Caitlin Clark is a supernova for Iowa basketball. Her soccer skills have a lot do with that

It’s no secret Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is scoring at a historic rate. But there’s something else noteworthy, too: According to Big Ten Network analyst Meghan McKeown, Clark is also passing the ball on a different level.

“Caitlin Clark is playing Guitar Hero on expert mode, while everyone else is playing it on easy mode,” McKeown said. “That’s how I would describe her passing ability.”

McKeown has watched Clark enough to notice the game seems to move in slow-motion for the reigning Naismith Player of the Year, allowing her to shred defenses with a deluge of dimes. Clark leads the nation in total assists this season with 170 and surpassed the all-time Big Ten assists record of 901 on Dec. 30, tallying 10 against Minnesota. She averages 7.7 assists per game, also best in the nation this season.

SEE HOW CLOSE: Iowa's Caitlin Clark is to NCAA scoring record

Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark, known for her logo 3s, is also the best passer in college basketball.
Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark, known for her logo 3s, is also the best passer in college basketball.

Fans in sold-out arenas love the logo 3s and Clark's chase for Kelsey Plum’s NCAA women’s scoring record, but it’s the way the Iowa guard can set her teammates up to score — taking advantage of all the attention she draws from defenses — that makes many consider Clark the most complete offensive player in women’s college basketball.

Another 10 assists against Northwestern Wednesday in No. 4 Iowa’s 110-74 win displayed just how much Clark loves to pass.

“When I can reach that 10 assists mark, we're very, very successful as a team,” Clark said.

“It opens up the floor for the other shooters that we have, and that’s what our offense is all about. It's a read and react offense, setting up your teammates for really great shots. And that's what makes it fun.”

Split-second decisions on soccer field translate to basketball court

Clark developed her elite passing ability in part by playing varsity soccer for Dowling Catholic High in West Des Moines, Iowa. Her freshman season, she was named to the 2017 Class 3A All-Iowa girl’s soccer team by the Des Moines Register. Clark stopped playing soccer after her sophomore season to focus on basketball, but she picked up a spatial awareness and an understanding of how to work with tough angles, according to those who have studied her game.

Christy Winters-Scott, a former First Team All-ACC forward at Maryland and another Big Ten Network analyst, thinks Clark’s ability to pass the soccer ball to put teammates in advantageous positions — and make split-second decisions — translates to hoops.

“Does it need to be a bounce pass? Does it need to be to her left hand or her right hand? Does it need to be right to her collarbone? Or do I need to pass it up high? Caitlin has, in a split second, the awareness and the ability to make the proper pass,” Winters-Scott said. “That is an elite level skill not everyone has.”

Notre Dame junior guard Sonia Citron was also an all-state soccer player at The Ursuline School in New Rochelle, New York. She played until her sophomore year, and noticed movements of players in soccer were similar to basketball. As a result, she knew what to look for when passing on the hardwood.

“I think soccer just really trains your eyes to identify what space is open, and what players are cutting and making runs. That definitely translates to basketball,” said Citron, who is handing out 2.6 assists per game this season for the No. 16 Irish. “On a smaller scale, when things are moving faster, your eyes are trained to look for players making those movements to free themselves from defenders.”

Since high school, Clark has had what her former AAU coach Dickson Jensen calls an “innate” ability to know where every player is at all times, and credits soccer for helping her ridiculous court vision. Playing on a larger soccer field, having to pass to teammates over further distances, means Clark isn’t confined to half-court offense in basketball. It’s common to see her grab a defensive rebound and immediately rifle the perfect pass to a teammate open at the other end of the court.

“I think that the scale of soccer allows the scale of basketball to be bigger and broader for Caitlin,” Jensen said “Her decisions are being made in the back court. Most point guards, you know, their first goal is get the ball into the front court.”

Iowa's Caitlin Clark leads the nation in scoring (32.1 points per game) and assists (7.7 per game) this season.
Iowa's Caitlin Clark leads the nation in scoring (32.1 points per game) and assists (7.7 per game) this season.

Highlight-reel assists add to Clarkmania

Clark’s combination of ability and vision have allowed her to add plenty of highlight-reel assists to the Clarkmania lore. There was a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass to Addison O’Grady for a layup against Wisconsin Jan. 16. And a wraparound pass, with two defenders draped on her in the paint, to set up Hannah Stuelke for an easy bucket against Nebraska Jan. 27.

The passes come from every angle in every offensive situation, whether it be the half-court, pick-and-roll or fast break. McKeown calls the ball a “yo-yo” in Clark’s hands, because she looks like she is in complete control of the game when she’s dishing.

“She had a pass tonight to Hannah that was just ridiculous,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder Wednesday. “I mean, I just love watching it. “

With 35 more points against Northwestern — her fifth straight game with at least 30 —  Clark is now second on the all-time scoring list and just a handful of games away from surpassing Plum. Yet, she is still passing as much as anyone in the country.

Per CBB Analytics, Clark has the nation’s second highest usage rate, a measure of how often a player contributes to a play scoring and assisting. But among the players who are top 10 in usage rate, she has the highest assist percentage, a measure of how many of her teammates’ field goals a player assists on while she is on the floor.

Put simply: Of the players who have the ball in their hands the most, Clark is the one looking to pass most.

“She's not hunting her shot. She's hunting for the best opportunity for the team,” Winters-Scott said. “If it's not her opportunity to score, then you’d better have your hands ready, because that ball is going to find you.”

Colin Capece is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark is a basketball star. That has a lot to do with soccer