The Caitlin Counter: Rookie sensation, Fever are settling into a groove

The Indiana Fever’s success during Caitlin Clark’s rookie season was always going to be based on defeating the teams they were supposed to defeat. It’s a long road of smaller steps back to the top for the franchise.

The opponents they played over the first 11 games weren’t the measuring stick. Instead, it's this last stretch of games against teams projected to battle with the Fever for the final playoff spots. And for the most part, Indiana and Clark have fared well.

Everyone wants to see Clark score, yet it’s her vision and passing ability that drive Indiana’s offense and that was on display in its recent four-game winning streak. In the three games last week, the rookie point guard averaged 17 points, 9.7 assists and 7.3 rebounds.

She became the third rookie in WNBA history with at least five games of at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds. Tamika Catchings, the Fever legend who lifted the franchise to its only WNBA championship in 2012, had six such games. Diana Taurasi, a three-time champion in Phoenix, had five. Clark has 22 more games to push the mark even higher.

The Fever posted a four-game home winning streak and then an overall four-game hot streak, both of which are the first for the team since 2015. That was also the franchise’s last winning season (20-14). Indiana (7-11) edged out wins against Atlanta twice (6-9), Chicago (6-9) and Washington (4-13) before the Sky snapped the streak in the teams’ third meeting in as many weeks.

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

Scheduling matters, much like during the brutal start, but these results will be crucial when it comes to the standings and the playoff race. And Clark’s box-stuffing efforts led the team’s best offensive showings.

In the June 16 meeting against Chicago, Clark neared a triple-double with 23 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. Against Washington, she posted 18 points and 12 rebounds. She shot 50% from 3 against Atlanta, and, despite a one-point loss Sunday to Chicago, she broke the franchise record for assists with 13.

Clark’s chemistry with center Aliyah Boston in the pick-and-roll looks much better than the first week of the season. Indiana played three consecutive games with an offensive rating above 110, its first such contests of the season, and averaged 90.3 points per game in the winning streak. The team is displaying better ball movement, and if basketball used hockey assists (up to two players credited on one assist), Clark’s numbers would be much higher.

The Fever need that boost of confidence and the mini Commissioner’s Cup break to head into the next stretch and possibly steal some games they aren’t supposed to win. Indiana heads back on a West Coast swing to play Seattle (10-6), Phoenix (8-8) and Las Vegas (8-6), which got Chelsea Gray back last week, before returning home to finish the four-game season series against New York.

Of course, the spotlight is on Sunday when Clark and Taurasi’s Mercury clash for the first time. Given Taurasi’s demeanor about all rookies and each team’s propensity to slack on defense, it should be a good one.

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 18 games): 15.7 PER; 93.8/110.7 O/DRTG; 55.3 TS%; 0.01 WS; -10.5 +/-

Totals through 18 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 she 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. 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 18 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 board 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.

While Clark’s 13 assists were a franchise record (breaking Erica Wheeler’s mark of 12 set last June against Chicago), they fell short of an overall rookie record.

That belongs to Ticha Penicheiro, widely regarded as one of the best point guards of all time who stunned fans with no-look passes and other fancy deliveries. (Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?)

Penicheiro dished out 16 as a rookie for the Sacramento Monarchs against the Cleveland Rockers on July 29, 1998 (both franchises have since folded). Noelle Quinn, the current Storm head coach, had 14 assists as a Minnesota rookie in 2007. Clark is tied with Penicheiro and Lindsay Whalen at 13.

Penicheiro holds the rookie record of 225 total assists, averaging 7.5 per game. Clark, averaging a consistent 6.6 through the season, is currently second in average assists for a rookie and on pace for 264 assists because the league has since expanded to 40 games. Julie Vanloo, a 31-year-old overseas vet playing her first WNBA season, currently ranks eighth in assists average (5.41) and is on pace for 216.

It is solid company for Clark. Penicheiro ranks third all time with 2,600 assists, leading the league in assists in seven seasons over a 15-year Hall of Fame career. She won the 2005 championship with Sacramento, earned two WNBA first-team honors within her first three seasons and drew MVP votes in four different seasons. She won championships in multiple countries playing overseas and represented her home country of Portugal in international competition.

Ideally, this week’s statistical comp would have been to the 2008 All-Star fan voting and how Candace Parker’s numbers lined up with Clark’s. But until 2020 (which turned into 2021 due to the pandemic), the WNBA did not hold a traditional All-Star game during Olympic years. It also didn’t name All-Stars in those years, so players such as Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles missed out on a few more nods during their primes.

In the early returns last week, Clark came in second and trailed leader A’ja Wilson by about 1,000 votes. Seven rookies made the top 30, a not-all-too-surprising number given the attention and fandom each has received. Six Fever players made the list, which in strictly basketball performance terms is way too many.

The most intriguing statistic out of the announcement is how many people submitted ballots. A’ja Wilson led all vote-getters with 217,773 votes after winning the 2023 fan vote with 95,860 total votes over the two-week span. The two-time MVP received 35,968 votes after the first week of voting last year, so her total this season has seen a 600% increase.

It’s another indicator of the Clark Effect. And while it’s clearly not only Clark who is drawing more attention for the league, her spot near the top of the voting is another sign of her immense presence. More people than ever are taking time to submit All-Star ballots that mostly include Clark, but they are also including other great players as new fans tune in for the rookies.