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Three takeaways from Caitlin Clark's WNBA debut

On3 imageby:Kyle Huesmann05/15/24


Tuesday night was the highly-anticipated regular season debut for Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever. From an atmosphere standpoint, it wasn’t anything that Caitlin isn’t used to. It was a near capacity crowd at Mohegan Sun arena and it was the first time the Sun have sold out a home opener since 2003. As for the play on the court, it was a rocky start for the Fever, as they fell to Connecticut 92-71. Caitlin Clark finished with a team-high 20 points on 5/15 shooting, including four made threes. Things did not go well in the passing department, as she totaled just three assists to ten turnovers.

“A lot to learn from,” said Clark after the game. “It’s the first one. There’s going to be good ones, there’s going to be bad ones. Like we said in the locker room, we plays on Thursday. You’ve got to learn from it and move on and be ready to go.”

1. The lack of a longer WNBA preseason hurt the Indiana Fever

It was pretty evident who the experienced team was and who the inexperienced team was last night. The Connecticut Sun starting five has combined to play in 1,140 WNBA games, while the Fever starting five has combined to play in just 463 games, with nearly 56% of those games coming from Erica Wheeler. Simply put, the Fever are a young team that would have benefited from more time in the practice gym during the preseason. Caitlin mentioned that she thinks things will get better as they get more games under their belt.

“I thought it took me a while to settle into the game. I thought the second half was a lot better minus some of the turnovers, but just getting more comfortable and that’s going to come with experience and getting to play with these girls for more games,” said Clark. “The more games I play, the more comfortable I’m going to get.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that Caitlin was playing the national championship game for Iowa and she played in her first WNBA regular season game less than a month after she was drafted. With only two weeks of training camp and two preseason games, it’s not surprising to see the Fever look a bit out of sorts. Even though Caitlin was the #1 overall pick, she didn’t get much time to gel with a team that already has a pretty inexperienced roster. On top of that, Kelsey Mitchell, the leading scorer for Indiana last season (18.4 ppg), played just 17 minutes as she works back from an injury.

“I would have liked to play a little better tonight. I think all of us would say that if we were all sitting here. As a team collectively, we would have liked to play better and shown a better product because I thought we’ve had some really good practices leading up to this game.”

The Fever looked like a team that needed a couple more weeks of training camp and another preseason game or two. They didn’t shoot poorly, in fact, they had similar shooting percentages to Connecticut. The issue was 25 turnovers, including ten from Clark, turned into 29 points for the Sun. It’s hard to win that way. It’s going to be a work in progress for the Fever as they continue to come together as a team. That might take a handful of games.

2. It will be an adjustment for Caitlin going up against WNBA defenses

DiJonai Carrington deserves a ton of credit for keeping Caitlin off balance for most of the game. When Carrington was matched up with her, Caitlin was just 2 of 10 shooting and helped force eight of her ten turnovers.

“She’s an elite defender,” said Connecticut head coach Stephanie White in the postgame press conference. “The challenge for DiJonai is now doing it for longer periods of time. She came off the bench a year ago and always gave us energy, always checked the opposing team’s best perimeter player…this is what we expect from her.”

Carrington certainly showed that she can guard for longer periods of time. She was able to hold Caitlin to just seven points on 2 of 7 shooting in the first half. In the second half, DiJonai left the game for a bit with leg cramps and Caitlin was able to get some momentum going on the offensive end of the floor. She was 3 of 8 from the floor in the second half, including three made three-pointers.

“(In the second half), I just felt we ran stuff a little bit better. We got into some more actions, we swung the ball a little bit better. I think I was able to get a few mismatches and capitalize on those.”

Caitlin is used to drawing the other teams best defender, but in the WNBA, those defenders are better than anyone that she faced in college. There will be an adjustment period for her, while she learns what she can and can’t do against WNBA defenders. On top of that, defenses in the WNBA are faster, stronger and more physical, which means they can do some things defensively that college teams can’t. Last night, the Sun did a lot of hard hedging and trapping on screens on the perimeter to create pressure on Caitlin and the rest of the Fever guards. Connecticut was able to force a lot of their turnovers that way. It was a defensive look that she certainly saw at Iowa, but in the WNBA, teams are able to run those looks for extended periods of time because they have the personnel to do it.

“Their ball screen traps and hedges were really good. We didn’t fill up collectively to help whoever the point guard was at the time to give a passing angle and we turned it over a lot there. They capitalized on a lot of the turnovers that we had in transition. Alyssa Thomas made great plays, they finished layups, they found open people, so not only were they turning us over, but they were capitalizing on those too.”

3. Calling her night a ‘struggle’ when she put up a team-high 20 points shows how high the expectations are for her

No, the 10 turnovers were not good. Caitlin will be the first to say that she can’t turn it over five times, let alone ten. That being said, calling her opening night a ‘struggle’ when she put up 20 points and made four three-pointers shows just how high the expectations are for her. For reference, that’s the second-most points by a #1 pick in her first career game over the last decade behind Breanna Stewart in 2016 (23 pts).

Unfortunately, the expectation for many was that Caitlin was going to put up 28 points and 8 assists in her WNBA debut. She may very well be able to do that by the end of the season or even the middle of the season, but it was unfair to expect on opening night. The Connecticut Sun led the league scoring defense last season and as I said earlier, they brought back a lot of experience from that team.

Caitlin is going to be one of the top scorers on the Fever this season and will also be relied on to use her elite passing skills to set up her teammates for some baskets. However, for her first few games, it will be all about getting used to the physicality, the speed and the defenses that the WNBA brings to the table. The preseason games were a good barometer for her, but now that these games count in the win/loss column, teams aren’t going to be playing 15 players in a game. It’s going to the top players on every roster for 40 minutes. Caitlin will learn and tweak her game as games go on and that will lead to improvements as the season goes on.

Up Next, the Fever will return to Indianapolis for their home-opener on Thursday against Sabrina Ionescu and the New York Liberty. Tipoff is set for 6:00pm CT and will be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

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