Struggles, a winless start … but progress: How has Caitlin Clark played so far?

Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever are four games into the 2024 WNBA season, and through four losses — all against semifinalists from last year’s playoffs — the product has been a mixed bag.

The Fever dropped their first two games, against the Connecticut Sun and the New York Liberty, by a combined 57 points, the largest point deficit in WNBA history for a team through its initial pair of games. Clark scored 20 points in her debut but also struggled with foul trouble and had 10 turnovers. In her second game, she was held to single-digit scoring for the first time since her freshman year of college, as Indiana fell by 36.

But the tide began to turn for Clark and the Fever in rematches against New York and Connecticut, culminating in a near upset of the Sun in Indianapolis on Monday. Indiana started slowly against Connecticut but roared back to take a four-point lead late in the fourth quarter, before ultimately letting it slip away.

Clark, who left Monday’s contest in the second quarter after twisting her left ankle, returned to finish with 17 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. But most notably, the Fever as a whole began to operate like a unit, with Indiana’s comeback starting when Clark was on the bench and Kelsey Mitchell (17 points), NaLyssa Smith (13), Temi Fagbenle (11) and Aliyah Boston (10) all finishing in double figures, as well.

One play early in the fourth quarter best captured the Fever’s potentially bright future: Boston blocked a DeWanna Bonner layup and fed the ball to Erica Wheeler, who delivered it to Clark for a 33-foot 3-pointer to give Indiana the lead and send Gainbridge Fieldhouse into a tizzy.

The Fever are 0-4 — their fourth such start in franchise history and first since 2021 — but they made a statement Monday that more likely than not they won’t be bottom-feeders for long.

ESPN’s Michael Voepel, Kevin Pelton and Alexa Philippou assess the struggles and strengths of Clark’s pro career through four games — and what’s to come from her and the Fever.

How would you rate Clark’s performance through four games?

Voepel: She has done what could be reasonably expected. The Fever’s tough schedule to start the season meant Clark would immediately be facing not just playoff-level opponents but the top tier of those teams. During some moments, she looked a little uncomfortable. In others, she seems to be gaining confidence. The magnifying glass on her is enormous, but the actual performances examined through the prism of reality have been the overall positive mixed bag almost any top rookie has early on in a pro sports career.

Pelton: Improving. I was more optimistic than most WNBA analysts about Clark’s rookie potential based on what we’ve seen from generational No. 1 picks in the past. Still, the time it took the most recent high-scoring guards drafted with the top pick (Sabrina Ionescu and Kelsey Plum) to develop into WNBA stars tempered those expectations. Clark’s first four games have looked a lot like Ionescu’s abbreviated three-game rookie season, which featured a 33-point game but also more turnovers than assists. Clark’s scoring has come around the past two outings. Now, she must cut down on her turnovers.

Philippou: A lot of the reaction toward her early games said more about the expectations themselves (and whether they were realistic in the first place) than about Clark and her potential. It isn’t a given for top picks (particularly guards) to come into the league and dominate in year one, let alone four games in. We’ve seen her impact the game in many ways, as she did at Iowa, even if her efficiency could stand improvement and her turnovers need cleaning up. Now, we get to see how she builds on it for the next 36 regular-season games.

In what areas has Clark struggled the most?

Pelton: Being as effective off the ball as she was at Iowa. Second Spectrum tracking shows a massive split in the Fever’s efficiency based on whether Clark brings the ball up the court. In 142 possessions where she has brought the ball up, Indiana has averaged 1.06 points per possession — good for a top-five offense in the WNBA. When someone else brings the ball up, the Fever’s offense drops to 0.82 points per possession, which would rank last.

If teams are going to deny Clark the ball, she has to be more aggressive either in getting open or leveraging that attention to make life easier for teammates.

Voepel: Turnovers will jump to everyone’s mind. Clark can’t afford timidity or second-guessing herself as a playmaker while on the court. She can break down the performances on film and keep making adjustments. But she has to stay aggressive in games.

To use an analogy that fits Indianapolis: When she’s behind the wheel of the race car, she has to go for it. Does that mean there will be a few crashes? Sure. But you’re not going to win any race being afraid of the gas pedal.

Philippou: Building off Pelton’s point, more offensive activity was something Clark thought she did better Saturday against the Liberty, the same game in which she finished with a season-best 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting. It’s worth monitoring Clark’s usage, role and synergy with her fellow backcourt teammates, especially as Mitchell makes a full return from her offseason ankle injury. In the rematch against the Liberty, Clark and the Fever also started to play with more pace, which helped the offense get going.

The physicality of defenses has given her trouble, and Clark said she has had to learn to not be passive when that happens. But the second line of defense will make her pay now in ways they weren’t always equipped to at the college level.

How much of the Fever’s issues can be attributed to lack of experience playing together?

Pelton: Boston’s slow start stands out to me as the biggest indicator that Indiana hasn’t yet figured out how to maximize her pairing with Clark. After averaging 14.5 points per game on 58% shooting as a rookie All-Star, Boston is down to 9.5 PPG and 40.5% from the field. Boston never shot worse than 46% in any four-game span last season. Clark and Boston already have run as many pick-and-rolls as any duo in the league, per Second Spectrum, but I’d like to see even more — to put Boston in advantage situations.

Philippou: It was telling to hear Mitchell say Monday that the team doesn’t yet have an identity: “I think that’s our next step, establishing who we want to be.”

Offensively, the Fever won’t be at their best if they’re overly reliant on Clark. Their offensive balance was part of the reason they came so close to beating the Sun; Clark herself noted the team is at its best when she is able to facilitate. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for time and experience when it comes to learning how each team member likes to play.

Voepel: The Fever don’t have the kind of experience, individually or collectively, that many WNBA teams do — and definitely not like New York and Connecticut do. Only one of Indiana’s four games required late-game execution; the other three weren’t that close. On Monday, had they executed differently offensively and defensively in the final minute, they could have won. Facing the same two opponents twice in a short time frame allowed the Fever to quickly use what they learned. So, that helps with the experience deficit.

What’s the biggest thing Clark can do to keep improving her overall performance?

Voepel: Film work and managing frustration are both key. She knows she has a lot to learn about defensive schemes and how narrow the margin of error is in the WNBA. Clark got a crash course in the season’s first week.

Coaches will say thorough knowledge of personnel and scouting reports are what make the best defenders in the league as good as they are. Some of the WNBA’s great defenders have elite quickness and lateral movement, while others might not be at quite that level. Yet what they have in common is preparation, high basketball IQ and a willingness to commit a lot of energy to defense.

Clark saw good defense at times in college, but this is like jumping up five levels. The more she understands the defenders, the more she can counteract their strengths.

Clark received a technical foul on Monday, but it isn’t a big deal. She will learn the line she has to toe with the WNBA referees. Her passion on the court is part of the reason people like to watch her. She has to manage that, obviously, but she doesn’t need to douse her own fire much.

Philippou: Getting into the practice gym would help Clark and the Fever enormously; their stretch of seven games in the first 12 days of the season is not forgiving for a team that would benefit more from teaching than an experienced squad. I suspect things will come together even more once they get additional practice time — and later on when the Olympics break comes around.

Pelton: Ignore the noise. Good, bad or otherwise, everyone has an opinion on Clark right now — most of them not from people who understand the reality of life in the WNBA. I’d echo what Wheeler told teammates, as related in Alexa’s feature on Clark’s first week as a pro: Stay off social media.

Can the Fever be a playoff team by season’s end?

Philippou: The way in which they battled the Sun on Monday made me more optimistic that they can get there, although much of that depends on how other middle- or bottom-of-the-pack teams fare. But wins might be hard to come by for the foreseeable future: Indiana is back on the road for games against the Seattle Storm, Los Angeles Sparks and Las Vegas Aces from Wednesday through Saturday.

The Fever’s ceiling behind improved chemistry and experience is high, especially considering their massive improvement over the past week. And for as much as the focus will gravitate toward the offense, given Clark’s role in it, don’t overlook the defensive growth needed for them to make the postseason.

Voepel: Can they be a playoff team? is a different question than Will they be a playoff team? Because 8 of 12 teams make the postseason in the WNBA, teams can struggle a while but still put things together enough to grab one of those spots.

So, can the Fever do it? Yes. Will they? One week into the season, it doesn’t seem like the playoffs should be the focus right now. Even though that’s such a huge carrot for a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2016, the Fever being better than last year really would be progress. That said, I think there’s still a reasonable chance for the postseason if Indiana keeps building on the lessons.

Pelton: I projected Indiana as a playoff team coming into the season, and I don’t think the Fever’s start has been bad enough to dissuade me from that being realistic. I anticipated Connecticut and New York being two of the WNBA’s top three teams this season, and it’s worth noting they’re a combined 3-0 against teams besides the Fever too.

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