Thompson: Caitlin Clark’s panic should stop. Trust that the recruit will understand


No, it wasn’t a fantastic introduction to the professional ranks for Caitlin Clark. Certainly not the basketball bliss that some of his legion was hoping to have hungover at some point this weekend.

But towers cannot jump over objects.

Its first two games might look disappointing, especially Thursday’s epic home opener against the Indiana Fever. The moment was big enough for the story to stop right there. Sports’ latest transcendent figure created a buzz at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, rivaling the New York Knicks-Indiana Pacers series.

Then the New York Liberty crashed the party and Breanna Stewart destroyed any illusion that a rookie could be the best player in the WNBA.

But Clark will be fine. How are you. This is just the first of many difficult times. A big game is coming. Other bad ones too. But it is necessary. You can’t climb a mountain if it’s smooth.

The only question is whether the fans she brought to women’s basketball will allow her to do so. Clark talked about giving himself grace. If this were not a coded message to his masses, it should be received as such. She probably won’t be deterred by the unrealistic expectations weighing on her shoulders. But this can make the climb more difficult. But that’s what she wants.

All hoops, real hoops, share this trait. Those who are trained on the black roofs of city centers, in gleaming suburban gymnasiums, in specialist academies in Australia, on clay courts under rural skies. Among their commonalities is this universal truth: they accept what is difficult. They are motivated by the degree of difficulty. As long as success is possible within the confines of their illusory confidence, basketball players are willing to smoke. Real morons. They want a hill to conquer. This is how they confirm their belief in greatness.

That’s why Clark will be fine. We already know she’s a real hoopster. She revealed this essence a long time ago.

She might be in a relaxing place right now. Capitalizing on his celebrity, growing his brand before a season-long farewell tour of Iowa. Thanks to the extra year of eligibility from the NCAA for the pandemic, she could have returned to her comfort zone in college. However, she opted for this. Getting stalked by a more athletic DiJonai Carrington. Being smothered by a bigger Betnijah Laney-Hamilton. To deal with traps, double teams and heavy fouls. To find his way under the weight of his enormous fan base and mercurial fame.

To take lumps from him. At the risk of being disappointed.

It might take a while to find her rhythm, especially because she wants to win more than she wants to dazzle. But she’s not designed to be the same Clark who took over the nation.

First of all, Fever’s schedule is brutal at first. Their next two games are rematches against New York on Saturday and against Connecticut on Monday, two teams that Indiana lost to by a total of 57 points. That is followed by a three-game roadie to 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 attracting the attention of much better defenders.

Her debut was a dance with Carrington, a 5-foot-11 dog who’s in the league for harassing ball handlers (and who’s pretty good at it; she doesn’t ruin her perfect makeup in the process). Clark’s home debut was a date with Laney-Hamilton, a vet in every sense of the word. She played for eight teams in six years, four of them overseas, before coming out to the Liberty in 2021. She’s at least 15 pounds over Clark and a decade of hard hoops under her belt dating back to her Rutgers days . Another real player determined to make his presence felt by Clark.

Both were recovering it all over the court or protecting Clark in the half court.

Clark is still learning the offense, which isn’t all about her. The Fever play inside out, posting Aaliyah Boston or whoever has the size advantage, looking to draw the defense in for the kick. This is not the offense I would run with Clark as the leader. But that’s also part of it.

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

Not only are defenses locked in on her, and the Fever offense prioritizes post-ups, and the ball isn’t in her hands as much as it was in college, but Clark also has teammates who can also do certain things. And they have room to work as Clark draws attention. So, Erica Wheeler, NaLyssa Smith and Kelsey Mitchell are professional scorers looking to take advantage of space. The ball therefore does not often come back to Clark.

The other expected outcome was Clark being attacked on defense. The fact that Stewart forced the change to put Clark on his back was a window into the life of a rookie. She must learn to move her feet instead of reaching out, learn her opponents’ tendencies through film studies to gain certain advantages, and, perhaps most importantly, take her strength and conditioning to new levels so that having to defend yourself doesn’t take it away. legs and energy in attack.

If her legend is to live on in the WNBA, it could take months, if not seasons, to become a dominant player at that level. How long it takes depends on how much time she needs and how much time she should have. As sensational as she is, it’s unfair to dismiss Clark as a carnival performer moving from town to town splashing trick shots. It’s beneath her. Of course, these deep bombs release bursts of ecstasy into the air as they splash. It’s easy to want repeated bursts of such a sensation.

But it is a real springboard to basketball excellence. It’s a career that could land him a name among the greatest of all time if it goes well. It’s worth having a proverbial seat and enjoying the whole process. Because if she succeeds, it will be thanks to the difficulties encountered along the way.

With his basketball IQ, Clark probably knew this was going to happen. It’s a real gantlet. Like it should be. A certain portion of his legion, intoxicated by Clark’s captivating style of play, expected the pros to be a continuation of his Hawkeye genius, as if the WNBA were some kind of lateral move. As if his meager salary was representative of the league’s players and not his business.

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But anyone watching the WNBA could have anticipated Clark’s early struggles. The OGs of the WNBA tried to warn, even if some mixed a little hatred with their outcry. But they knew.

It’s a safe bet she’s never come off screen into a trap with someone as tough as Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas, nor has she ever been hounded on defense by a scorer like Breanna Stewart. As much as Clark relates to this life, it requires adjustment.

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

Ionescu scored 33 points in the next game. But in his third game, a grade 3 ankle sprain ended his season. She still managed to become an All-Star and is one of the best guards in the game. But real basketball players bounce back. Ionescu did it. Clark will.

She’ll shoot it at better than a 30.4 percent clip. She misses a lot of open shots and defends a lot of others. He just needs to find his rhythm. And her exceptional passing ability means she can impact the game in multiple ways. She has good height (6 feet), a high IQ and a love of the profession that will keep her working. She will find out. Can you wait long enough until she does? Can you enjoy this part as much as the upcoming twist?

It just takes time. We must learn the hard lessons of bad matches and difficult defeats. You have to study cinema. You have to lose accompanied by a hatred of losing. He takes this part.

And the grace to let her go through it.

(Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)


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