Inside Caitlin Clark’s first week in the WNBA with Indiana Fever

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NEW YORK — Caitlin Clark has been invaded. At 53 minutes into her Indiana Fever’s Saturday afternoon game against the New York Liberty, security flanked her as she walked behind the team benches to sign autographs after completing part of her routine. pre-match.

Like moths to a light, fans from different sections of the Barclays Center descended on Clark, following her along the rail as she headed toward the tunnel. Young children and adults, wearing Fever and Liberty clothing, called his name, hoping to be the next fan to get a selfie or autograph.

The Caitlin Clark Tour has officially moved from Big Ten arenas to the WNBA. Nearly 44,000 sold-out fans in three different cities flocked to see the 2024 No. 1 overall draft pick and NCAA Division I scoring leader take the floor in her first professional basketball games . Scores most watched on TV, including 2.1 million for Indiana’s season opener Tuesday, the most-watched WNBA game since 2001.

But this chapter of Clark’s journey thus far has an aura of unfamiliarity compared to his storybook run at Iowa in which the Hawkeyes narrowly failed to win the national championship the past two seasons. The Fever are 0-3 heading into Monday’s rematch against the Connecticut Sun (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Two of their losses were blowouts.

And individually, Clark, who never lost three consecutive games at Iowa, had her ups and downs as she struggled with her physicality, playing with new teammates and facing better defenses. She is the fourth player in WNBA history to have 50 points and 15 assists in her first three career games, but she also committed 21 turnovers, the most in the first three games of a player in league history.

Exacerbated by a brutal and particularly unforgiving schedule for a young and inexperienced team, the adaptation to the WNBA is unfolding exactly as legends Sheryl Swoopes and Diana Taurasi warned. Just as Clark herself, as well as Indiana’s coach and general manager, had acknowledged.

“I know the outside world thinks I’m going to do amazing things, but it might take some time,” Clark said Tuesday morning, before his first regular-season game.

“It’s the professional league,” teammate Kelsey Mitchell said Saturday. “I don’t know what people expect or what they’re looking for. But (coming together as a team) is going to take a little time.”

CLARK FLASHED with enthusiasm ahead of his professional debut against the Sun. She had played in Indiana’s preseason games, but this was the real deal, she said. It reflected how lucky she was to have this as a job, and she said she couldn’t wait for the 7:30 p.m. tip.

“It’s definitely one of the best moments of my life,” Clark said before Indiana’s 92-71 loss.

She knew teams would be physical with her. Facing not just two of the three best teams in the league last week, but specifically two of the best defenses, Clark was hounded by top perimeter defenders, Connecticut’s DiJonai Carrington, an early candidate for MVP. most improved of the WNBA, and New York. Betnijah Laney-Hamilton of York, a two-time All-Defensive team selection.

When it wasn’t those two, former MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas helped Clark cause trouble, or Sun guard Rachel Banham had him sliding around the paint as a help defender as Clark was preparing for a layup. At the other end of the court, two-time MVP Breanna Stewart set up a screen brick wall on Saturday that sent Clark to the ground.

After a 22-point performance against the Liberty on Saturday – Clark’s best outing as a pro, as well as his most efficient (9 of 17 from the field) – Clark is averaging 17.0 points on 40.0 shooting. % on shots (32.1% on 3), to go along with 4.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 7.0 turnovers.

That would be considered a “great” start for any other player, Fever coach Christie Sides said before Saturday’s game. Expectations are simply high for Clark and, by extension, Fever.

“When I look at all these things that people are talking about with Caitlin Clark, it’s like guys, relax. She’s going to be OK,” Sun coach Stephanie White said Friday. “There are two matches. Are you kidding me?”

Beyond Clark, Indiana — seeking its first playoff run since 2016 — has struggled with its offensive and defensive execution. Thursday’s 102-66 loss to the Liberty marked the franchise’s largest defeat in nearly three years and the second-largest defeat in a season opener at home in WNBA history. Sides lamented his team’s lack of mental toughness and pride, especially in front of the more than 17,000 fans who filled Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Amid such extraordinary attention and pressure, Fever veteran Erica Wheeler – who, as a point guard, took Clark under her wing – advised her teammates to stay away from social networks. While they strive to hold each other accountable internally, she said, they must “stay together no matter what.”

Clark’s frustration has been evident at times. Late in the first half against the Sun, she argued with an official over a non-call before Sides came between them and pushed Clark away. Teammate Aliyah Boston left the field at halftime with Clark, grabbing her arm as she explained why she might not get those calls and telling her she needed to be calm and aggressive and ” be you.”

Two days later, as Clark left the Fever’s home loss to the Liberty – she was held to a single-digit score, which has only happened once in 139 games at Iowa, During his first season – Clark, clearly irritated, greeted the staff sternly. and his teammates before taking his place on the bench.

Still, when asked Saturday to describe how things have been going so far, Clark responded, “It’s been fun, honestly, that’s what you signed up for.” These early games are ripe for learning opportunities, she said, and she relishes the opportunities to play in front of big crowds in new arenas in the best league there is.

“We all want to win, that goes without saying,” Clark said. “But at the same time, there has to be some sort of positivity, otherwise you’re going to really lose yourself.”

THINGS REMAIN ONE whirlwind. Outside of games, there are filming and practices, film sessions, media availability and travel (both charter and commercial, although the league is moving to full-time charter this week) . When asked by a reporter if she had successfully settled in Indianapolis, Clark replied, “Not really,” before adding that she hopes to participate in the city’s Zoobilation, a fundraising event in black tie event taking place in June at the Indianapolis Zoo. . Soon, she will finally be able to leave her hotel and move into an apartment.

Saturday’s loss to Liberty seemed like a step in the right direction. The Fever played with more pace, which allowed the offense to flow better. Clark thought she was more active in that area, too. She balanced her 3-point makes by getting down to the rim — her nine field goals surpassing the seven she made in her first two games combined — while her eight assists were her most until here.

“She’s going to be a very good player, I know that,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said Saturday. “It’s tough coming in as the No. 1 (pick). … Kelsey Plum, it took an adjustment, look what she’s doing now. Sabrina (Ionescu), look at the adjustment she’s had do.”

The fever defense needs work. Indiana allowed 12 3-pointers in New York’s first half, along with 30 points in transition. But the Fever rallied from a 23-point deficit to make it an 11-point game (91-80) at the final buzzer.

However, the planning will not stop for some time. Indiana’s current stretch of seven games in 12 days to start the season ends with games against the Seattle Storm on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday and the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces on Saturday. The quick turnaround times are not only taxing on athletes — including Clark, who is just weeks away from a 39-game college season — but make practice time extremely limited, which is probably what Sides wants most.

“Process” is the word Sides continues to use to describe Clark’s assimilation into the pros. She’s referring not only to Clark learning the professional game, but also to his team chemistry.

“We strive to be what Minnesota is and what Las Vegas is…and it took them a while,” Sides said. “So now, with eyes on us, the pressure is different, but still, we can’t skip steps.”

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