing to explain.