Thompson: The Caitlin Clark panic should stop. Trust that the rookie will figure it out

No, this was not the fantastical introduction to the professional ranks for Caitlin Clark. Certainly not the bender of basketball bliss a segment of her legion was hoping to be hungover from at some point this weekend.

But rooks don’t get to jump over stuff.

Her first two games might feel like a letdown, especially Thursday’s epic home opener with the Indiana Fever. The moment was big enough for history to pull up to the venue. Sports’ latest transcendent figure created a buzz in Gainbridge Fieldhouse rivaling the New York Knicks-Indiana Pacers series.

Then the New York Liberty shut down the party, and Breanna Stewart destroyed any delusions that a rookie might be the WNBA’s best player.

But Clark will be fine. Just fine. This is just the first of many hard parts. A great game is coming. More bad ones, too. But it’s necessary. You can’t climb a mountain if it’s smooth.


The only question is whether the fans she’s brought to women’s basketball will allow her this. Clark has talked about giving herself grace. If it wasn’t a coded message to her masses, it should be received as such. She probably won’t be deterred by unrealistic expectations propped on her shoulders. But it can make the climb harder. That’s what she wants, though.

All hoopers, real hoopers, share this trait. Those groomed on inner-city blacktops, in sparkling suburban gymnasiums, at specialized academies in Australia, on dirt courts beneath rural skies. Among their commonalities is this universal truth: They embrace what’s hard. They’re motivated by the degree of difficulty. As long as success is possible in the confines of their delusional confidence, hoopers are game for the smoke. Real hoopers. They want a hill to conquer. It’s how they confirm their conviction of greatness.

That’s why Clark will be fine. We already know she is a real hooper. She’s long revealed that essence.

She could be somewhere chilling right now. Cashing in her celebrity, growing her brand before a farewell tour of a season at Iowa. Courtesy of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility allowance for the pandemic, she could’ve gone back to her comfort zone in college. Yet, she opted for this. To be hounded by a more athletic DiJonai Carrington. To be smothered by a bigger Betnijah Laney-Hamilton. To face traps and double teams and hard fouls. To get her bearings under the weight of her enormous fan base and mercurial fame.

To take her lumps. To risk disappointment.

It might take some time to find her stride, especially because she wants to win more than she wants to dazzle. But she’s not set up to be the same Clark who seized the nation.

First off, the Fever’s schedule is brutal to start. Their next two games are rematches against New York on Saturday and Connecticut on Monday, two teams which Indiana lost to by a combined 57 points. That’s followed by a three-game roadie at Seattle, Los Angeles and defending champion Las Vegas. That’s a far cry from Fairleigh Dickinson, Northern Iowa and Purdue-Fort Wayne to warm up against early in the season.

Plus, Clark is already garnering the peak focus of much better defenders.

Her debut was a dance with Carrington, a 5-foot-11 hound who is in the league to harass ballhandlers (and who is good enough at it she doesn’t mess up her perfect makeup in the process). Clark’s home debut was a date with Laney-Hamilton, a vet in every sense. She played for eight teams in six years, including four overseas, before breaking out with the Liberty in 2021. She’s got at least 15 pounds on Clark and a decade of hard-nose hoops under her belt dating back to her Rutgers days. Another real hooper who was determined to be felt by Clark.

Both were picking her up full court or face-guarding Clark in the half court.


Clark is still learning the offense, which is not centered on her. The Fever play inside out, posting up Aliyah Boston or whoever has the size advantage, looking to draw in the defense for the kick out. It’s not the offense I’d run with Clark as my point guard. But this is part of it, too.

Clark’s record 40.1 percent usage rate in college — meaning she used that percentage of Iowa’s plays — won’t be happening this season. Seattle’s Jewell Loyd led the league last season with a usage rate of 31.5. Clark’s usage rate through two games: 28.7.

Not only are defenses locked in on her, and the Fever’s offense prioritizing post-ups, and the ball not in her hands nearly as much as it was in college, but Clark also has teammates who can do some things, too. And they’ve got room to work as Clark draws attention. So the likes of Erica Wheeler, NaLyssa Smith and Kelsey Mitchell are professional scorers looking to take advantage of space. So the ball doesn’t work its way back to Clark often.

The other expected outcome was Clark’s getting attacked on defense. Stewart’s forcing the switch to get Clark onto her back was a window into the life of a rookie. She’s gotta get better at moving her feet instead of reaching, learn the tendencies of her opponents through film studies to gain some advantages, and — perhaps most importantly — get her strength and conditioning to new levels so having to defend doesn’t take away her legs and energy on offense.

If her legend is to continue in the WNBA, it could take months or even seasons to become a dominant player at this level. However long it takes is how long she needs, and how long she should get. As sensational as she is, it’s unfair to regard Clark as some carnival act going city to city splashing trick shots. That’s beneath her. For sure, those deep bombs release bursts of ecstasy into the air when they splash. It’s easy to want repeated hits of such a sensation.

But this is a real hooper on a journey to basketball excellence. This is a career, one that might carve her name among the all-time greats if it goes well. That’s worth having a proverbial seat and enjoying the whole process. Because if she gets there, it will be because of the struggles along the way.

With her basketball IQ, Clark likely knew this was coming. It’s a true gantlet. Like it should be. A certain portion of her legion, inebriated by Clark’s captivating style of play, expected the pros to be a continuation of her Hawkeye brilliance, as if the WNBA was some kind of lateral move. As if her meager salary was representative of the league’s ballers and not its business.


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But anyone who watches the WNBA could’ve anticipated early struggles for Clark. WNBA OGs tried to warn, even if some mixed a little hateration in their holleation. But they knew.

It’s a safe bet she’s never come off a screen into a trap with someone as tough as Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas, or been hunted on defense by a scorer the likes of Stewart. Even if Clark is about this life, it requires adjusting.

Sabrina Ionescu, one of the league’s biggest stars, went 4-of-17 in her 2020 debut. She wasn’t on Clark’s level, but she was a massive star at Oregon. Her first game, with the Liberty, was a major deal. She got smoked by Seattle, missing all eight of her 3s with 4 turnovers in a loss.

Ionescu put up 33 points the next game. But in her third game, a Grade 3 ankle sprain ended her season. She still managed to become an All-Star and is one of the game’s best guards. Real hoopers bounce back, though. Ionescu did. Clark will.

She will shoot it at better than a 30.4 percent clip. She’s missing a lot of open shots and defending many others. She just needs to find her rhythm. And her stellar passing ability means she can have an impact on the game in multiple ways. She’s got good size at 6 feet, high IQ and a love of the craft that will keep her working. She will figure it out. Can you wait long enough until she does? Can you appreciate this part as much as the turn-up to come?

It just takes time. It takes the hard lessons of bad games and tough losses. It takes film study. It takes losing accompanied by a hatred for losing. It takes this part.

And the grace to let her go through it.

(Photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

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