Advertisement

Fever rookie Caitlin Clark is beginning to find her groove

May 29—INDIANAPOLIS — Reports of Caitlin Clark's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The Indiana Fever superstar silenced critics Tuesday night with an historic performance against the Los Angeles Sparks.

Clark scored a career-high 30 points in the 88-82 defeat and added five rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks. She's the first rookie in WNBA history to hit those marks in a single game and just the fourth player ever to do it — joining Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Breanna Stewart.

"Honestly, I think I just played with an aggressive mindset," Clark said. "I think that was the biggest thing, and (I) just tried to play downhill the best I could. I would have liked to make a couple more threes, but (I) had to take some there at the end that were a little contested."

Clark was 7-of-16 from the floor overall but just 3-of-10 beyond the arc. She buttressed her effort by shooting a career-high 15 free throws and making 13 attempts.

Her previous high was 22 points in a May 18 loss at the New York Liberty, and her season average rose to 17.3 points — 13th overall in the WNBA and the top rookie by more than 5 points over Chicago's Angel Reese (12).

But this year's No. 1 overall draft pick was more impressed with her defense.

It's the area of her game that needed the most work as she transitioned to the pros, and it's arguably the area that has seen the most improvement.

"I think my defense has improved quite a bit," Clark said. "People probably pick on my defense quite a bit. There's times where it's good, and there's times when I'm still learning and growing."

Clark pointed to some specific instances against L.A. where she gave Kia Nurse too much space on the perimeter.

The Sparks were 14-of-23 from 3-point range overall as they rallied from a seven-point third-quarter deficit to win at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Nurse was 5-of-6 from long distance and led the visitors with 22 points.

"Those are situations that I'm just trying to learn and grow in," Clark said. "I think my help-side defense has become a lot better — just reading and understanding what the other team wants to do with the ball led me to get steals and stuff. So I think just being active — and I think the more active I am on defense, that helps me play offense better."

Clark and the Fever (1-7) still have the training wheels on.

They're nearing the end of a grueling opening stretch that will see them play 11 games in 19 days.

According to ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, only one other team since 2007 has played a similar season-opening schedule. The 2011 Minnesota Lynx started 1-10 and finished 6-28.

Indiana is hoping to avoid that fate and snap a playoff drought that dates to 2016.

But the crowded string of games has left little time for on-court practice. The Fever largely have had to figure out rotations and make necessary corrections on the fly during games with time only for video reviews and walk-throughs between contests.

As a result, team chemistry remains a work in progress.

For Clark, that's often manifested as turnovers. She set an unwanted rookie record with 10 giveaways in the season opener against Connecticut, and she coughed the ball up seven times Tuesday against L.A. — with several helping to short-circuit Indiana's fourth-quarter comeback effort.

"I think the biggest thing for me is once I get in there, I still get a little indecisive, and that's honestly where a lot of my turnovers are still coming from — just a little indecision once I do get my feet in the paint," Clark said. "But I think I've done a better job of probing and finding people open or finishing at the rim. I think I've done a better job as well of understanding who's guarding me at the 4 and 5 position when I am getting those screens and kind of picking them apart from there. Some are a little more athletic. Some are a little bit slower that I can get around.

"So I think that's definitely been something that I've grown in a lot over the course of these first eight games. So that'll continue to get a lot better, continue to take care of the ball a little bit better and find people, not be a little indecisive. I've gotta make decisions a little bit faster once I do get my feet in the paint."

Head coach Christie Sides said the responsibility doesn't fall to Clark alone.

Defenses have pressed the 6-foot guard full court and often send one or more defenders to further slow her progress once she crosses midcourt.

It's not dissimilar to the attention the Detroit Pistons paid to Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan during the Motor City's "Bad Boys" era in the early 1990s.

Like the Bulls eventually did, Indiana must find a way to make opponents consistently pay for such tactics.

"She's getting double teamed the minute she crosses half court, and so we've just been trying to show them these different moments where, like, when she sets in this position and this happens, where the next pass is," Sides said. "That's all timing with the post players on a roll or the feel from a guard. But she just puts us in 3-on-2 situations with how she draws the defenders, so just showing her all those different options and also for our others players, understanding those advantages as well and where to be."

Clark's court vision and superior passing skills help accelerate the learning curve.

But everything in sports at the highest level is a process.

Clark's numbers are impressive across the board. In addition to her scoring prowess, she's averaging 6.3 assists, 5;4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks.

She'd like to improve her 31.3% shooting from 3-point range and cut down on her 5.5 turnovers per outing.

But she's proven she can live up to the massive hype that accompanied her arrival in Indianapolis.

Now it's about individual consistency and finding ways to help the team start picking up wins.

"At times I feel like I should be playing even better than I am," Clark admitted. "... I've had glimpses of doing some really good stuff, and I have to remind myself this team has barely practiced together. We're just getting tossed on the court and playing basketball games together, and we just haven't practiced.

"... So I think that's been kind of the biggest transition for myself, but just trying to keep our spirits up and know that this team has a lot of talent and a lot of potential, and I think everybody in our locker room believes that."