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Caitlin Clark, Olympic worthy?

By Bob Corwin, 06/11/24, 8:45PM PDT


Flip a coin!

There has been a lot of media chatter regarding Caitlin Clark’s Olympic non-selection before and since the announcement became official. Whether she should have been picked depends on the priorities one might use for selection. In this piece, Clark’s worthiness on and off the court will be reviewed along with her impact on women’s basketball in general and the WNBA in particular.

First a little (obvious) background…

Caitlin Clark was considered a national top five prospect coming out of high school in Iowa choosing to stay home and attend the University of Iowa. Due to her performance in leading Iowa to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Final which included defeating powerhouses like South Carolina, LSU and Connecticut (teams full of WNBA talent), her basketball persona grew beyond anything previously seen in the sport. From this writer’s view, no player has ever been more impactful media-wise through the college level (not saying best college player ever). Basketball-wise at the college level, her combination of nightly high levels of scoring and facilitating for teammates filled and wowed buildings wherever she went to play her senior year. To her credit, her bad nights (say scoring lots of points on high volume (lower percentage) shooting) would have been most players’ dream performance and her great nights of victorious triple-doubles were something to behold. One might describe it as greatness on a nightly basis performing under immense pressure on and off the court!

Clark could have returned to Iowa for a “Covid” (fifth) year but decided to enter the WNBA draft where to zero surprise, she was the number 1 selection by the Indiana Fever. She said she wanted a new challenge. She has obviously found it!

Caitlin Clark was not needed to save the WNBA!

In spite of a lot of incorrect social media talk, the WNBA was not in danger of folding without Caitlin Clark. The NBA stopped general subsidizing (about half the teams have non-NBA ownership) of the league over a decade ago. Last year, pre-Clark mania, the Chicago Sky sold a 10% share in the franchise for eight million dollars. Also, the Seattle Storm did a share sale where the franchise was valued at $151 million. The league is currently negotiating a new media rights deal which might well double or triple current salaries and that was before the “Caitlin Clark effect” took hold. The buzz around her only adds to the momentum.

Before going a little further, a point of personal privilege.

So to speak, Caitlin Clark and this writer were both “drafted” by Indiana Fever GM Lin Dunn. In the mid-1980’s while Head Coach at the University of Miami (Florida), Coach Dunn suggested to me to start a girls’ basketball scouting service (was called Corwin Index) and it existed for about 15 years. Later I transitioned to writing on the sport and have since had the privilege to help with national girls’ basketball rankings and All-American selections. As of this past year, I have been serving on the NIKE Tournament of Champions (strongest high school team event of the few decades held annually in Phoenix, Arizona, area before Christmas) seeding and all-tournament selections committees. It is very unlikely any of this would have come to pass for me without that initial push from the now GM of the Indiana Fever!

Before looking at the options of picking Caitlin Clark for the Olympic team, let’s take a look at where she stands in relation to expectations and on court accomplishments to date.

Many unrealistically thought Clark would come in and vie for WNBA MVP. Betting circles had her on the board in that race prior to the season. What was missed here by those is that the WNBA is a veteran-dominated league. Most rookies that make an opening day (hard enough to do) more than not struggle for all or a part of the rookie campaign. Candace Parker was probably the most significant exception as she was both rookie of the year and MVP her first year.

Clark positives

As rookies go, Clark has done very well overall but to say her on court performance has been of itself “Olympic worthy” is a stretch (but not a big stretch). Receiving strong defensive concentration often given to the opponent’s star, she has shown that she is already one of the better scoring guards in the league. Her elite court vision and passing concepts have translated very well from college as shown by her high assist per game count. Her foul shooting ranks up there with the best in the league.

So, where’s the downside?

Clark’s defense has been below average often getting lost causing the need for unsuccessful defensive switches. As has been pointed out in media coverage, Clark is not the only Fever player who has been struggling in this area causing the (very young) team to sit well below 500 in the standings. Another issue to date has been that she has been one of the league turnover leaders (some losing the ball, some being stripped and some bad passes). A final point is that while her field goal and 3’s percentages have been acceptable, they are not significantly better than others vying for a spot on the US Olympic team.

Besides above, where could Caitlin Clark improve?

If you watch Clark on offense, her intermediate shooting game is not strong. When entering inside the arc, she avoids any often-wide-open opportunities for pull-up jumpers looking to dish if she cannot get to the rim. The majority of her drives to the rim are going strong right. Going left, she likes to pull the three. Adding some more variety would make her even harder to deal with offensively. Finally, getting a bit stronger in the upper body might help as she gets bounced around some of the time with fouls less called in the more physical WNBA.

The Olympic conundrum

What is the objective of those at USA Basketball with regard to the Olympics?

One would think to win the Gold Medal! That being the case, those in charge look to put together the most complete team. Clark’s offensive strengths are already pretty well covered on the team. Unfortunately, there are already several not so strong perimeter defenders (let the readers guess) present on the squad and adding Clark would not help the team defensively.

The countervailing arguments…

Trusting in improvement, Clark will probably be needed in future Olympics so put her on the end of the bench for this go-round. History has shown talented players like Caitlin Clark will in time shore up weak areas and become Olympic worthy. If Clark was a stock (current price down from all-time high), I would probably be more of a buyer than a seller at this time.

Clark has brough a legion of previously untapped fans (“The Clarkee’s”) to the WNBA and omitting her from the Olympic squad will lessen the momentum of general media support to the women’s game as they tune in to watch her not the rest of the league. This position sort of assumes the 12th slot kind of irrelevant and the USA is on paper a huge favorite to win the Gold.

If Clark was in, who would be out?

Probably Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, who although very close to the end of her career, has very similar stats to rookie Clark. Taurasi has been a USA Basketball mainstay for over a decade and the committee might argue Caitlin Clark has yet to prove that she is a better player.

Alternates please…

If a guard (Las Vegas’s quality point guard Chelsea Gray has not yet played this year coming off injury) must be replaced, Clark could still be added (the Olympic break might really help her as it has essentially been non-stop for her since October). However, if you watch the league itself, a few also-omitted guards might be more worthy than Caitlin Clark as to performance in the league this year. Dallas’s Arike Ogunbowale would be an opposition nightmare coming off the bench for instant offense. Atlanta’s Allisha Gray is a solid two-way player who guards very well on the perimeter and is a more than adequate scorer with size similar to Clark and better athleticism.