Kelsey Plum and the Evolution of the WNBA

Kelsey Plum and the Evolution of the WNBA

Due to the likes of Diana Taurasi, my passion for the WNBA spans nearly a decade. She moved unlike any other guard I had ever seen. The league was certainly infused with talent but Taurasi stood out. Her ability to create, especially off the dribble, was basically NBA-esque.

The Audience

People who often complain about the WNBA expect a mirror product of the NBA and that’s just not fair. Their players are different and the league is incredibly young. The NBA has 51 more years in existence than the WNBA, enough time to grow its sport, audience and product. The WNBA is entering its 21st season this year and—despite its youth—is the leading model for professional sports leagues dedicated to women. Furthermore, due to its success, it leads the way in helping provide young girls with better opportunities in sports, helping close the huge inequality gap just a bit.

All things considered, women’s sports are still underfunded, unappreciated and often disrespected. Female athletes have always existed, but society just very recently began to appreciate them and give them opportunities. And in spite of society’s progress, the much more successful women’s national soccer team still earns chump change in comparison to the mediocre men’s team. The 2017 number one overall pick in the WNBA will make $50,000 her rookie year. The 2017 number one overall pick in the NBA will make 98 times more. You can’t wonder why Diana Taurasi and so many others often play overseas as well, where she makes 15 times her WNBA salary.

But this isn’t necessarily about sexism in sports, although it is certainly present. With the WNBA, their main issue is their audience size. Revenue and audience size are relative. The problem of audience size stems from NBA fans expecting an NBA-esque product. Given the age of the WNBA, you can still claim its product is somewhat relative to what it was in the '70s or ‘80s for the NBA. However, the league’s talent is growing at an alarming rate.

The Present

When I first watched Taurasi play, it was the only time I had ever made an NBA comparison. I enjoyed the WNBA as a product of its own and I was content with it. Taurasi reminded me of Kobe Bryant. Her ability to create off the dribble was captivating and levels beyond her peers, or so it seemed.  The game looked so natural when she played and she moved about with a certain swagger. You either loved her or hated her because she was an assassin. She still is an assassin, but she’s not alone.

In 2011, everything changed.

The Minnesota Lynx had the rights to the first pick in the WNBA Draft and they selected a Connecticut product. We all knew she was good, but Maya Moore turned out to be ahead of her time. Taurasi was no longer alone; in fact, she would soon find herself being inferior in her prime for the first time. If we’re going to stick to NBA comparisons: enter LeBron James. Moore does it all. She’s the scoring of Taurasi, plus an innate ability to get her teammates open looks. Couple that with her otherworldly athleticism as a guard and you have yourself a player unlike any other.

Maya Moore represents the new product of the WNBA and she’s not alone. Two drafts later blessed us with the equivalent of Kevin Durant. Elena Delle Donne is a tall, lanky big who shoots the lights out every night; good luck stopping her if she gets to the elbow. The league is changing at an alarming rate and its product is getting better every year. We are seeing so much great talent coming into the league that even NBA purists, who expect an NBA product when they watch the WNBA, should start pulling their heads out of their asses and pay attention. Basketball is basketball, and the best of the WNBA puts on one hell of a show on any given night.

The Future

The latest infusion of talent comes via the University of Washington; enter James Harden. The San Antonio Stars drafted the best player in the country, and she's no UConn product. UConn players are hard to truly judge, given their play on an All-Star team that runs over the competition 99% of the time. But Kelsey Plum is a woman of her own. She carried that Washington team on her back and she's the newest installation of talent in the new age of the WNBA.

The James Harden comparison is no joke; Plum being left-handed is the smallest of similarities. She's a professional scorer and she might be better than Moore at it. She's a phenomenal shooter who can create high percentage opportunities out of thin air, for both herself and her teammates. Plum gets to line as well as Taurasi ever has and may very well shatter Tina Thompson's all-time scoring record by the time she hangs it up.

Plum is an incredible talent poised to leave her mark on the young and growing league. Despite being one of the trailblazers for talented players of her kind, she will be one of many talents. Players of her caliber are likely to become more and more common as opportunities for women in sports continue to grow. Soon, players of Plum's talent will be the norm and a new wave of even more talented players will invade the league, as is the circle of life. The future for the WNBA is extremely bright, but the present is no dark alleyway. It's a galaxy filled with budding young stars and its product is more than worthy of your attention.

The 2017 WNBA season kicks off May 13th as the New York Liberty host the San Antonio Stars 3:00 PM ET.