Caitlin Clark welcomed to WNBA with reality check in Indiana Fever loss

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – As the seconds ticked away before her first WNBA game started, Caitlin Clark couldn't stop moving. Waiting for the opening jump, she walked along the free throw line. She pulled on her shorts and tied her ponytail. She waved her arms, trying to stay loose.

Then the referee threw the orange and white WNBA basketball, but the officials felt it should be thrown a second time. Contrary to the referee's throw, Clark may not want a full repeat of her debut. Still, there were certainly moments where she would want to bounce back from a mixed individual performance and ultimately a disappointing loss.

She led the Indiana Fever with 20 points, but she also recorded 10 turnovers – the most ever in a player's first WNBA game.

“I didn't have the best start, so I think there's a lot to learn from it,” Clark said. “There will be good ones. There will be bad ones.”

She rewrote the record book during four years at Iowa, often making the toughest matchups and toughest shots look like a cakewalk. Tuesday's inglorious record was not expected. A little more than a month has passed since Clark's college career ended, but life in the WNBA has arrived. If a reminder was needed, she showed in the Fever's 92-71 loss to the Connecticut Sun that she will sometimes have growing pains as she transitions to the professional ranks.

“She's a rookie in this league,” Fever coach Christie Sides said. “This is the best competition in the world. We need to teach her what these games are going to look like for her every night and we need to take some of that pressure off her. That's up to me, that's up to my staff to figure out.”

All eyes are on Clark as she tries to jump to the pros with high expectations to not only perform like she did in college, but also elevate the competition in a way no player has ever done. Tuesday's season tip-off came just before the Sun's first sellout of the home opener since 2003, and she'll make her home debut in front of another raucous crowd on Thursday. In Connecticut, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans wore No. 22 T-shirts with the Iowa and Fever logos on them to celebrate Clark. (At one point, an image of a “bandwagon fan” appeared on the Sun video board, while many of them were shown on screen.) Fans wearing “Clark Fever” shirts began wandering around the venue hours before evening tip-off Mohegan Sun casino floor. The game's television rating will certainly be much higher than last season's openers.

It's a scene Clark witnessed at nearly every game during her senior season at Iowa.

“I played literally every game in a sold-out crowd, so these environments don't scare me or have any impact on me,” she said Tuesday morning. “I'm sure there will be just as many basketball fans here who really appreciate the game.”

But even with that fame, she tried to temper expectations on the morning of the most highly anticipated rookie debut in WNBA history.

“I know the outside world thinks I'm going to do great things, but that might take a while,” Clark said. “And if things aren't perfect right away or if a game isn't as great as I want it to be, give yourself grace, keep learning, keep getting better at it.”

Almost immediately, Clark was welcomed into the WNBA by one of the world's best players. Less than two minutes later, Sun star forward Alyssa Thomas attacked Clark in transition, forcing the 6-foot-1 guard into a foul. After picking up two fouls, Clark finished the first quarter scoreless. She admitted that it was difficult to get back on track after sitting a bit early.

Clark had said “it would be nice” if her first career basket came on a layup, but she couldn't have imagined waiting until 5:24 of the second quarter to score. As she walked to the locker room at halftime, trailing by 10 points, reigning Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston caught Clark's attention.

“(Boston) said be calm, be aggressive and be yourself,” Clark said.

Clark made some uncharacteristic mistakes, picking up the basketball and traveling, dribbling it off her foot and throwing an errant inbounds pass. She can also improve defensively. Playing an experienced opponent, Connecticut's physicality made a difference. Sides said Indiana was “punched in the mouth.”

Clark eventually settled and took advantage of the switches. She hit a 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter off Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa on a shot reminiscent of her time with the Hawkeyes. Yet the Fever played in catch-up mode all night, trailing for the final 34 minutes of the match. A fourth-quarter stretch of Thomas guarding Clark provided further evidence that Clark's level of competition had increased.

GO DEEPER

What we learned from Caitlin Clark's WNBA debut

There's now enough tape for Clark to devour, and not much time to do it. Sides emphasized that Indiana's spacing was poor and that it needed to find ways to make Boston look easier (trying just six shots and scoring just four points). Clark's teammates need to do a better job of getting back to the ball with her passes. Reducing turnover – the fever had 25 – will also be absolutely necessary.

Opportunities to demonstrate immediate growth will come quickly and often. Indiana opens the season with seven games in twelve days. A new tough challenge in a series awaits the New York Liberty on Thursday evening.

Some performances will inevitably pale in comparison to others. A masterclass from Clark will certainly come sooner or later. But Tuesday highlighted what her new competition looks like. How she responds will be her biggest challenge.

“Disappointed and no one likes to lose, that's the way it is,” Clark said. “You can't beat yourself too much over one match.”

(Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

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