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Clark ‘will make the Fever a playoff contender in 2024’: How Iowa star will fit into WNBA

The news we thought might not come until March or even April instead rocked the basketball world on the final day of leap-year February: Caitlin Clark will not return for a fifth season at Iowa, and instead will enter the WNBA draft.

Clark made her announcement on Thursday afternoon via social media. She now has 3,650 points, and is 18 from passing LSU’s Pete Maravich for the NCAA men’s and women’s scoring mark.

That could come in what will now be her final regular-season home game on Sunday, as the Hawkeyes face Big Ten regular-season champion Ohio State. Senior day will indeed be an emotional one at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which has been sold out all season as fans clamor to see Clark and her teammates.

The news is not just big for college basketball, but also for the WNBA. The projected No. 1 picks the past two seasons — Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard (2022) and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (2023) — both opted not to utilize the COVID-19 waiver for a fifth season and were indeed picked first. Both were WNBA rookie of the year winners.

Clark is a lock as the top pick, and exactly what the Indiana Fever need: a scoring point guard to pair with young posts like Boston and 2022 No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith. The Fever haven’t reached the playoffs since Tamika Catchings retired in 2016.

Now that we know Clark’s time is running short in college and that she will be playing in the WNBA this season — which opens May 14 — ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Rebecca Lobo, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel look at what the news means for Iowa, the NCAA tournament and the WNBA.

In the short term, how does Clark’s announcement impact Iowa and her Hawkeyes teammates?

Creme: Clark’s teammates and Iowa’s coaching staff likely had some idea this was coming for a while now, so I’m not sure the impact will be that significant. Clark’s plans might benefit Iowa, in that her team and the rest of the world know this is the last chance she has to win a national championship. Can there be any greater motivation for the players she has gone to battle with over the course of the past four years? They are all used to the extra attention that comes with playing with Clark, so this won’t be any different. But perhaps the sense of urgency is.

Voepel: Charlie is right, it’s likely the team and coaches have been at least aware this was coming. For the fans — some of whom were chanting “One more year!” at Minnesota on Wednesday night — this will be hard. It’s tough to see a generational player leave. But there’s also a sense of clarity in mission for Iowa now as it is soon to navigate its last postseason with the program’s best-ever player.

Clark has been the presumed No. 1 pick for months. How will she fit in Indiana?

Voepel: The Fever haven’t been able to talk about Clark specifically because she still had eligibility, but they have made it clear what their top priority was.

“We’re looking to see who’s going to be the next point guard of this team,” Indiana general manager Lin Dunn told ESPN earlier this month. “Now in the WNBA, we’re all looking at the size of our guards, looking at whether they can be versatile, can they score, pass and play the 2 and 1 positions.”

Clark has had the ball in her hands much of the time at Iowa, but her overall offensive ability will allow her to comfortably play either guard spot. And as much as her passing will help the Fever post players (she is the only Division I women’s player with more than 3,000 points and 1,000 assists), so will her ability to stretch the defense. With Kelsey Mitchell (497 3-pointers at Ohio State) and Clark (503 and counting at Iowa), the Fever will have two of the best long-distance shooters in the history of the women’s game.

The South Carolina fans who still can’t quite forgive Clark for ending their perfect season last year in the national semifinals now will watch her pass to Gamecock all-time great Boston. Look for the Boston-Clark duo to really click.

Philippou: For months we’ve gotten to watch Boston talk about and even interview Clark on Peacock broadcasts. Now the duo will be taking the court together. Boston’s transition to the WNBA was incredibly smooth, and both she and Clark will benefit from having the other on the court. If you thought Clark and Monika Czinano’s connection was good, just wait and see what might develop between Clark and Boston.

What a fun core Indiana gets to build around with back-to-back No. 1 picks, as well as Smith, the No. 2 pick in 2022. How Clark and Mitchell share the backcourt will be interesting given they’re both ball-dominant guards.

Indiana has gone through some tough years since Tamika Catchings retired, but bringing in a player like Clark is potentially transformational. The fact that she’s a Midwesterner who built a massive fanbase, makes her decision to go pro all the more sublime for the Fever. If they do things right with their young talent, the Fever could emerge as an epicenter of the women’s basketball world in the coming years.

Lobo: Clark and the Fever are a match made in heaven. The “Hero of the Heartland” staying in the Midwest to play professionally for the Fever couldn’t be a more perfect fit for the WNBA or its newest incoming star.

And the fit on the court is ideal as well. Clark has always been at her best when paired with a talented post player who can run the floor and finish inside (à la Czinano and Hannah Stuelke). She is getting exactly that with Boston. The reigning WNBA rookie of the year has terrific hands and catches anything thrown near her in the post.

Clark thrives in the 2-man game. Boston is very strong as the recipient in both pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations. Clark manipulates defenses to get her teammates easy catch-and-shoot looks. Mitchell is elite in the catch-and-shoot from long range. This past season, she shot 46% on catch-and-shoot 3s, according to Synergy. The Fever also acquired Katie Lou Samuelson this offseason, another perfect target outside the 3-point line for Clark when she breaks down the defense.

Indiana ranked 10th in pace last season. That will immediately change with Clark and her ability to push the ball off both makes and misses. I expect the Fever to hand her the reins and let her run with them. Jewell Loyd led the WNBA last season in field goal attempts. Will Caitlin put up 22 shots per game like she has her senior season? Maybe not, but there’s no reason to think she won’t be given the green light to shoot between 15-20 times per game.

Indiana hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016 and had the second lowest attendance average a season ago. Of course the team will want Caitlin to be Caitlin, shooting logo 3s and playing a fast-paced game. She will make the Fever a playoff contender in 2024 and without question one of the top draws in the league for years to come.

While we’re on that topic, could Clark have a similar impact on attendance, TV ratings and ticket sales that we’ve seen this season in college?

Voepel: This is the test: Will Clark’s vast college fan club become Fever/WNBA fans? The league has been saying goodbye to an older generation of stars for the past few years, including Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles. Other big names are at or near age 40, and will be retiring soon. And there is a need for the next generation of young standouts to follow the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson, who turns 28 this year, and the New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart, who turns 30. Look for players such as Clark to be able to do that.

Clark is part of the first group of college athletes who have been able to take advantage of NIL opportunities, so they come into the WNBA in a little different position financially and in terms of their overall public profile. Are they still going to be treated like rookies by WNBA veterans? Yes, but let’s hope the vets also realize that a rising tide can lift all boats. Bringing in a big fan base like Clark will help the Fever and the league as a whole.

Philippou: There’s been so much discussion over the years about how the women’s college game has built a bigger profile than the WNBA over the years. No one player ought to be expected to single-handedly bridge the gap — and with other bright stars like Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers and JuJu Watkins, it doesn’t need to rest squarely on Clark’s shoulders. But there’s no denying Clark’s star power and the impact she’ll have in Indiana and for the WNBA in the coming years.

Is Clark the most hyped rookie in WNBA history? Who would you compare her to?

Philippou: Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker were hyped back in the day, so we don’t want to sell those legends short. But there’s something monumental happening in this moment with the growth of women’s sports and the emergence of NIL for college athletes that helped Clark become a special kind of household name. The flashiness of her game with the logo 3s obviously adds to that. It’ll be fascinating to see how that hype, both around WNBA circles and among more casual or newer fans, carries over into her first summer in Indiana.

Voepel: The women’s college game has grown so much even in the last five years, it’s hard to compare anything right now to very far back. There was a lot of hype about Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu in 2020, although some of that was diminished by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament that year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that Ionescu’s first WNBA season ended after three games because of an ankle injury.

Among the other players with a lot of hype as rookies — including Taurasi and Parker — were Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw in 1998 (Washington Mystics) and the “Three to See” from the 2013 class: Baylor’s Brittney Griner (No. 1 to the Phoenix Mercury), Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne (No. 2 to the Chicago Sky) and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins-Smith (No. 3 to the Tulsa Shock). But the combination of Clark’s popularity and high profile is the most we’ve ever seen on a national front for a first-year WNBA player. Name recognition means so much, still, in women’s sports, and Clark has it.

What else can we expect from Clark as a rookie? What will her stats look like compared to what she’s doing this season?

Philippou: Clark might not take nearly 23 shots per game as she is doing this season at Iowa (for a frame of reference, Jewell Loyd took a league-high 20.3 field goal attempts per game in 2023), but she will still be an offensive threat, and her assist numbers will be robust with players like Boston, Smith and Mitchell surrounding her. The dual-threat nature of her game as a shooter and passer — and she can get to the rim, too — should translate, even if there’s an adjustment period to the physicality of the pro level. There will likely be more of an adjustment in what’s required defensively, and we know Lin Dunn loves defensive-minded teams.

Voepel: Fever veteran guard Erica Wheeler was at an Iowa game last season and said of Clark, “This kid is ready for the pros now.” People also have to remember that most of the “greatest player ever” comments tossed around regarding Clark have come from people who don’t have a long history (or any history) watching the women’s game. And they certainly didn’t come from someone like Clark, who knows she is still growing her game.

There is zero doubt Clark is on the very short list of the greatest offensive players in women’s or men’s college basketball history. Her impact via her popularity and “watchability” in the women’s game has been enormous. But she’s now going to a higher level of competition and will need to make adjustments.

At the same time, she’s going to be passing the ball to post players like Boston and Smith, who can catch just about anything and score. That will be fun to see. Clark, overall, will have a few ups and downs as rookies do, but is going to be an outstanding pro. This is great news for the WNBA.

How far can Iowa go in Clark’s final NCAA tournament? What would it take for the Hawkeyes to reach another Final Four?

Philippou: Clark returning to the Final Four — maybe even the national title game — in her final year with the program would be a picture-perfect ending for Hawkeye Nation. And it would be foolish to count out a team with a generational, transcendent player on its roster, someone who last year put together one of the most memorable individual runs in sports history.

But without Czinano and McKenna Warnick from last season’s squad, Iowa has relied more on Clark than ever before, and recent losses to Nebraska and Indiana showed this team still needs other players to consistently step up offensively, especially if she’s having a quiet night. And on the other side of the ball, the Hawkeyes are still giving up a lot of points. Iowa’s narrower margin of error means its chances of making another deep March run are slimmer, albeit not negligible, especially depending on the matchups they end up with on their side of the bracket.

Creme: If Iowa is to produce a championship, Clark might have to do even more than she did in last year’s NCAA tournament. That is asking a lot, even of Clark. A consistent and highly productive six games out of Hannah Stuelke will be a necessity, and the other Iowa veterans like Gabby Marshall and Kate Martin will have to deliver as well.

Clark is capable of carrying the team to wins even against the best competition in the country in a one-game situation. She essentially did that against South Carolina in the 2023 Final Four, but it wasn’t sustainable for two games in Dallas. It might have to be if Iowa is going to be crowned a champion.

Voepel: It’s about the matchups: How good will the defenses be that Iowa faces, and how will the Hawkeyes respond? We’ve seen Iowa at its “worst” — scoring 69 points against a stifling Indiana defense — and its “best” — hitting 100-plus each against Illinois and Minnesota — all in the past week.

The Hawkeyes made 17 3-pointers against the Illini and a Big Ten-record 22 against the Gophers. Those numbers aren’t easy to replicate, especially once you get to the level of Sweet 16 and beyond. But it does show you how potent Iowa’s offense can be. Against Minnesota, Clark accounted for 61 points between her scoring assists — more points than the Gophers had as a team (60).



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