Kelsey Plum is the best player in women’s college basketball, period. Having broken the all-time scoring record this season, she now sits as one of the most decorated players to ever play the game.
This is unfortunate for the premise of this article; I had hoped, upon first starting the thing, to really dig deep and compare and contrast Kelsey Plum with Kelsey Mitchell. It’s also remarkable, because Kelsey Mitchell happens to be one of the best players in the game, as well.
So, instead of chasing a tail I’ve already caught, I’ve decided to take a look at these players in regards to how they’ll fit at the next level, in the WNBA. Anecdotally, the best player in college basketball rarely translates to being the best player on the professional level; also anecdotally, the top scorers specifically tend to translate poorly.
Here’s what we’re going to do: basic analysis of the two players, using the Synergy Sports and National Statistical websites, then, thankfully and finally, we’ll draw half-baked conclusions about who will be a better WNBA player. Great? Great!
Kelsey Mitchell is an A-level scorer, leading her team in scoring at 23.4 points per game. She’s shooting 53% from the field, and 38% from three. She also has the highest usage rate on her team, at 28.5%, nearly five percentage points higher than the next highest member of her team.
According to Synergy, she ranks out as an Excellent offensive player, working best in the half court, scoring over a point per possession. Her best skills come as a pick and roll ball handler and as a spot up shooter, both grading out as Excellent. She’s an Excellent shooter, and Excellent finishing around the basket. She, more or less, has no weaknesses as an offensive player.
However, that is not the case defensively. Synergy is not kind of Kelsey Mitchell on this front, ranking her as a Below Average defensive player, giving up .841 points per possession overall, ranking her in the 28th percentile of all players.
She struggles with virtually every defensive part, even guarding spot-up shooters; the most alarming stat is her difficulty in defending the pick and roll ball handler, a primary assignment at any level of basketball.
Kelsey Mitchell is a guard with defensive deficiencies, and that’s not unusual. She’s clearly the primary scoring option, and the primary playmaker, and that is a lot of responsibility for one person to handle.
Asking someone to lead, create, and score for a team is difficult enough; asking them to also anchor their perimeter defense (in an era when perimeter defense grows more and more important) is a lot to ask. It’s not necessarily a mark, or even a red flag, but it deserves to be taken into account.
Kelsey Plum, at least in terms of a direct stats to stats comparison of this year, is Kelsey Mitchell on steroids. She has a usage rate of 34%, by far the highest mark on her team, and is scoring over 31 points per game.
She’s shooting 53% from the field (almost 60%[!] on two-pointers), and nearly 44% from three; she’s also shooting 88.7% from the free throw line. She’s 1.3 percent from the 50-40-90 club, which, what the heck. She’s averaging 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists, and turns the ball over less than 10% of the time.
On Synergy, it’s just a copy-paste job; she grades out as Excellent in every single offensive statistic. She’s at her best (and works the most) out of the pick and roll as the ball handler, and second-best (and second-most) running in transition. As a jump shooter, she’s only average from the mid-range, but a savant from behind the arc and at the basket, which is interesting regarding the way basketball is trending.
But, again: defensively, just not up to snuff. Synergy grades her out as Below-Average overall, and does Poorly when guarding out on the three point line. Again, perimeter defense has become one of the most important defensive areas on the floor, and not being able to guard at the three point line makes you a liability.
One area that she grades out as Good, however, is taking on the pick and roll ball handler; that is also the defensive situation that she faces the most.
As I said about Kelsey Mitchell: asking someone to carry the load and create for others is a lot to ask for, and adding the responsibility of anchoring the perimeter defense is just too much. They have to defend better to become one of the true greats, but there’s a reason that only a few people ever actually reach that level.
Asking who will be the better WNBA player is a tricky one. They are similar in their skills and what they do for their teams, but Plum is clearly on another level. However, that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that she’ll be a better pro player.
It seems, just on the surface, that Plum will be the better player, if only because they are essentially playing the same role, just difference in degrees. In the WNBA, where everyone was the best player on their college team, they most likely won’t be asked to carry such a heavy load, at least not in the exact same way.
If you make me choose, though, I think that Kelsey Plum ends up the better player. Though Kelsey Mitchell had better stats as a freshman (averaging almost 26 points per game), Plum has a near 35% usage rate as a senior. That's higher than Mitchell’s, as previously stated; more responsibility, while keeping the same efficiency, puts Plum over the top for me.
On a side note: it’s interesting to ask, in terms of these two players actual success, what the WNBA is looking for in its players? What kind of offense is going to be run around the league? Is this a big-heavy league, or a guard-heavy league?
We’ve seen that the best players in the WNBA are these combo-forward types, like Candace Parker, Maya Moore, Nneka Ogwumike and Elena Delle Donne, with players like Breanna Stewart on the horizon. Does that mean that two high-usage guards can become superstars? Hard to say. But it wouldn’t surprise me, especially in regards to these two.