Caitlin Clark at midseason: 20 games, broken WNBA records … and about those turnovers

Caitlin Clark made history Thursday, blowing away the previous record for fastest WNBA player to record 300 career points, 100 rebounds and 100 assists by doing so in her 19th game. No player had ever achieved it sooner than 22 games, per ESPN Stats & Information, and if we look at only rookies directly out of college, New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu held the previous record, at 27 games.

Despite the No. 1 draft pick’s record-setting versatility, Clark and the Indiana Fever — who faced a brutal schedule to begin her pro career — have had an uneven start. Just two of Indiana’s first 11 games this season came against teams with records of .500 or worse, while those 11 games were two more than any other WNBA team to that point. It’s no surprise the Fever started 2-9, while Clark had a season-low three points in the last game of that stretch.

Since Indiana’s schedule has evened out, both in terms of opponent quality and allowing the team more practice time to build around Clark’s one-of-a-kind skill set, the Fever have won four consecutive games for the first time since 2015. Eight of the WNBA’s 12 teams advance to the postseason, and Indiana (8-12) would make the playoffs if the 40-game regular season ended today. Clark’s performance has also predictably picked up: She’s averaging 16.8 points, 7.6 assists and 6.3 rebounds over her past nine games.

As she starts the second half of her rookie season Tuesday against the Las Vegas Aces (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), let’s take a closer look at what the numbers say about how Clark and Indiana are figuring things out and where she might be able to continue improving the rest of this season and beyond.

Pick-and-roll game coming on

Clark’s ability to generate efficient offense through frequent pick-and-rolls is more important to her development as a WNBA player than anything else. That’s already the case halfway through her rookie season.

According to Second Spectrum analysis of camera-tracking data, Indiana has averaged 0.97 points per direct pick-and-roll when either Clark or the screen setter shoots, goes to the free throw line or turns over the ball, or a Clark pass sets up an immediate shot by another teammate. That ranks second among players who have received at least 200 ball screens, trailing Jackie Young of Las Vegas.

Early on, defenses responded by trapping Clark with both defenders more often than any other player in the league. Per Second Spectrum, defenses have blitzed 89 ball screens, twice as many as the next-highest player, Ionescu with 46. Clark’s passing ability has generally produced good shots in those situations. The Fever have averaged 1.05 points per direct pick-and-roll against blitzes, better than their overall average.

As a result, we’ve seen fewer traps as the season has progressed. Over Indiana’s first 11 games, opponents blitzed 21% of Clark’s ball screens, according to Second Spectrum analysis. During the past nine games, that has dropped by more than half to 10%.

With more practice time, the Fever have found better solutions for trapping defenses, leveraging double-teams on Clark to create open shots for teammates. And more important to Indiana’s long-term outlook, she and 2023 WNBA Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston have started to develop better chemistry as pick-and-roll partners.

Although pick-and-roll basketball has always been a staple for Clark, that’s not the case for Boston, who was primarily a post scorer in college at South Carolina. When she was drafted, Synergy Sports tracking showed Boston had attempted just nine shots her entire senior season after screening in pick-and-roll. As a WNBA rookie, Boston attempted nearly three times as many shots out of post-ups as pick-and-rolls, per Synergy tracking. She has increased those attempts as a screener more than 40% on a per-game basis this season, slowly developing chemistry with Clark.

Over the season’s first 13 games, Clark assisted Boston an average of 1.3 times per game. Since then, that has more than tripled to 4.0 per game.

Leveraging shooting threat

More than any other skill, Clark is associated with her shooting range, so it was a bit surprising to see her make just 30% of 3-pointers over the first 11 games, a span that concluded with Clark going 1-of-7 from 3 and 1-of-10 overall in a 36-point loss June 2 at New York.

Starting with a career-high seven 3-pointers on June 7 at Washington, Clark has been on fire from beyond the arc, averaging 3.2 per game at a 41% clip. Just two players have averaged at least three 3s per game over the full season: Arike Ogunbowale (3.3) and Kayla McBride (3.1).

The hot streak has coincided with the Fever making a more concerted effort to get Clark off the ball, something that was also instrumental in the development of Ionescu and Aces guard Kelsey Plum after slow starts to their WNBA careers as high-scoring guards picked No. 1 overall.

Over the season’s first 11 games, 32% of Clark’s 3-point attempts were catch-and-shoot opportunities, per Second Spectrum. That has jumped to 45% since, with Clark hitting a sizzling 50% of catch-and-shoot attempts over the past nine games. No wonder Indiana coach Christie Sides said last week that Clark needed to get even more shots up.

“Caitlin Clark needs to shoot a minimum of 15 shots a game for us,” Sides told reporters after last Thursday’s loss to the Seattle Storm, when Clark had nine shot attempts. “She’s got to get shots, and we’ve got to do a better job of setting her up, setting some really good screens for her to get her open.”

But the numbers don’t back that up. Clark’s seven 3-pointer-game against the Mystics was the Fever’s only win when she has attempted at least 15 shots, and it was also the only time she reached that mark (attempting precisely 15) in the month of June.

Indiana’s offense needs Clark more involved than she was against the Storm, but having her balancing playmaking and shot attempts is where the Fever have been at their best.

Overall, Indiana’s offense was strong in the month of June. After dropping to 11th in offensive rating during the 2-9 start, ahead of only the then-winless Washington Mystics, the Fever have been the WNBA’s third-most efficient offense since. New York and Las Vegas, last year’s WNBA Finals teams, are the two squads averaging more points per possession since June 3.

Indiana has accomplished that despite Clark continuing to struggle with turnovers (she has 112; the next-closest player, Alyssa Thomas, has 72), another case where her production is historic. As Richard Cohen of noted last week, Clark committed more turnovers in her first 18 games than any WNBA player ever has in any 20-game stretch of their career.

That’s partially a product of how much Clark has the ball in her hands. She has taken over a thousand more dribbles than any other player, according to Second Spectrum tracking, and Indiana’s team turnover rate is actually slightly down from last season. Nonetheless, that’s one spot I expected more improvement from Clark over the course of the year than we’ve seen so far.

Fever in playoff contention

Making the playoffs for the first time since 2016 was a reasonable goal for the Fever this season after drafting Clark to team up with Boston. The Storm made it in 2016 after adding back-to-back No. 1 picks in Jewell Loyd and then-rookie Breanna Stewart, while Las Vegas finished one game out of a playoff spot in A’ja Wilson’s rookie year when she joined Plum as consecutive top picks.

If the season ended today, Indiana would be just on the right side of the playoff line, leading the Chicago Sky by a half-game for the eighth and final spot. The Fever are also within a half-game of the 7-10 Atlanta Dream.

The bad news is the Sky (minus-2.0) and Dream (minus-4.6) have been far more competitive this season in terms of point differential, typically a better predictor of future record than actual winning percentage. Indiana’s minus-6.6 mark ranks 10th in the WNBA.

On the plus side, many of those lopsided Fever blowouts came against the early difficult slate of opponents. Indiana is 0-10 with an incredible minus-17.3 point differential against above-.500 teams but has taken care of business against opponents at .500 or worse. The Fever are 8-2 against below-average teams.

It’s difficult to tell how much of that split is Indiana getting a chance to practice in June. The Fever better hope it reflects internal improvement, because opponent quality has largely evened out now. Indiana will play 11 games against teams .500 or better in the second half of the season, the same as the first half. The Fever do have fewer matchups with the Connecticut Sun and New York the rest of the way, but three of their four meetings with the two-time defending champion Aces remain, including Tuesday.

The good news is more of those games will be at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Only the Dallas Wings have played fewer home games than Indiana, which will play 12 of the final 19 games at home, including a six-game homestand late in the regular season. Thanks to that split, ESPN’s WNBA Basketball Power Index shows the Fever making the playoffs in 65% of simulations of the remaining schedule.

If Indiana returns to the postseason with Clark and Boston playing at the level they’ve reached in June, it will be hard to regard Clark’s rookie season as anything but a success.

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