Sports

The Most Exciting Player in College Basketball

Yes, Caitlin Clark just did that.

Iowa basketball player Caitlin Clark dribbles with her right hand while an opponent puts a hand in her face.
A probably futile attempt to stop Caitlin Clark. Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

It’s rare to find a true do-everything superstar in college basketball, because everything is a lot. The best point guards don’t usually rack up rebounds. The best centers don’t usually make a bunch of 3s or dole out a lot of assists. It’s a team sport. There are players at other positions to do those things.

Iowa’s 19-year-old freshman point guard Caitlin Clark literally does everything. She scores more than anyone else—26.5 points per game, the most in Division I—and she does it from long distance, from mid-range, and close to the basket. She gets more assists, 7.2 per game, than (almost) anybody else. At 6-foot, she rebounds at the rate of a power forward or center. She also steals the ball and blocks shots. And she rarely sits down, averaging 34 minutes per game. She played 37 in the second round of the NCAA tournament, when the No. 5 Hawkeyes faced No. 4 Kentucky. For Iowa to beat UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, she’ll probably need to play all 40—and score more than 40.

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That game against Kentucky, which Iowa won 86-72, showed that Clark is more than capable of destroying a quality opponent. It was a close matchup, on paper, but the Wildcats learned quickly how awful it can be to play against the Hawkeyes’ freshman sharpshooter. Just look at this:

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A dizzying dribbler, Clark renders tight on-ball defense moot by fading away for long 3-pointers that would get lesser players benched but only get her to a higher scoring total. She takes contact well around the rim and finishes with authority.

All of those skills have been in evidence in Iowa’s two tourney games so far. In the first round, the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes beat No. 12 Central Michigan behind Clark’s 23 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. In the Kentucky game, she finished 13-for-21 from the field for 35 points (including 6-of-12 on 3s) and added another 7 boards and 7 assists. At halftime, ESPN produced a graphic that an opposing team never, ever wants to see:

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Clark isn’t just getting her own—she’s made the entire Iowa offense close to unstoppable. The Hawkeyes are second in the country in points per game (86.6), second in field goal percentage (51.6), and first in 3-point percentage (40.7), even as they’ve taken far more shots from deep than the next two teams on that leaderboard, Maryland and Oregon State. Maryland’s offense is operating at historically great levels, but Clark’s heavy lifting gives Iowa a strong case for America’s second-best unit.

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Unlike Maryland, Iowa isn’t stacked with former blue-chip recruits. But Iowa has Clark, who in piling up numbers for herself has opened up opportunities for the rest of the lineup. Center Monika Czinano shoots 70 percent from the field, leading the nation. Czinano, a first-team all-conference talent, would be a key contributor on any team in the country. But it helps when your point guard can do this:

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The Hawkeyes have a few perimeter threats beyond Clark. Guard Gabbie Marshall and wing McKenna Warnock both shoot better than 40 percent on triples and are frequent beneficiaries of Clark’s playmaking. On other occasions, Clark generates her own shots with what appears to be a shocking ease. Sometimes, it looks like she’s operating slowly, in suspended animation:

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Other times, she stops on less than a dime, causes a defender in transition to roller skate out of the arena, and rises for a quick 3. There is no answer for this:

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A high schooler at this time last year, Clark was the No. 4 overall player in the country, a transcendent talent who could’ve gotten a scholarship from any program she wanted. The Hawks are a regular postseason presence and in 2019 produced the Big Ten’s first ever national player of the year, forward Megan Gustafson. But the recruiting gods don’t make players like Clark often, and programs like UConn usually get them.

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To land a crown jewel like Clark, Iowa needed luck, skill, and patience, as the Hawkeyes’ recruiting director Jan Jensen told the school’s student newspaper, the Daily Iowan. Clark is from West Des Moines and viewed Iowa City as close to home, but not too close, which ruled out Ames. (Sorry, Iowa State. The difference is around an hour’s drive.) Clark’s immediate predecessor at point guard, Kathleen Doyle, was the 14th pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, meaning Iowa had both proof it could coach point guards and a lineup opening Clark coveted.

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If you’re not one of the sport’s small handful of regular powers, a deep March run typically requires a lot of stars to align perfectly—the right opponents, the right injury luck, the right mix of upperclassmen and young players who are good enough to contribute immediately. Iowa, for its part, has historically struggled to get deep into the postseason. The Hawkeyes have now played in 15 NCAA tournaments this century—it would’ve been 16 if 2020’s weren’t canceled—but they have almost always lost in the first or second round. They did make the Elite Eight in 2019, Gustafson’s last year, and it seemed possible that it would take them a while to sniff that round again. But landing a program-altering cornerstone like Clark can accelerate a timeline.

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To keep her rookie year going, Clark will have to push Iowa past the only freshman—really, the only player—comparable to her. That’s UConn point guard Paige Bueckers, the No. 1 recruit in the 2020 high school class.

Clark and Bueckers are unusual commodities in a veteran’s sport, where the best teams are heavy on experience. The two teenagers are the only freshmen in the top 30 of the national scoring average leaderboard. Bueckers averages 20 points to Clark’s 27, but much of that difference is probably a function of UConn’s typically stacked roster.

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Given Iowa’s less heralded supporting cast, Clark is more of a one-woman dynamite stick, crumbling defenses by herself. Iowa has made 923 shots from the field this season, and Clark has hit 259 of them and assisted on another 208. To say nothing of Clark’s excellence in other areas of the game, she has factored into more than half—50.6 percent, to be exact—of Iowa’s made field goals. Bueckers, by contrast, has been in on 40.5 percent of the top-seeded Huskies’ buckets from the field. Breanna Stewart, the three-time player of the year who finished her UConn career in 2016, was in on 32.4 percent of the Huskies’ field goals her last year, though her position in the frontcourt made it harder to pile up assists. LeBron James, in his 2012 MVP season, factored into 41.2 percent of the Heat’s made baskets. There are more scientific ways to judge players, but for pure production in heavy volume, Clark is an unusual star.

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Clark and Bueckers are friends, and Clark has downplayed efforts to cast the game (and her individual matchup with Bueckers) as a personal rivalry. “It’s not Caitlin Clark versus Paige Bueckers,” Clark told reporters, showing a youthful mastery of sports clichés. “It’s Iowa versus UConn.”

It’s true. But for Iowa to hang with the sport’s most imposing dynasty, Clark must do the kind of heavy lifting almost nobody else in the sport can come close to pulling off. Regardless of the outcome, it’ll be amazing to watch her try.

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