The hard part is over for Caitlin Clark. Now, she has WNBA draft class to share spotlight

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The hardest part is over for Caitlin Clark.

For more than a year now, she’s carried the hopes of women’s basketball on her shoulders. She was expected to set records and drive interest in her sport, to say nothing of trying to lead her Iowa squad back to the national championship game.

There were obligations to sponsors. Media appearances. The eyes of the entire country on her in a way few other athletes, in any sport, at any level, could even fathom. Clark even made an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” before graduating college, for heaven’s sake.

“The last few weeks has been pretty insane,” Clark acknowledged.

The attention and the expectations won’t stop with the Indiana Fever taking her with the No. 1 pick Monday night. But the burden is no longer hers alone.

Caitlin Clark greets fans and signs autographs before the 2024 WNBA draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Caitlin Clark greets fans and signs autographs before the 2024 WNBA draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

For starters, the WNBA's Fever also have Aliyah Boston, last season’s Rookie of the Year, so Clark won’t be expected to carry the scoring load.

“The scoring and the long shots is what everybody falls in love with. Going to an organization that has, in my eyes, one of the best post players in the entire world, my point guard eyes just light up at that,” Clark said, grinning.

“As a point guard, my biggest job is I'm just feeding Aliyah the ball every single day. That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be in there and be like, go make a lay-up,” she added. “She's going to make my life easy.”

Clark’s life will never really be easy. She’s captivated the nation like few other athletes have, and that interest isn’t going to diminish. There will always be eyes on her, and the league is going to make sure the spotlight on her remains bright.

Her current sponsors aren’t going anywhere — when she walked off the stage, “Jake from State Farm” was one of the first people to hug her — and it’s a good bet she’s going to pick up even more. There will be the inevitable adjustment period to the W and, this year at least, there will be veterans looking to put the high-profile rookie in her place.

But what Clark did in college has created interest in other players, and they will lift the WNBA together. Clark will still draw the eyeballs, but maybe Rickea Jackson becomes an MVP. Maybe Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese win a title together. All of these players will help add to the foundation Clark has built.

“This is generational class,” Jackson, drafted fourth overall by the Los Angeles Sparks, said. “Viewership is peaking. Women's basketball is on an uproar. Everybody is tuning in. … I'm grateful to be a part of this draft class. I feel like we're just trending in the right direction.”

Clark is also going to a franchise in a state where basketball is revered, as close to an official religion as it gets. There were 17,000 people who turned out just for the draft party Monday night, including new teammates Erica Wheeler, Lexie Hull and Maya Caldwell.

The veterans were ecstatic when Clark’s name was called, leaping out of their seats and putting on Clark jerseys they had at the ready. They’ll be as invested in her success as she is and, as established players, will offer her a buffer in a way her Iowa teammates could not.

Indiana Fever fans celebrate the No. 1 overall pick of Caitlin Clark during a draft party at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Indiana Fever fans celebrate the No. 1 overall pick of Caitlin Clark during a draft party at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Clark no longer has to worry about school, either. She’ll graduate next month, and can put “110 percent’ of her focus on basketball. Getting settled in her new league and new city. Getting stronger.

Getting better.

“In college, I always said my main focus is on basketball. That's why I've had every other opportunity in my life,” Clark said. “Going into my professional career, I plan to do the exact same thing. My focus is solely on basketball, being the best I can. … When I do that really well and carry myself really well, everything just kind of takes care of itself.”

Clark has navigated the fishbowl that's been her life with incredible grace, making it look easy even when it wasn't.

Now that she's made it to the W, there's no way this next phase of her life can possibly be as difficult. Different, yes. But not as difficult.

“I can't imagine a more perfect fit, a better place for me to start my professional career,” Clark said. “I couldn't be more excited to get there.”

She sits atop multiple NCAA scoring lists and arrives in the WNBA first in her class. But she is no longer one of one, and no one deserves the company more.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark: College was hard part. WNBA draft class will share load