May 15, 2024 

‘Welcome to the WNBA’: Inside Caitlin Clark’s debut

Challenges, signs of bright future duel in Clark's first WNBA game

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – One member of the sold-out crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena stood up and delivered, explicitly, the message the Connecticut Sun did collectively on Tuesday night: “Welcome to the WNBA, Caitlin Clark.”

The National Player of the Year and 2024 No. 1 overall pick entered the game with all the hype. But the start of her Indiana Fever career didn’t go as scripted, as she struggled and missed her first four shots.

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Then she fell to the ground late in the first half after being bodied by WNBA veteran and Connecticut Sun guard Rachel Banham and was slow to get off her feet.

That’s when the fan from the first row stood up and wanted to make sure Clark knew she wasn’t still playing at Iowa anymore.

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Clark proceeded to make both of the following free throws with ease and a calm demeanor, and less than a minute later, she drained her first WNBA 3-pointer. 

The Indiana Fever suffered a 92-71 loss in their first game of the season and Clark wasn’t at her best on Tuesday in her debut – there’s no denying that. Clark finished with 20 points, three assists and was 4-of-11 from deep. She also committed 10 turnovers.

Obviously, too many turnovers,” a placid but disappointed Clark told reporters following the game. “That’s not going to get the job done. But obviously, a lot of things to learn from.”

Connecticut Sun guard-forward DiJonai Carrington (21) defends the inbound pass from Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) during the WNBA game between the Indiana Fever and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 14, 2024. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Despite the challenges on the floor, the “Caitlin Clark Effect” was alive and well, even though she’s moved from the college to professional ranks. 

The Sun sold out their home-opener for the first time since 2003, Clark herself noted pregame. New England Patriots players and legendary UConn head coach Geno Auriemma came to watch. There were countless  young girls in the crowd sporting Iowa “22” jerseys who traveled long distances to see the rookie’s first game in the pros. 

But it wasn’t just fans of Clark or the Hawkeyes that filled the seats. As the Sun dominated their first game of the season, the crowd roared. They were surely, in part, there to watch Clark, but they were also there to support their team and drown out Clark’s performance.  

“The opportunity to have a playoff crowd and having that kind of fan base behind us is always a lot of fun,” Sun post player Alyssa Thomas, who had a triple-double, said. “It feeds me and I feed off it a bit.” 

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Clark started out her WNBA career slowly. She didn’t make her first shot until nearly midway through the second quarter. She picked up two early fouls, turned the ball over several times and didn’t look like the dominant Clark from less than a month ago in Iowa’s national title game run. 

But that’s what the media, along with players and coaches of the game, have been saying all along. Clark wasn’t going to enter the WNBA ranks and immediately display dominance. There’s an adjustment period involved, especially when facing off against women who are decade-long veterans. 

“They had a game plan against her and it’s just gonna take some time for her to figure out that speed and quickness and physicality,” Fever head coach Christie Sides said. “It’s something she’s not had. So we tried to read that and mimic that at our practices with our practice guys as much as we could, but it’s just not the same.”

This isn’t going to be easy for Clark. She’s used to being double-teamed, but not by players significantly stronger, faster and older than her. Being challenged is the best possible scenario for Clark’s trajectory. 

There were flashes of the NCAA all-time leading scorer on Tuesday with her elite court vision, shot from deep and facilitating, but there were also flashes of a new player.

A rookie adjusting to the professional game. 

“She’s a rookie,” Sides said. “She’s a rookie in this league. This is the best league in the world. We’ve got to teach her. We’ve got to teach her what these games are going to look like for her every single night. And we’ve got to eliminate some of that pressure for her.”

Clark broke the WNBA all-time record for turnovers in a debut game with 10, previously held by Cynthia Cooper-Dyke. She struggled to finish her shots, going 5-of-15 from the field – and she also struggled on the defensive end. 

But as the game went on, there was a visible change in Clark’s comfort level. She was able to maneuver her way through defenders, make shots from deep and outwardly regain a sense of confidence.

“There’s just a lot to learn,” Clark said. “It’s the first one. There’s gonna be good ones and there’s gonna be bad ones. And like we said in the locker room, we play on Thursday. You have to learn from it and move on and be ready to go.”

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Written by Talia Goodman

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