What could Caitlin Clark’s WNBA transition from Iowa look like?

What could Caitlin Clark’s WNBA transition from Iowa look like?
What could Caitlin Clark’s WNBA transition from Iowa look like?
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Reality is coming.

In the words of Diana Taurasi, as spoken to Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter, Caitlin Clark is due for a reckoning when she gets to the WNBA. After four years of dominating the college game, Clark is starting the next chapter of her career at the bottom as one of the youngest players in the most talented league in the world. Regardless of what the overall arc of Clark’s career ends up being, it is unlikely that she hits the ground running as the best player on the court every night, as she did at Iowa.

Hype won’t be an issue for Clark; she is accustomed to feeling pressure and meeting the moment. She was a top-five recruit coming out of high school who ended up as the leading scorer in college basketball history. She proclaimed her goal as a freshman to get Iowa back to the Final Four for the first time since 1993, and she did it – twice. As the eyes of the public lasered in on her during every successive game of the Hawkeyes’ 2024 NCAA Tournament, Clark kept winning, shattering viewership records in the process.

She has been the center of attention before. The only difference now, as Clark is prepared to be the No. 1 pick by the Indiana Fever, is that the players she suits up against will be able to do something about it.

“It’s a different game, there’s an adjustment period, there’s a period of grace that you have to give rookies when they get to the league,” Taurasi said at USA Basketball training camp in Cleveland. “We’ve had some of the greats to ever play basketball, and it takes two or three years to get used to a different game (against) the best players in the world.”

The most significant change Clark will encounter in the WNBA is the physicality and strength of her opposition. We saw Clark struggle with aggressive ball pressure from West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, causing her to post her worst assist-to-turnover ratio (3 to 6) of the season. UConn’s Nika Mühl had her in a straitjacket during the Final Four, picking Clark up full-court and limiting Clark to her lowest scoring total (21 points) of 2023-24. And the trees of South Carolina made it challenging for Clark to finish inside, as she missed 10 2-pointers.

That’s the type of defense Clark can expect to encounter every night in the WNBA, starting with Gamecocks alums Tiffany Mitchell and Tyasha Harris in Indiana’s opener against Connecticut. Furthermore, while Clark got to hide on the Hawkeyes’ defense, deferring the toughest matchups to Gabbie Marshall, too many offensive threats exist on every team in the pros. She’ll have opposing players trying to take her off the dribble and get into her body on that end as well.

“Challenge-wise, I think the physicality of going against grown women is going to be tough,” Andraya Carter said in the WNBA’s pre-draft Zoom call. “The hits are going to be a little bit harder. The checks are going to be harder. The defense is going to be more physical and the players will be faster.”

The jump to the pros is often more challenging for top guard prospects. Of the nine rookies who have placed in the top 10 of WARP (wins above replacement player) since 2010, only Maya Moore was a perimeter player, according to ESPN.com. And Clark’s game doesn’t exactly resemble that of her childhood idol.

Former No. 1 picks Kelsey Plum and Sabrina Ionescu each experienced severe growing pains in their ascent to All-Star status. Plum didn’t average double-digit scoring until her fourth season, a somewhat shocking turn of events for the then-leading scorer in Division I women’s college history. Similarly, Ionescu didn’t make more than 35 percent of her 3-pointers until her fourth season despite converting 42.2 percent of such looks in college.

Nevertheless, Clark has a few advantages going for her relative to that pair. At 6-foot, she’s bigger than Plum, which will give her cleaner shooting angles right away. Opponents might not be able to put their best defender on Clark right away with All-Star Kelsey Mitchell also in the Fever backcourt, and Clark has deeper range than Plum at this stage, allowing her to stretch the defense.

Ionescu was bothered by a severe ankle sprain over her first two seasons, so health could be the biggest differentiator for Clark early in her career. But Ionescu’s difficulty playing as a lead ballhandler is instructive — despite being the all-time college leader in triple-doubles, she only flourished in the pros next to another point guard. Clark will be playing at the one; as such, her passing will need to shine right away. Fortunately, that might be the most pro-ready skill in her tool box.

“There will be challenges, but at the same time the talent around her is also going to be better,” Rebecca Lobo said on the pre-draft call. “I’m excited to see what that looks like in particular on the offensive end of the floor.”

Perhaps a more useful comparison for Clark is Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 pick in 2022. Howard was a high-volume 3-point shooter at Kentucky and succeeded as a scorer as a rookie because she kept launching from distance, earning All-Star honors in her first season. Howard didn’t do too much shot creation for others — she’s more of a wing than Clark — but used her size to pull up against smaller guard defenders, something her fellow No. 1 pick can replicate.

Clark’s deep repertoire of skills, whether that’s shooting off the catch, creating for others, or generating good looks for herself, makes it plausible that she’ll be able to rely on one of those to make her mark immediately. She’s in a better position to succeed than those who preceded her in recent years because her resume is in a class of its own.

Even if reality hits right away, there’s a long runway for Clark to figure out how to dominate at the next level. She is being set up for success by a franchise that will prioritize her development and optimize her basketball situation. Sooner or later, everyone agrees that Clark’s game will translate, even Taurasi.

“When you’re great at what you do,” Taurasi said, “you’re just gonna get better.”

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