How Caitlin Clark became the most exciting player in college basketball

·12 min read

The morning after she torched sixth-ranked Michigan for 38 points, set social media ablaze with a flurry of impossibly deep 3-pointers and catapulted Iowa to the top of the Big Ten, Caitlin Clark made the mistake of assuming she could still go unnoticed on campus.

Clark’s 8 a.m. introduction to marketing strategies class began with the professor gushing, “How about the women’s basketball team!” The professor then scanned the nearly 300 students in the lecture hall and asked, “Is Caitlin Clark here today?”

“I raised my hand, and everybody stood up and started clapping,” Clark told Yahoo Sports. “I was so embarrassed.”

The most entertaining player in college basketball will have to get comfortable being the center of attention more often. The combination of Clark’s splashy style of play, jaw-dropping stats and pathological competitiveness has won the sophomore guard a horde of new fans in Iowa City and beyond.

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Clark averages 27.4 points per game, which leads women’s college basketball. Clark also averages 7.9 assists per game, which is also best in the nation. Her dual-threat ability to elevate her teammates or unleash a scoring surge of her own has transformed eighth-ranked Iowa into a Final Four contender and propelled Clark herself into the limelight.

Strangers often gawk when they spot her at the grocery store or approach for autographs or pictures when she goes out for a meal. Her Instagram following rocketed up by 30,000 in a single day last month. So many companies have inundated her with endorsement offers that she turns away more than she accepts.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark drives up court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. Maryland won 81-69. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Caitlin Clark leads the nation in scoring and assists, with a flashy style that's drawn accolades from NBA stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Of the four most-watched regular-season women’s basketball games in Big Ten Network history, three are 2022 Iowa games in which Clark scored 43, 29 and 46 points. Clark’s famous fans include Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Ja Morant and Sue Bird, each of whom has recently complimented her game during interviews or on social media.

The most stunning shout-out came a couple weeks ago when Clark was out to dinner with her family celebrating the Michigan win. A friend texted her, “Oh my gosh, you’re on LeBron’s Instagram story!”

After watching Clark play that night, LeBron James posted her picture and captioned it, “She got so much game!!!! Tough!!!!”

“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really, really cool,” Clark said. “I feel like I was just a young girl watching players like that on TV and imagining being them out in the front driveway.”

What’s particularly refreshing about Clark’s rapid ascent is that she has achieved her fame organically. She hasn’t tailored her game to draw attention, nor are her social media pages meticulously crafted. She has simply been herself, and the spotlight has followed.

Keeping up with the boys

Before Clark’s trademarks became her deft ball-handling, dazzling passes and 3-pointers from the mid-court logo, the boys in her family’s West Des Moines neighborhood once knew her for something else entirely. She was Blake Clark’s annoying little sister, the girl who was two years younger than them yet would tag along wherever they went.

Backyard football. Basketball. Capture the flag. Kick the can. Anything Blake did, Caitlin wanted to do too. One of Blake’s youth baseball coaches even tells the story of having to hit grounders to Caitlin during practices because she refused to watch from the bleachers.

“No matter where I was, I always had a shadow right behind me,” Blake, now a quarterback at Iowa State, told Yahoo Sports. “If I was at a friend’s house, the doorbell would ring and it would be her.”

One summer, a neighbor acquired some airsoft guns, and Caitlin begged to be part of the shootout. The boys gave her the gun no one else wanted, and then took aim.

“They made me be on a team by myself!” Caitlin said.

“Toughened her up!” countered her older brother with a chuckle.

After competing against older boys while growing up, Caitlin Clark now has a lot of fans, young and old, throughout the country. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)
After competing against older boys while growing up, Caitlin Clark now has a lot of fans, young and old, throughout the country. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com). (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)

Those experiences frequently resulted in Caitlin running home to her mom in tears, but they’re a crucial part of her origin story. She says that consistently trying to hold her own against bigger, stronger, faster boys challenged her and stoked her competitive spirit.

By the time Clark’s parents unleashed her against kids her own age, it usually wasn’t a fair fight. Everything came easily to her, from soccer, to golf, to basketball, to softball.

In second grade, Clark played in an AAU basketball tournament. She scored so many points that a parent from the losing team complained to the tournament director that girls shouldn’t be able to play against boys.

Clark quit softball in fifth grade essentially because she became too good too fast. The rocket-armed shortstop grew frustrated that she threw too hard for her teammates to catch, nor did she like that she could impact the game only on offense once every nine at-bats.

When Clark joined the powerhouse All-Iowa Attack basketball program the summer before she began sixth grade, the program director recognized immediately that he needed to challenge her against older competition. By seventh grade, Clark began receiving recruiting letters and college scholarship offers. By eighth grade, she was playing against high school seniors in 17-and-under tournaments.

In spring 2016, soon after Dowling Catholic named her its new girls basketball coach, Kristin Meyer watched one of the school’s incoming freshmen play at an AAU tournament and came away amazed by what she witnessed. Here was Clark, still a wisp of a girl in those days, whipping high-risk passes through traffic or deploying behind-the-back dribbles in transition to create for herself or her teammates.

“You could tell she understood the game differently than most high school players,” Meyer said. “She was trying different shots or passes that most other players would never even attempt.”

A legendary high school career

That Meyer learned about Clark after Dowling Catholic hired her is the equivalent of a home buyer discovering that the previous owner had left behind a treasure trove of gold coins.

Clark arrived as one of the state of Iowa’s most dynamic playmakers and improved each year as she learned when to exercise restraint and when to deploy her full arsenal.

In four high school seasons, Clark overcame constant double and triple teams to pile up 2,547 career points, including a state-record 60 in one game. She won Iowa’s Gatorade Player of the Year Award twice and became a top-five national recruit, all while focusing enough on her schoolwork to be part of the National Honor Society and the presidential honor roll.

A pivotal moment during Clark’s high school career was the first time she was ever told she wasn’t good enough. In May 2018, USA Basketball revealed its roster for that summer’s U17 World Cup, and Clark was not among the 12 players selected.

The embarrassment of getting cut and the realization that there were other players ahead of her inspired Clark to keep searching for ways to improve instead of coasting on her talent. Meyer said that Clark was still her “goofy, joyful” self most of the time but when it was time to work, “there was a little bit more drive, a little bit more focus.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark celebrates on the court after an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 104-80. The victory gave Iowa a share of the Big Ten Conference championship. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Caitlin Clark led Iowa to the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles this season. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Caitlin 1.0 might go for an unnecessarily risky no-look pass or rise and fire from 27 feet early in a possession. Caitlin 2.0 resisted that temptation more often, knowing that sometimes the better play was the simpler one.

Caitlin 1.0 might let her frustration consume her if her shot wasn’t falling or she committed a bad turnover; Caitlin 2.0 was still a heart-on-her-sleeve competitor — she just learned to channel her emotions more positively.

Among those awed by Clark was one of the best basketball players on the planet. Kevin Durant attended the 2018 Nike GEYBL National Championships in Chicago. As he watched the U17 Final from his courtside seat, he asked his cohorts who the All-Iowa Attack point guard was.

“She always had the ball in her hand, everyone was playing off her, she just commanded the whole game,” Durant recalled during a February episode of his podcast, “The ETCs with KD.” "I'm like, 'Who the hell is this? She is nice.' It was like, 'Oh, she's the best player in the country.' I was like, 'Oh, damn. I see it now.’”

So did college coaches. Top programs from across the country sent Clark anything from life-size posters of her wearing their jerseys to dozens of hand-written notes penned by each member of the coaching staff.

In the end, schools who weren’t within driving distance of West Des Moines wasted their time. Clark chose Iowa over Iowa State and Notre Dame because she believed Lisa Bluder’s fast-paced read-and-react system was an ideal fit and because she saw an opportunity to elevate a program that hadn’t been to the Final Four since 1993.

“She wanted to do something different,” her father, Brent Clark, said. “Iowa is a notable women’s basketball program. It’s had some success, but you don’t think of Iowa like you do UConn, South Carolina or Notre Dame. That really appealed to her.”

Flying high with the Hawkeyes

No longer is anyone laughing at the notion of Clark leading Iowa to a Final Four. It feels like it may be a matter of “when,” not “if.”

As a freshman, Clark averaged a national-best 26.6 points per game, shared national freshman of the year honors with UConn’s Paige Bueckers and led youthful Iowa to a surprise Sweet 16. This season, Clark has four times surpassed 40 points and five times posted a triple-double, helping the Hawkeyes catch fire late in the season and storm to Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles.

“We’re playing our best basketball,” Clark said, “and this is the time of year when you need to be playing your best basketball. So I’m excited.”

What will make Iowa’s NCAA tournament games must-see, however, is more than just Clark’s line in the box score. It’s how she piles up points and assists that has made Sue Bird and Jay Bilas call her “the most exciting player in college basketball.”

There are the behind-the-back passes.

Or the behind-the-back dribbles.

The threes from the mid-court logo.

And the Michael Jordan-esque shoulder shrugs.

The flashy passes, dazzling ball-handling and step-back threes have been hallmarks of Clark’s game since middle school. The logo threes are something new. While Clark practiced shooting from 30 feet and beyond all through high school, it wasn’t until she began developing more strength that she began hitting them with enough consistency to attempt them during a game.

“Once I started making them in games, I just started to get more confident,” Clark said. “Those are shots I work on every single day. It’s not like I just get in games, the shot goes up and they go in. I practice those shots.”

The buzz those logo threes have generated has helped turn Clark into one of the big winners of the first year of college sports’ NIL era. She has what her dad describes as “substantial” partnerships with H&R Block and Hy-Vee, a Midwestern chain of supermarkets. She also has teamed with a design studio to create her own T-shirt line.

While the NIL money and superstar shout-outs have been cool, Clark insists something else has been the biggest perk of her newfound fame. She’s been able to connect with numerous young girls who dream of being where she is one day.

Among those are 9-year-old Norah Buyck and her younger sister Sage, 8, both of whom made a homemade sign before the Iowa-Michigan game 10 days ago that proclaimed in rainbow letters, “You are our hero Caitlin Clark!” Norah and Sage are such big Iowa fans that they take turns in their garage pretending to be Clark or teammate Monika Czinano.

While Clark wasn’t able to personally thank Norah and Sage after the game, she asked her Twitter followers the next morning to help her find the girls. Within minutes, Norah learned from her assistant principal that Clark had seen the sign and wanted to send some shirts to her and Sage.

“She was so excited that someone she idolizes and thinks the world of would be willing to reach out to a girl she has never met before,” her mother Amber Hemphill told Yahoo Sports. “It says so much about Caitlin’s character that she’s willing to take the time to do that.”