Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

It’s no surprise that Caitlin Clark has had a tough start to her WNBA career. Look at who she’s faced.

Indiana’s Caitlin Clark, right, controls the ball while being guarded by New York’s Courtney Vandersloot last week at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  (Getty Images)
By Jonathan Tannenwald Tribune News Service

NEW YORK – So you’re new to the WNBA, and you’re surprised that Caitlin Clark hasn’t been an immediate MVP-candidate scorer in the first week of her professional career. Here’s something for you to ponder.

It’s not just that Clark is a rookie stepping up from the college game to the top women’s basketball league on the planet. It’s not even just the physicality that naturally comes with the pros.

It’s that Clark is 22, and the Liberty’s chief defender on her over the last two games, Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, is 30. Kayla Thornton and former Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot, who took turns at other times, are 31 and 35, respectively.

That age gap can’t be overstated as Clark starts her pro career with two games each against the veteran-laden Liberty and Connecticut Sun. The first three went down as sizable losses.

“This is what you signed up for, this is best of the best,” Clark said Saturday as she faced the Liberty for the second time. “The physicality, I think the way teams are guarding – you go back and watch the film, and I’m stepped way away from the play and I’m still getting face guards.”

So if you tuned in to the national TV broadcast on ABC or ESPN only to see Clark, hopefully you ended up appreciating the Liberty and Sun’s excellence.

Mondays’ game against Connecticut came as a fourth loss for Indiana, although this time much closer, with a final score of 88-84.

Clark scored 17 points with five assists and three rebounds and missed part of the second quarter with an ankle injury. Improvement has been noticeable in just four games, but it is evident Clark’s game will be a work in progress.

A history lesson

On Saturday, Clark’s appearance helped attract a sellout crowd of 17,735, which put a WNBA record $2 million of ticket revenue in the Liberty’s coffers . But it was an overwhelmingly pro-Liberty crowd, proving there’s still lots of energy from last season’s run to the team’s first Finals appearance since 2002.

When Clark was introduced in Indiana’s starting lineup, there were audible boos amid the cheers. When Laney-Hamilton and Breanna Stewart drove with the ball in the first quarter and knocked Clark flat, fans were feisty.

Still, it’s clear that Clark is on her way.

New York coach Sandy Brondello recalled how Las Vegas’ Kelsey Plum, who held multiple NCAA Division I women’s scoring records before Clark broke them at Iowa, needed time to adjust. Now, Plum is a two-time reigning WNBA champion with the Aces, who host the Fever next Saturday.

Four years later, Sabrina Ionescu came out of Oregon with heaps of hype but endured a rocky start as a pro. Now she’s a much better team player, not just a big-time scorer.

“It’s a history. It’s not just the person,” Brondello said.

Respect already earned

The rest of the league knows how good Clark can be. That’s no surprise, either, because good players always know when they see other good players.

“Obviously, she’s a knockdown shooter, and she has that range,” Stewart said. “When you come into this league and you’re a No. 1 pick, everyone’s going to know where you are on the court at all times. She’s looking to make the pocket pass, and that’s going to be the growth of this team over the season: figuring out what the right spots are, depending on what defenses are going to do.”

By the way, if you’re one of those newcomers, let’s make sure you know about Stewart.

Now in her ninth year as a pro, she has two WNBA championships, two MVPs (including last year), two Defensive Player of the Year awards, five All-Star honors, five all-WNBA honors and two Olympic golds. And it all started with a historic 4-for-4 sweep of national titles at Connecticut.

“I think that (for) us up here, it’s respect,” Stewart said. “Obviously, we know she’s a great player and (are) just trying to do whatever we can to make it tough.”

New York’s Jonquel Jones really nailed it when she talked about all the hype Clark has gotten.

“I think the media needs to give her a little bit of grace and time to develop into a player‚” said the 2021 MVP and four-time All-Star who was just as essential as Stewart to the Liberty making last year’s Finals.

“She’s learning every game as she’s out there, and obviously her impact on this league is going to be tremendous and only grow as she matures,” Jones continued. “But just give her some time, man.”

A few minutes after saying that, Jones and Stewart were asked what advice they’d give to their rookie selves in hindsight. Stewart’s answer should resonate loudly as Clark grows.

“My first two years we lost, like, a lot,” she said. “Not getting used to losing, but understanding how to navigate that and instead of just being completely frustrated, taking whatever I can and learning from it. … This is the best league in the world, and we wouldn’t be here, being our best, if it wasn’t that.”

That was one more reminder of what might be the biggest truth of all here. The bar for Clark to reach is set by the rest of the WNBA’s players, not the rest of us. We’ll all know when she gets there, but for now, it’s enough that she’s on her way.