Caitlin Clark: Changing the WNBA, Living Up to the Hype, and Silencing the Noise

If you were to list the most hyped basketball prospects of the 21st century, you would start with LeBron James, Victor Wembanyama, and Caitlin Clark. But only Clark came into her league with expectations of taking the WNBA to places it has never reached since it started play in 1997.

The NBA was still going to be popular and profitable no matter if LeBron lived up to the hype as the next great one to replace the loss of Michael Jordan, and it will do the same if Wembanyama does not become a superstar in the post-James era that’s coming.

But after a record-setting college career at Iowa where Clark broke the NCAA scoring record, she was a no-brainer decision for the No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft by the Indiana Fever, a region with a great appreciation for the game of basketball.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short-lived as Gregg Doyel, one of the main reporters from the Indianapolis Star assigned to cover Clark locally this season, had a bizarre interaction with Clark during her debut press conference in April. Doyel was disciplined and will not attend Fever games this season.

Little did we know that this would only be the tip of the iceberg in the way the media covers Clark in her rookie season, which is almost halfway completed.

Caitlin Clarck 365Scores' player profile
(Via 365Scores)

Rarely is the loudest Clark coverage about actual basketball play as a big part of the story has been the fact that Clark is a white, heterosexual player in a WNBA that is predominantly Black and has a significant percentage of players (roughly 38%) who identify as members of the LGBT community.

So, when Clark takes a hard foul from a player of a different background than her, it becomes a news story on CNN, a left-wing think piece in The Atlantic, a right-wing attack on Black and gay players, and a nasty battle between both sides on social media. Don’t even get started on reading about her feud with fellow rookie Angel Reese, or how Clark was left off the Olympic basketball roster for Team USA this year. You’ll just find more angry people.

We have somehow turned a phenomenal basketball prospect into a culture war pawn not even 20 games into her career. The reality is this 22-year-old just wants to play basketball, she is living up to the hype on the court, the WNBA is seeing records in attendance and TV ratings, and this is happening despite the toxicity and noise that comes with coverage of her career.

For a change, let’s take a data-driven approach to look at why Clark was such a hyped prospect, why she struggled out of the gate in the WNBA, and why she should still deservingly win the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year award.

Caitlin Clark: Prolific and Fun to Watch

While Clark’s physical attributes are not going to blow anyone away, you could say the same thing about Steph Curry in the NBA. Like Curry, Clark’s playing style is a huge draw as it is perfect for the modern brand of basketball that relies more on passing and 3-point shooting. Clark has incredible range as she showed in April when her 3 from the logo broke the NCAA women’s scoring record:

Clark is hardly the greatest shooter in women’s basketball history. She made 37.7% of her 3s at Iowa, which ranks 203rd on the all-time list for college. But basketball fans love a great shooter who does it at a high volume, which Clark does. NBA players like Kyle Korver and Steve Kerr were great shooters, but they weren’t averaging 25 or 30 points per game, let alone setting any scoring records. They also weren’t the primary reason their teams won games.

Clark made the most 3s (548) in women’s college basketball history, and that was a big reason why she averaged 28.4 points per game in her 4-year career at Iowa. That’s the highest scoring average ever for a woman who played more than two seasons in college.

Clark was a two-time national player of the year in 2023 and 2024. She helped Iowa lead the nation in scoring in both seasons, and there were 360 teams in the nation last year.

Sports fans gravitate to players who score a lot of points and win a lot of games. Clark also raised her profile in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament the last two years where her great shooting was on full display and sometimes in front of record-setting TV ratings for women’s college basketball. Again, this was similar to the way Curry had that spirited March Madness run to the Elite Eight with Davidson in 2008 to put his name on the map.

But Clark had Iowa, not traditionally a powerhouse in women’s college basketball, in the championship game in both years where she scored 30 points in each game to lead her team.

Unfortunately, Clark’s team lost both title games to LSU (2023) and South Carolina (2024), two teams that were a combined 72-2.

Clark lost those games for largely the same reasons we just saw Luka Doncic lose to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, and why Connor McDavid, despite winning the award (Conn Smythe) for playoff MVP, came up short in Game 7 against the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Finals.

It’s a tale as old as time in team sports. Teams driven by an offensive star like Clark usually have their limitations in the postseason against superior, better-balanced teams. Even Patrick Mahomes needed the best defense of his career to lead the Chiefs to another Super Bowl win last season.

While Clark helped Iowa to the top-scoring offense in the nation in 2023 and 2024, look where those teams ranked on defense. They were 250th in Defensive Rating in 2023 and 234th in 2024. Those rosters did not have the depth and athleticism of LSU and South Carolina, the latter finishing 38-0.

But Clark’s ability to carry those teams as far as she did made her the slam-dunk prospect for the No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft. Just get her a better-supporting cast and watch her grow.

But even the likes of generational athletes like Peyton Manning, LeBron James, and Sidney Crosby played for losing teams in their rookie seasons. It’s not easy going to the worst team and immediately turning that around.

Caitlin Clark’s Slow WNBA Start Made Sense

The fact that someone like me is writing about the WNBA in 2024 just goes to show the reach Clark is bringing to the league through her play and the vitriol that follows a lot of the coverage of her career to this point.

It’s not like Clark needs another person who never cared about the WNBA before this season to chime in with thoughts about her career and league. I am someone who primarily covers the NFL and NBA, and the WNBA has never been on my radar.

But I have many years of experience in analyzing data in those sports. I can spot trends and outliers with the best of them and point out when someone is doing something historically great.

Just because it’s the WNBA, that doesn’t mean we need to abandon all logic regarding team sports. Players drafted No. 1 overall often go to one of the worst teams. Rookies often struggle before getting better later in their careers. Rookies on bad teams playing games against great teams usually end in big defeats.

These are common situations for No. 1 picks. Less common is the situation Clark walked into this year.

Not only did Clark get drafted by a bad team in Indiana, but the Fever have won just 25% of their games from 2017-23. There are 12 teams in the WNBA, and only the Atlanta Dream (.392) won fewer than 40% of their games in this time. In 2022, the Fever finished 5-31, which is tied for the most losses in a season in WNBA history.

Sure, the Fever won the WNBA championship in 2012, then lost the WNBA Finals in 2015, but it has been nothing but losing seasons since 2017. After a 0-5 start, Clark has the Fever at 7-11 (.389). So, if she can double that rate in a 40-game season, the Fever will end up posting their best record since 2016.

Keep in mind Clark completed a long college season in early April, then made her WNBA regular season debut on May 14. There were some preseason games too before that, so this was a very quick turnaround from her college season while the veterans had a full offseason to prepare to play.

The schedule makers also did Clark’s Fever no favors. Indiana played 11 games just 19 days into the season. In that same time frame, no other team played more than 9 games, and Las Vegas only played 6 games from May 14 to June 2. What was that all about?

Is it any surprise that after the Fever had a full 4-day break after that brutal scheduling the team has gone on a 5-2 run? They finally got some rest.

Clark shot just 35.7% from the field and 29.7% from 3-point territory during the first 11 games this season. In the last 7 games since that 4-day break, Clark has shot 47.5% from the field and 44.4% from 3, a big improvement.

Also, remember when the Fever started 0-5? That was against a schedule that featured a pair of games against New York (15-3 record), Connecticut (13-3), and Seattle (10-6) – elite teams this season.

With context, Clark’s rookie season getting off to such a rough start should have been expected. But media coverage went every other direction instead of focusing on the nuances of the schedule and how much work the Fever still need to do to get into playoff form. They currently rank last in the league on defense while the offense has improved to No. 5 in Offensive Rating.

Sounds like a familiar situation for Clark, but this is the price of going to the worst franchise and a young team. Aliyah Boston was the No. 1 pick by the Fever in 2023, but she carried a fraction of the hype that Clark did coming into the WNBA. Her second season is also not showing an improvement over her rookie season, and she bricked Sunday’s game-winning shot attempt against Chicago.

How Does Caitlin Clark Stack Up Against Her WNBA Peers?

To give some context to where Clark matches up statistically to her peers, we needed some knowledge of the baselines in WNBA statistics.

After studying WNBA statistics as a newcomer to the league, there are some interesting trends in the way the league has followed in the footsteps of the NBA.

In 2006, scoring improved to 74.9 points per game after it was in the high 60s for the league’s first decade. This coincided with the effect of the Phoenix Suns improving offense in the NBA with their run-and-gun style under coach Mike D’Antoni and MVP point guard Steve Nash.

The next significant increase was in 2016, which was just after the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship with an impressive display of 3-point shooting from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. This was around the time of the beginning of the 3-point renaissance, grounded in analytics, in the NBA where possessions have also increased, scoring has gone way up, and triple-doubles are more common.

  • Average WNBA team game statistics in 2016: 81.9 points, .441 FG%, .336 3P%, .798 FT%, 33.8 TRB, 17.6 AST.
  • Average WNBA team game statistics in 2024: 81.3 points, .432 FG%, .336 3P%, .796 FT%, 34.5 TRB, 20.2 AST.

So, a lot of WNBA statistics are comparable over time for a league that started play in 1997. But comparisons of the volume of 3-point shooting should probably be

With that in mind, Clark’s numbers through her first 18 games look fine this season:

  • Clark is No. 14 in scoring at 16.3 points per game.
  • Clark is No. 4 in assists per game (6.6).
  • Clark is No. 18 out of 37 qualified players in 3P% (35.2%).
  • Clark is No. 7 in free throw rate (88.9%).
  • Clark is last (No. 113) by a wide margin in turnovers per game at 5.6.
  • Clark’s average shot distance is 19.8 feet, the third longest among the 45 players who have played at least 400 minutes this season (source: Basketball Reference).
  • Clark is No. 18 in eFG% (.513) among those 45 players too.

Clark’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is 16.1, which would rank her ahead of two-thirds of the more than 3,000 seasons in WNBA history where a player qualified for leaderboards.

This is not to say Clark is already an elite WNBA player just 18 games into her career, but it does suggest she is doing quite well for a rookie on a bad team that wasn’t supposed to compete in 2024.

Right now, the turnovers are the biggest eyesore on Clark’s stat sheet, and she will have to get that under control. However, there has been some anecdotal evidence that her teammates are just not very good at hauling in her passes, which go down as turnovers for Clark. Some of the highlights are laughable to say the least.

But with Clark’s assist numbers, there is a reason to have confidence in her passing skills and that the game will slow down for her to improve those turnover numbers. Clark’s 13 assists on Sunday in the loss to Chicago are the most by a WNBA rookie in a game in 17 years.

In fact, Clark already has three games this season with at least 20 points and 8 assists, which is already the most ever by a rookie. The WNBA single-season record for games with 20 points and 8 assists is 5 games, so she could tie or break that with half a season to go.

Without getting too pedantic by adding qualifiers like blocks and steals and “youngest player” to come up with stats for Clark like her Wikipedia’s records section has, we will leave you with some food for thought on this one about her all-around contributions so far.

Clark is currently averaging 16.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game. If those numbers hold, it would only be the fourth time in WNBA history that a qualified player averaged at least 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. The others to do it were Sabrina Ionescu twice (2022 and 2023) and Alyssa Thomas (2023).

Again, it may get a little easier to post these numbers in modern basketball with more shots per game, but if Clark can join that list, that would be impressive.

Caitlin Clark vs. Angel Reese for Rookie of the Year

Clark pulling off a 15/5/5 type of season also should be enough to give her the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year award, which she is heavily favored with -950 odds at FanDuel to win over a field that is basically Angel Reese now that Cameron Brink tore her ACL.

Even if we leave rebounds out of it, Clark would be the only rookie in WNBA history to average 15 points and 5 assists per game. Only one player has ever won Rookie of the Year averaging at least 4.0 assists per game, and that player (Temeka Johnson in 2005) averaged just 9.3 points per game.

Reese, who averages 12.4 points per game, is the only other rookie averaging in double figures in scoring. But she’s also barely shooting 40% from the field despite being big with the shortest average shots in the league at 4.6 feet. Reese has even had 33 of her field goal attempts blocked, the second most in the WNBA this season, and her Chicago team (6-9 record) isn’t much better than Indiana.

That won’t stop the media from making this the biggest rivalry in the WNBA, the modern-day equivalent of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. But so far, Clark has the upper hand in the pros.

Clark’s Impact on the WNBA This Summer

With the NBA and NHL wrapping up their seasons, sports fans are going to need some options that go beyond baseball this summer until the NFL returns. Sure, the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris will help, but that is still a month away.

This is a huge opportunity for the WNBA to shine and draw even more record-setting viewership. A week ago, it was reported that six networks had their most-watched WNBA game ever this season, and all six games featured Clark and the Fever:

She even has her own Wikipedia page for the “Caitlin Clark effect” to look at the impact she’s had on the viewership and relevance of women’s basketball. Again, the existence of this article is proof that she’s bringing a lot of new attention to the WNBA.

At the end of the day, that likely is the main beef some of her peers may have with her. They’ve been grinding for years in the WNBA, but it took Clark’s arrival for more people to pay attention. That would rub some veterans the wrong way when the rookie gets so much of the credit.

But if a sizable chunk of the new audience is here to stay, then who really cares how it happened? Reap the benefits of more viewers, higher pay, more endorsement deals, chartered flights for the first time ever, and much more.

Time will tell if Clark is going to live up to the hype at the pro level and become an all-time great. She’s off to a nice start. But this is a good opportunity for fans to learn about center A’ja Wilson, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft by the Las Vegas Aces. Patrick Mahomes isn’t the only two-time MVP who is seeking a three-peat championship this year. Wilson has led the Aces to back-to-back titles and is the favorite to win her third MVP award this season. That’s a level Clark hopes to get to soon.

She’s not there yet nor should she be as a rookie on a bad team. But if your expectations for Clark were to be a generational talent with a style that brings in the biggest influx of fans to women’s basketball, then you might be in luck.

Clark’s success should be measured the same way it is for any basketball player with what they achieve on the court. But for someone who has the reach to bring so many people together, it’s sad how many want to use Clark to further tear us apart.

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