Indiana Fever select Caitlin Clark at head of ‘generational’ WNBA draft class

Caitlin Clark’s professional basketball career took flight on Monday night when the University of Iowa star was selected by the Indiana Fever with the No 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft.

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The all-time scoring leader in major college basketball history, whose fast-paced, crowd-pleasing style has drawn millions of new fans to the sport in recent months, formally entered the paying ranks when her name was called first by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert before a sold-out audience of more than 1,000 spectators at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was in second grade, and it’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of ups and downs,” Clark said from the stage. “More than anything, (I’m) trying to soak it in.”

The selection itself was little more than a formality. The 22-year-old Iowa sensation was hotly tipped for Indiana, who had secured the rights to the top pick by winning the WNBA draft lottery in December, from the moment Clark announced plans to forgo her final season of college eligibility in February.

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Her impending arrival with the Fever has driven ticket sales around the women’s circuit – two WNBA teams have already moved their games against Indiana to larger arenas to accommodate demand – and prompted the league to announce last week that all but four of the Fever’s regular-season contests will be carried on national television.

“I can’t imagine a more perfect fit, a better place for me to start my professional career, an organization that really just believes in women’s basketball and wants to do everything the right way,” said Clark, who wore an oversized white Prada jacket, shimmering silver crop top and miniskirt. “I couldn’t be more excited to get there.”

The draft continued on Monday with Cameron Brink, a 6ft 4in forward from Stanford who was named the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, going second to the Los Angeles Sparks.

“I love that I get to stay on the west coast, and I love that they took a chance on me,” Brink said. “I feel like I’m just going to show that I can work really hard and help them a lot.”

South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso went third to the Chicago Sky, who had acquired the pick in a trade with the Phoenix Mercury. The Sparks were up again at No 4, choosing Rickea Jackson from Tennessee. Dallas tabbed Ohio State’s Jacy Sheldon at No 5 and Washington took UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards at No 6.

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Angel Reese, the popular LSU star who announced she was entering the draft in Vogue, set off the biggest crowd reaction of the night besides Clark when she was chosen by Chicago with the seventh pick, creating a tantalizing frontcourt pairing with Cardoso.

“My first time playing Kamilla was on one of the biggest stages in my life, when she played for Hamilton Heights and I played for Saint Frances in high school and we battled (in the Dick’s High School Nationals in 2017),” Reese said. “Now being able to be teammates is going to be amazing. I’m looking forward to playing with her in practice and in games, just bouncing off of each other.”

Minnesota chose Utah’s Alissa Pili at eighth. Carla Leite of France was the first international player off the board, going to Dallas with the No 9 pick. Her countrywoman, Leila Lacan, went 10th to Connecticut. New York selected Mississippi’s Marquesha Davis at No 11, drawing rollicking cheers from the hometown crowd, while Atlanta chose the Australian Nyadiew Puoch at No 12 to close out the first round.

The Las Vegas Aces, who last year became the first repeat WNBA champions in more than two decades, did not have a first-round selection after trading it away in February, but made three picks in the second round: Syracuse’s Dyaisha Flair (at No 16), Iowa’s Kate Martin (No 18) and Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley (No 24), who is recovering from a torn ACL.

“To know that I’m going to such a special team with quite a few veterans means a lot,” the 5ft 5in Flair said. “It’s something like a perfect situation. I’m coming in to learn and there’s a lot to learn from.”

It’s been a whirlwind week for Clark since her Hawkeyes came up short against South Carolina in an NCAA women’s basketball tournament final that drew more US television viewers than the men’s final for the first time in history.

She flew to Los Angeles to accept the John R Wooden Award as the nation’s top women’s college basketball player for the second year in a row, then to Iowa City for a celebration of her college team held at the Hawkeyes’ home arena, then to New York where the draft generated an unprecedented buzz throughout the run-up.

Since her arrival, Clark made a surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live, appeared on NBC’s Today show and headlined a group of WNBA draft hopefuls on Monday morning to light the Empire State Building.

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The 6ft combo guard, who joins a promising young core in Indianapolis that includes Aliyah Boston (last year’s No 1 overall pick), NaLyssa Smith and Kelsey Mitchell, will be a welcome addition to a Fever club that had the WNBA’s second-lowest attendance last year and which hasn’t reached the playoffs since Tamika Catchings’ final season in 2016.

“Obviously going to an organization that has, in my eyes, one of the best post players in the entire world,” Clark said. “My point guard eyes just light up at that. And obviously, Aliyah has been one of my teammates before (on the USA Under-19 team). I’m excited. I can’t wait.”

The WNBA didn’t even wait for Monday’s draft to start capitalizing on Clark’s soaring profile. The league announced last Wednesday that 36 of Indiana’s 40 games will be featured on national television through their broadcast or streaming partners, a dramatic leap for a team that had just one nationally televised contest in 2023. Eight of those games will air on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, while the others will be on ION, NBA TV, Prime Video and the CBS Sports/Television Network.

But Jackson, the Tennessee star poised to give the Sparks much-needed frontcourt help, was quick to suggest that Monday’s draft will be remembered for more than its first overall pick.

“This is a generational class,” Jackson said. “I feel like this class is just so different. I know this class is different. I feel like the viewership is peaking. Women’s basketball is on an uproar. Everybody is tuning in. We averaged better than the men this year. Not to say we’re in competition, but that just says a lot. I’m grateful to be a part of this draft class. I feel like we’re just trending in the right direction.”