Caitlin Clark Is Adapting To The WNBA Under An Unforgiving Spotlight

In her first five games as a pro with the Indiana Fever, Caitlin Clark has gone through the typical ups and downs of a rookie guard being tasked with running a new offense with new teammates — something that becomes even more difficult as a member of a team that wasn’t very good the prior year. The results have been mixed, with flashes of brilliance interspersed with youthful mistakes and difficulties with the increase in speed and physicality.

In a vacuum, it’s the kind of start to a career you’d expect from a young player. However, Clark exists in a space well beyond most rookies, carrying immense expectations that are now colliding with the reality of her situation as a young player that still has lots to learn and areas of her game that need to grow.

Numerous WNBA stars, past and present, said Clark would not be able to come into the league and simply pick up where she left off in college. Some felt they were hating or jealous of Clark’s popularity, but they were simply telling a general truth that exists across all sports: Young players, even future stars, usually endure some struggles as they adjust to the pro game, and the process of getting comfortable in that new environment takes time.

Time is something Clark is not being afforded by everyone. Clark entered the WNBA with more public attention than any prospect in league history. Her games have been broken TV records for women’s basketball for the past year, but the audience that was once treated to a veteran dominating her level of competition is watching a player at the very beginning of a new learning curve. That has led to inevitable discussion of whether Clark is overrated and overhyped, when her up-and-down start shouldn’t be a surprise or an indictment of what she can become.

Like most young guards in a professional league, the speed and physicality of the game have forced Clark to adapt on both ends of the court. Adding to that is the fact that she didn’t come into the league with a physical advantage in the form of elite size or speed, which Tim Legler pointed out means the process takes even longer for her to fully understand how to deploy her entire skill set at the pro level.

The space she could create to shoot off the bounce in college is more difficult to attain, and defenders are allowed a bit more physicality on the ball to disrupt her dribble. Rotations are crisper and passing windows close quicker, requiring a recalibration of what constitutes a passing lane. The attention defenses pay her hasn’t increased, but the skill of those defenders with eyes on her has, making it more difficult to get to her spots than it was in college. Defensively, she’s dealt with foul trouble in three of her five games, as she has to figure out how to match intensity and physicality without overcompensating and fouling.

On top of all of that, playing against Caitlin Clark means you are provided a fairly unique opportunity at this moment in the WNBA. Her first few games have already broken viewership records for ESPN and ABC. Folks tune in to watch Clark when the game starts, but opposing teams know they have a chance to become the headliners when the final buzzer sounds. That puts the Fever in a strange position, because teams typically aren’t getting up to make sure they have their A-game against an opponent at the bottom of the standings. But with a national stage and well over a million viewers most nights, the Fever’s opponent will find themselves with an opportunity to make quite the statement.

The result has been Clark averaging 17.1 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.6 rebounds a night on 40.3/32.6/91.3 shooting splits, with 5.8 turnovers per game through her first five games as a pro. For most rookies, no one would really bat an eye at those numbers, but they are a ways off from her preposterous senior year stat line at Iowa, averaging 31.6/8.9/7.4 on 45.5/37.8/86.0 splits. Four of those games coming against the Sun and Liberty, top-3 teams from a year ago, and while it’s been ugly at times, I think the early gauntlet (which will continue this weekend against the Aces) is a good thing for Clark. She is not someone I worry about losing confidence through early struggles, but instead, this is a very quick crash course in what needs to improve to play with the league’s very best and set off on the work needed to get there. At some point, it was going to happen, and getting that in the first two weeks should allow her and the Fever to get a very clear sense of where they need to get better.

That last part is also important to remember, because the adjustment process isn’t just a burden Clark has to shoulder alone. She is such a unique player, and her new teammates and coaches have to figure out how best to operate with her as the focal point. Fever head coach Christie Sides has faced criticism for how the team is operating, and she’ll have to adapt her coaching philosophies to match the skillset of her team to put them in the best places to succeed. On the floor, Clark’s teammates have to figure out new roles, how to space the floor better, where Clark is expecting them to be on sets, and when to cut and move off the ball.

Chief among them is Aliyah Boston, who the Fever hope can pair with Clark to be one of the WNBA’s best guard-big combos. Both she and Clark are learning how to play off of one another in real time, as neither has ever played with anyone like the other. For Clark, Boston is the most dynamic big she’s ever played with, and for all the potential positives that can bring, it forces Clark to learn where Boston wants the ball and make sure she is setting up Boston to get looks where she’s most comfortable. For Boston, she’s never played with a guard that plays like Clark. She has to learn how Clark wants her to roll, with Clark noting she wants Boston to operate out of the short roll more to prevent defenses from recovering and denying passes closer to the rim.

There’s also the need to figure out how to best screen for Clark to help with creating that space to shoot or drive and collapse a defense, with Indiana starting to set those screens higher up the floor to stretch the defense vertically and give Clark a longer runway into a shot or a drive. Those are things that take time with veterans, so it shouldn’t shock anyone that two young players playing with a brand new co-star archetype are not on the same page immediately.

It’s easy to forget this team has been together less than a month, so we’re watching this learning process in real time. There are tangible examples of improvement in all of these areas already in five games, as they’ve gone from getting run off the floor to being competitive, with the next step being learning how to finish off wins. Clark has started to find some comfort with Boston and others, continuing to better understand where her teammates are going to be on any given play and where they’re going to be best set up to succeed. That leads to her making the simple play, because the trust is starting to build. We saw that in her most recent game against the Seattle Storm, as things seem to be slowing down a bit for her, finding teammates early before windows close and forcing things less.

Clark shouldn’t be absolved of criticism simply because she’s young. She is supposed to be a face of the league sooner than later, and as such, it’s not unfair to have expectations for her to be better than most rookies. That said, we also have to be understanding of the context of her situation when discussing her play. She is dealing with new challenges being presented to her by more talented players. She is playing on a team that is not one of the league’s deepest with talent, and she is one month into her pro career after a lengthy college season.

As such, the mistakes and poor decisions aren’t damning evidence that she can’t hack it in the WNBA, but simply evidence of things that need to be cleaned up if she’s going to reach that truly elite level in the league. And despite what the discourse around her may lead you to believe, there’s plenty of time to get there.