The Caitlin Counter: How Indiana Fever star Caitlin Clark is faring so far in her rookie season

Caitlin Clark earned her first win as a pro Friday against the Los Angeles Sparks, but the Indiana Fever (1-6) couldn’t string together a streak amid the toughest early schedule of any team in the WNBA. They’re coming off a two-day break — their longest of the short season — and host the Sparks on Tuesday to begin a stretch of four games in six days.

The six losses are more than Clark and her Iowa team had in her 34-game senior season that capped a 109-30 collegiate record for Clark. Yet No. 1 overall draft picks racking up losses is nothing new in the WNBA.

Teams are a collective 384-454 (.458) during their No. 1 picks’ rookie seasons and only nine of the 25 teams finished above .500. Three were one win above the mark. (The data excludes the 2005 Charlotte Sting and 2020 New York Liberty since Janel McCarville and Sabrina Ionescu, respectively, each played three games due to injuries.)

Breanna Stewart, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick by the Seattle Storm, entered her pro career fresh off four national championships in four years at UConn. She swept Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors and remains the most decorated collegiate basketball player in NCAA history.

With high expectations and plenty of attention, she played her first game as a pro in the formerly named Staples Center against Los Angeles Sparks veterans and former No. 1 picks Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike.

“I was like, this is amazing. Obviously this is where Kobe [Bryant] played,” Stewart said. “And we got beat by 30. You go in [thinking] we’re gonna win. And we just got crushed.”

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The Storm, like the Fever this year, had been bad for long enough that they drafted No. 1 overall in back-to-back seasons. In 2015, they selected Jewell Loyd and the Notre Dame superstar experienced a 10-24 rookie season. Loyd lost six games in her three-year college career, including back-to-back national championship game losses to Stewart’s UConn team. The Huskies during Stewart’s tenure were 151-5, with four losses occurring in her freshman year.

“Then I lost five in probably two weeks,” Stewart said the day she dropped 31 points in Clark’s home debut on May 16.

Seattle won back-to-back games in June of Stewart’s rookie year and strung together four wins in September. The team didn’t break .500 over the course of a season until 2018, when it won its first of two WNBA championships with Loyd, Stewart and 2002 No. 1 overall pick Sue Bird.

Bird and Lauren Jackson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, barely broke .500 (17-15) in 2002 playing for head coach Lin Dunn, the Fever’s current general manager. The team was 4-3 through seven games, but it was a jolt after Bird lost a total of four games in her final three years at UConn. She also lost her professional debut.

“I’m in the locker room having a little bit of a fit. A little bit of a tantrum. I’m not used to this,” Bird said on the “Rich Eisen Show” last week. “And everybody is like, ‘Oh, where do you guys want to go to dinner tonight?’ It took me a second to understand that that was also part of pro sports.”

“It’s exactly like that,” Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier told Yahoo Sports. “You’re so sad. I’m waiting for coach to come scream at us. … Coach comes in and she’s like, ‘You win some, you lose some.’”

Collier, the 2019 Rookie of the Year after the Lynx drafted her sixth overall, said she lost about three games in high school before losing five total at UConn. She said the positive was WNBA teams play so often — in Clark’s case, approximately every other day right now — that players quickly move on to the next game instead of running suicides for a week after a college loss.

Losing is the norm for high draft picks and winning is the exception. The first to win big was 1997 No. 1 draft pick Tina Thompson, who landed on an accidentally designed dynasty in the league’s inaugural season. The Houston Comets went 18-10 and won the first of four consecutive WNBA championships.

The most recent highly drafted rookie to finish above .500 was Jackie Young, the Las Vegas Aces’ third consecutive No. 1 pick in 2019. Collier, who scored the second-most points in a rookie debut, won Rookie of the year honors that season even though the Lynx (18-16) barely secured a winning record. Young played a limited role, moved to the bench in her second year and has become one of the league’s best guards on her way to winning two championships. Collier is the Lynx’s new franchise cornerstone and a yearly MVP contender.

Three No. 1 picks, all of whom won Rookie of the Year, played on significantly successful teams their first seasons. Within five years of each other, there was Candace Parker’s 2008 Sparks (20-14), Maya Moore’s 2011 Lynx (27-7) and Ogwumike’s 2012 Sparks (24-10), led by a veteran Parker.

The 2008 Sparks upset the defending champion Phoenix Mercury in the season opener on the road and went 5-2 down the opening seven-game stretch. Four of those games were against teams that finished first through third in the previous season’s standings, including a home loss to the Mercury.

Parker had vets Lisa Leslie, Margo Dydek and DeLisha Milton-Jones on a franchise not used to losing – as the Fever are of late. Los Angeles’ 10-24 season in 2007 was its first below .500 since 1998. Each of the three who experienced immediate success stepped into better situations than Clark, even though their teams were bad enough record-wise to win the lottery.

We’re tracking Clark’s numbers in comparison with Candace Parker, who was the only WNBA rookie to be named league MVP.

Season averages: Points (FG%/3FG%/FT%), rebounds, assists (turnovers), steals, blocks

Advanced stats: Player efficiency rating, offensive/defensive rating (via Her Hoop Stats), true shooting percentage, win shares per 40, plus/minus

Caitlin Clark

Season averages: 15.4 PTS (37.1/31.6/88.9), 5.4 REB, 6.3 AST (5.3 TOV), 1.1 STL, 0.9 BLK

Advanced (through 7 games): 14.3 PER, 91.9/109.6 O/DRTG, 53.5 TS%, 0 WS/40, -72 +/-

Totals through 7 games: 108 PTS (33-89/18-57/24-27), 38 REB, 44 AST (37 TOV), 8 STL, 6 BLK

Notable league rankings: Clark ranks top 10 in multiple total shooting categories, but that’s because the Fever played more games than any other team in the league. She ranks fourth in assists per game behind Natasha Cloud (8.8), Alyssa Thomas (7.8) and Jackie Young (7.8), and sixth in assist percentage (34.4). She ranks second in points generated by assists (95, Natasha Cloud has 108) and 16th in usage percentage (27.9).

Candace Parker

Season averages: 18.5 PTS (52.3/42.3/73.3), 9.5 REB, 3.4 AST (2.8TOV), 1.3 STL, 2.3 BLK

Advanced (full season): 27.4 PER, 112.5/88.4 O/DRTG, 58.2 TS%, 0.24 WS, 3.5 +/-

Totals through 7 games: 118 PTS (45-97/5-8/23-36), 72 REB, 35 AST (17 TOV), 11 STL, 16 BLK

Notable league rankings (full season): Parker led the league in rebounding as a rookie, finished fifth in scoring average and 17th in assists per game. Those remain among the best numbers of her career. The advanced stats ranked top-five across the line with the exception of her 11th-best offensive rating. She was named Player of the Week once in August.

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives against Las Vegas Aces forward Alysha Clark (7) during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives against Las Vegas Aces forward Alysha Clark (7) during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Every couple of weeks we’ll compare Clark to another rookie in history based on one statistical category comparison.

Clark can be a high-risk, high-reward point guard. Some of her passes are threading such a tight needle, or aimed toward teammates who might not realize they’re open, that they turn into quick turnovers. This isn’t new. She ranked dead last in turnovers while at Iowa and averaged 4.7 as a senior.

That has carried over into the WNBA, where she’s learning new teammates (and they are learning her) and facing longer, quicker defenders on a nightly basis. Through seven games, she’s faced five players on the 10-person All-WNBA All-Defensive teams.

Clark committed 10 turnovers in her debut, setting the franchise record and the league’s record for a player in her debut. She’s made 37 in seven games, and her 5.3 average leads the league.

Yet, she’s in good company. Her debut record broke the previous mark of eight set by Cynthia Cooper-Dyke as a 34-year-old in the league’s inaugural season. Cooper-Dyke turned the ball over 35 times in her first seven games with the Houston Comets, a 5-per-game average that ranks third all-time over a player’s first seven games, per Across the Timeline. That trended downward and she averaged 3.9 while winning MVP and leading the Comets to their first of four championships.

Nikki McCray-Penson turned over the ball 38 times in her first seven games with Washington in 1998 following her time in the American Basketball League. She was a three-time All-Star, but more notably won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA in 1996 and 2000.

Even against true rookies, Clark isn’t an outlier. Teresa Weatherspoon (32 turnovers in seven games), Ticha Penicheiro (32), Lisa Leslie (31), Sue Bird (31) and Penny Toler (28) all went on to illustrious careers despite ranking top-10 in turnovers over their first seven games. All except Weatherspoon won WNBA titles. Weatherspoon played on the Liberty’s four Finals teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s and is in the Hall of Fame.

While Clark and the Fever are not regularly winning games yet, the impact on the league’s metrics is undeniable. Indiana brought in more fans in their two home games this year than their first seven home games of 2023 combined. Each of their first two home games were announced sellouts of 17,274, which are already tied for third-best home attendance in the franchise’s regular season history, according to Across the Timeline. In 2023, Fever attendance peaked at 7,356 in the home opener and averaged 4,066, above only the Atlanta Dream, who averaged 3,006 in an arena that holds approximately 3,500.

It’s a similar story on the road. The season opener at the Sun was the second time the franchise sold out its home opener, joining the inaugural game at Mohegan Sun Arena in 2003. A total of 8,910 tickets were sold.

The Fever played in all five of this year’s WNBA games to have an announced attendance of 17,000 or more. Their game at New York’s Barclays Center made the Liberty the first team to have more than $2 million in one-game ticket revenue. Announced attendance was 17,735. Seattle’s 18,343 was, at the time, the largest crowd to watch a WNBA regular-season game since 2018, when the Mercury played the Sparks at Staples Center.

Los Angeles quickly eclipsed the mark with 19,103. Hollywood stars were among them. Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and their children experienced a special moment with Clark after the win. Jason Sudeikis, Aubrey Plaza, Rosie O’Donnell and Kathy Griffin were in the crowd. NBA stars DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thompson also attended. There is a clear uptick in celebrities attending WNBA games already this season because of Clark.

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