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Caitlin Clark’s WNBA welcome is a reality check

SportsCaitlin Clark's WNBA welcome is a reality check


UNCASVILLE, Conn. — As the seconds ticked down before her first WNBA game began, Caitlin Clark couldn’t stop moving. Waiting for the opening jump, she paced along the free throw line. She tugged at her shorts and fixed her ponytail. She swung her arms in an attempt to stay loose.

Then the ref tossed the orange and white WNBA basketball, but officials deemed it needed to be thrown a second time. Unlike the official’s toss, Clark might not want a complete redo of her debut. Still, there were definitely moments she will want back from a mixed individual performance and, ultimately, a disappointing loss.

She led the Indiana Fever with 20 points, yet she also notched 10 turnovers — the most ever in a player’s first WNBA game.

“I didn’t have the greatest start, so I think (there’s) just a lot to learn from,” Clark said. “There’s gonna be good ones. There’s gonna be bad ones.”

She rewrote the record book over four years at Iowa, often making the hardest matchups and most difficult shots look like a breeze. Tuesday’s inglorious record was not expected. Just over a month has passed since Clark’s college career concluded, but life in the WNBA is here. If a reminder was needed, she showed in the Fever’s 92-71 defeat to the Connecticut Sun that she’ll, at times, have growing pains as she transitions into the professional ranks.

“She’s a rookie in this league,” Fever coach Christie Sides said. “This is the best league in the world. We’ve got to teach her what these games are gonna look like for her every single night and we’ve got to eliminate some of that pressure for her. That’s on me, that’s on my staff to have to figure out.”

All eyes are on Clark as she attempts to jump to the pros with high expectations to not just perform like she did in college but invigorate the league in a way no player has before. Tuesday’s season tipoff was in front of the Sun’s first home-opener sellout since 2003, and she’ll make her home debut in front of another raucous crowd Thursday. At Connecticut, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans wore No. 22 T-shirts with Iowa and Fever logos on them to celebrate Clark. (At one point, a “bandwagon fan” graphic appeared on the Sun video board while showing many of them on the screen.) Fans with “Clark Fever” shirts started wandering the Mohegan Sun casino floor hours before the evening tipoff. The game’s television rating is sure to be far higher than last season’s openers.

It’s a scene Clark witnessed at nearly every game during her senior season at Iowa.

“I played in sold-out crowds literally every single game, so these environments don’t scare me or impact me at all,” she said Tuesday morning. “I’m sure there will be just like a lot of basketball fans here that really appreciate the game.”

Yet even with that familiarity, on the morning of the most highly anticipated rookie debut in WNBA history, she attempted to temper expectations.

“I know the outside world thinks I’m gonna do some amazing things, but that might take some time,” Clark said. “And if things aren’t perfect right away or one game’s not as amazing as I want it to be, give yourself grace, continue to learn, continue to get better from it.”

Almost immediately, Clark was welcomed to the WNBA by one of the world’s best players. Less than two minutes in, Sun star forward Alyssa Thomas attacked Clark in transition, forcing the 6-foot guard into a foul. After picking up two fouls, Clark ended the first quarter scoreless. She admitted regaining her flow was tough after sitting some early.

Clark had said “it would be nice” for her first career basket to come on a layup, but she couldn’t have envisioned waiting until the 5:24 mark of the second quarter to score. As she walked to the locker room at halftime, trailing by 10 points, reigning Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston grabbed Clark’s attention.

“(Boston) said just be calm, be aggressive and be you,” Clark said.

Clark made some uncharacteristic errors, picking up the basketball and traveling, dribbling it off her foot and throwing an errant inbounds pass. She has room to improve defensively, as well. Playing an experienced opponent, Connecticut’s physicality made a difference. Sides said Indiana was “punched in the mouth.”

Clark eventually settled in, taking advantage of switches. She hit a late fourth-quarter 3-pointer over Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa on a shot reminiscent of her time with the Hawkeyes. Still, the Fever played the entire night in catch-up mode, trailing for the game’s final 34 minutes. A stretch in the fourth quarter in which Thomas guarded Clark provided another data point that Clark’s competition level had increased.

GO DEEPER

What we learned in Caitlin Clark’s WNBA debut

There’s plenty of tape for Clark to devour now, and not much time to do it. Sides stressed that Indiana’s spacing was poor, and that it needs to find ways to get Boston easier looks (she attempted only six shots and scored just 4 points). Clark’s teammates have to do a better job of coming back to the ball on her passes. Cutting down on turnovers — the Fever had 25 — will also be imperative.

Opportunities to show immediate growth will come soon and often. Indiana opens the season with seven games in 12 days. The New York Liberty await Thursday night, another stiff challenge in a run of them.

Some performances will inevitably pale in comparison to others. A Clark masterclass will surely come sooner than later. But Tuesday emphasized what her new competition is like. How she responds will be her biggest challenge.

“Disappointed and nobody likes to lose, that’s how it is,” Clark said. “Can’t beat yourself up too much about one game.”

(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)





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