The Caitlin Counter: Brutal early schedule has done the rookie sensation no favors

Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever ultimately caught a necessary breather after playing 11 games in 20 days. In their first game back from a four-day break, Clark tied a rookie record with seven 3-pointers in a win over Washington on Friday. It was the best all-around shooting performance of her short career.

Mental and physical exhaustion plagued the Fever (3-10) through a packed slate of games every 1.8 days on average that included two back-to-backs with overnight travel. Such a grueling stretch occurred only once in the WNBA dating back to 2007, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The 2011 Washington Mystics went 1-10 during a 20-day stretch toward the end of a season that started with the team rostering four rookies.

Fever assistant coach Karima Christmas-Kelly was one of those rookies.

“You’re just trying to find your way in the league, but also having to play through games and figure it out that way,” Christmas-Kelly told Yahoo Sports. “I think that kind of correlates here with the young team that we’ve had and having to figure out a lot of these games early, especially against some high-caliber teams in New York and Connecticut within that 11 games in 20-day stretch.”

The ’11 Mystics, who finished 2010 tied with the second-best record, were already struggling at 5-17 when they hit that brutal stretch in late August and early September. It included one homestand and a singular win in the ninth game. The Mystics finished 6-28, slightly better than the Tulsa Shock (3-31).

Injuries plagued that team and first-year head coach Trudi Lacey relied heavily on Crystal Langhorne without the availability of All-Stars Monique Currie (knee) and Alana Beard (foot). Young talent had to “learn on the fly,” Christmas-Kelly said. Rookies Victoria Dunlap, the Mystics’ No. 11 overall pick, and Jasmine Thomas, the Storm’s No. 12 pick traded to Washington in an April five-team deal, earned starts.

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

Ta’Shia Phillips, the Dream’s first-round draft pick who was packaged in a trade for 2007 No. 1 overall pick Lindsey Harding, came off Washington’s bench for 10 games. Christmas-Kelly, the Mystics’ No. 23 pick, played in 14 games off the bench, averaging 3.4 points in 10.1 minutes per game.

But Lacey and the front office wanted a veteran presence and waived Phillips and Christmas-Kelly in July to sign DeMya Walker. The Liberty picked up Phillips, an Indianapolis native, for five games that concluded her WNBA career.

The Shock signed Christmas-Kelly and the following year traded her midseason to Indiana, where she won the 2012 championship. It’s the franchise’s only title in its history.

Christmas-Kelly said because rookies are still in “game-playing mode” from college, she didn’t experience hitting a wall in her first year. The W season began June 4, 2011, a month earlier than the 2024 turnaround for Clark and her rookie class.

“It was just kind of translating your game into how your role changes, of course, coming into the league,” Christmas-Kelly said. “Not everyone has that same role coming in. I think just trying to figure out what that is for you and being able to maximize that as quickly as possible as you get into the league.”

Her experience leaning on veterans early in her career for “words of wisdom” while they assisted from the bench helped her navigate the rest of her 10-year playing career, she said. After injuries limited her from 2018-20, she officially retired and joined head coach Christie Sides’ staff in January 2023.

Indiana couldn’t string together wins out of its break, falling to the Sun on Monday, 89-72, for the third time this season. The starters rode the bench for most of the fourth of what was a 28-point deficit. After the loss, Christmas-Kelly said she’s seen little spurts of improvement on defense, but she’s still looking for the team-wide shift of players seeing the game before it unfolds and reaching their defensive spots.

The Fever are the worst defensive team in the league, trailing the 11th-place Sparks in defensive rating by nearly 10 points. Their minus-15.8 net rating trails the Mystics’ minus-8.6 by a large margin. Clark alone can’t make up those deficits. But it is a small sample size against the league’s best teams, and the upcoming schedule will tell more about the Fever.

It’s an opportunity for the Fever to make up ground. They play five games in the next 11 days against the Dream (5-5), Sky (4-6) and Mystics (1-12). Those teams, along with the Sparks (4-8), were always the ones projected to battle for the final playoff spots.

Christmas-Kelly doesn’t necessarily view facing the squads at the bottom of the standings as a sigh of relief.

“You can’t just assume that you’re going to catch them on an off night or they’re not going to be as high intensity as these other teams,” she said. “Everybody's looking to get a win. They’re trying to get into the playoffs and be better than last season, so we can’t take any team lightly. That’s what we try to preach to them, is that every opponent is a valid opponent and we’ve got to approach it in the same way. Top teams, mid teams or anyone else, we’ve got to be able to come out there and assert ourselves early and often.”

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: 16.3 PPG (37.3/33/89.7), 4.9 RPG, 6 APG (5.4 TOV), 1.5 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Advanced (through 13 games): 15.7 PER; 93.8/110.7 O/DRTG; 55.3 TS%; 0.01 WS; -10.5 +/-

Totals through 13 games: 212 PTS (62-166/36-109/52-58), 64 REB, 78 AST (70 TOV), 19 STL, 11 BLK

Notable league rankings: Clark continues to remain top-10 in many offensive totals because she’s played more games than nearly every other player. She ranks fourth in assists per game behind Alyssa Thomas (8.5), Natasha Cloud (7.6) and Jackie Young (7.0), and sixth in assist percentage (33.2). But ranks ninth in assists per 40 minutes (7.4).

She ranks 15th in scoring, 31st in rebounds, 18th in steals and 21st in blocks through Tuesday night’s games. Her 27.7% usage rate remains top-10 and she leads the league in free-throw rate at 32.1%.

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 13 games: 223 PTS (83-176/6-12/51-74), 126 REB, 53 AST (33 TOV), 23 STL, 30 BLK

Notable league rankings (full season): Parker led the league in rebounding as a rookie, finished fifth in scoring 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.

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

Clark continues to stay on pace with Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick by New York in the 2020 WNBA Draft. The rookie joined Parker and Ionescu as the only players in WNBA history with at least 100 points, 30 rebounds and 30 assists in their first six career games. Clark and Ionescu are the only players in WNBA history with at least 150 points, 50 rebounds and 50 assists in their first 10 career games.

But Clark is the only true rookie to do it. Ionescu sustained a Grade 3 ankle sprain in her third game and did not play again her rookie season. It gave her a full year to rehab while also working on her body and nutrition in preparation for the physical play of the WNBA. Seven of those 10 games were played with that advantage in her second season. Ionescu had 179 points, 75 rebounds and 79 assists through her first 13 games.

Clark and Ionescu each lifted college women’s basketball to new heights while setting offensive records. Ionescu is the triple-double queen to Clark’s logo-3 scoring kingdom and is the only 2K-1K-1K player in NCAA Division I history (Clark fell 10 rebounds short). That offensive threat meant she was also the defensive focus immediately while leading the worst team in the league. Because of her injury, fans didn’t see how that would have played out for the rest of the season and if she would have faced the same difficulties as Clark over the first month.

Ionescu didn’t take off offensively until 2022 — 33 games into her career and in her third season. She made her first All-Star team and was named All-WNBA Second Team, averaging 17.4 ppg (eighth), 7.1 rpg (12th) and 6.3 apg (third).

“It's a process and you can't really shortcut that process of figuring out what you have to tweak and change and add to your game to improve it from college to the pros,” Ionescu told Yahoo Sports last month. “There's no real shortcut to that. It's just kind of part of the process. Some people adjust quicker than others, and I think the quicker you can adjust and learn and give yourself grace through that process, the better.”

She took another leap in 2023 with the construction of a superteam with Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot. And in the footsteps of other guards drafted No. 1 overall, Ionescu’s defense has steadily improved. Through 13 games this season, her 94.2 defensive rating is 10 points better than her first two full-season average (103.8).

Even her international trajectory with Clark for Team USA is lining up. On Tuesday, Ionescu was named to her first Olympic team. She was in contention for the 2020 Tokyo squad that played in the summer 2021. But she missed training camp due to the ankle injury and the committee did not select her for either the 5x5 or 3x3 teams.

The Fever are on pace to smash their previous attendance record, according to Across the Timeline data. In the inaugural 2000 season, Indiana averaged 11,266.88 fans over 16 home games. It was a consistent audience that ranged from a low of 9,006 to 13,178.

Through five of their 20 home games this season, the Fever are averaging 16,571.4 fans and hover between a low of 15,022 and 17,272. Their low mark doubles the 2023 single-game high. The Fever’s average attendance would be a WNBA record if it holds. The 2002 Mystics team averaged 16,202.31 fans over 16 home games (13,130-19,766 range) at Capital One Arena.

Washington averaged at least 15,000 fans in five seasons from 1998-2002. New York peaked at 15,660 in 2001 after four years of at least 14,000 fans per game. The Phoenix Mercury came close, peaking at 13,700 fans in the league’s inaugural two seasons and the Houston Comets averaged around 12,000 fans in their championship run from 1997-2000. Multiple franchises have averaged at least 10,000 fans a season, per Across the Timeline.