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Caitlin Clark’s debut struggles and everything we learned from the WNBA’s opening night

Caitlin Clark’s debut struggles and everything we learned from the WNBA’s opening night

Michael Voepel

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Michael Voepel

ESPN.com

Michael Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996. Kevin Pelton

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Kevin Pelton

ESPN Senior Writer

Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus series
Formerly a consultant with the Indiana Pacers
Developed WARP rating and SCHOENE system May 15, 2024, 01:11 AM ET

The 2024 WNBA season is here. Caitlin Clark’s pro era is officially underway. And the defending champion Las Vegas Aces, Connecticut Sun, New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx opened with victories Tuesday.

Clark and the Indiana Fever tipped off the season on the road, falling 92-71 at Connecticut, as Alyssa Thomas, the Sun’s perennial MVP candidate, tallied a triple-double with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists.

Clark, the No. 1 pick in April’s WNBA draft and the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer, finished with 20 points, 3 assists and 2 steals in her WNBA debut. But she struggled much of the night, committing 10 turnovers and shooting 5-for-15 from the field and 4-for-11 on 3-pointers. At halftime, she had five turnovers and seven points.

Clark’s 20 points ranks second in franchise history behind Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings (23 in 2002) for a Fever player debut. Candace Parker had the highest point total for any WNBA player in her debut, with 34 in 2008. Among No. 1 picks in the past decade, Clark is second to Breanna Stewart (23 points) in 2016.

How did the Aces, Liberty, Lynx and Sun start the season in the win column? How did absences from injured center Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury and point guard Chelsea Gray of Las Vegas impact their teams’ games? And how did the Storm look with Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith making their Seattle debuts?

ESPN breaks down opening night.

After a slow start, Clark heated up late in the game but struggled overall. In which areas was she most exposed? And what was most promising about her pro debut? Voepel: It says something about how over-the-top the expectations are for Clark that she had a team-high 20 points in her professional debut but the performance will be defined by many as a “struggle,” primarily for the turnovers.

That’s to be expected, though, for any rookie point guard, considering just how much quicker and experienced the defense is at this level.

Still, the turnovers have to be what will bother Clark most about her first game, because they prevented possible scoring opportunities for the Fever. Connecticut guard DiJonai Carrington made things hard on Clark, who had eight of her turnovers against the fourth-year pro. Clark was also 2-of-10 shooting against Carrington.

Still, Clark didn’t seem to lose confidence or aggression. That’s key. Clark — who played a team-high 31 minutes — knew there was going to be a learning curve, as everything comes at young players very fast, especially for one who will be handling the ball as much as she will. Clark will figure out how to better calibrate her passing.

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Caitlin Clark critiques her WNBA debut: ‘I have to be crisper’

Caitlin Clark speaks to the media after her first WNBA game where she struggled with 10 turnovers.

It’s only one game, but what are the realistic expectations going forward for the Fever? Voepel: Things worked best for Indiana in the second and third quarters, when the Fever were able to hang with Connecticut. The Sun pulled away in the fourth quarter, and that’s something Fever coach Christie Sides will emphasize to her team.

There were some real positives about how the Fever connected when they ran their offense well — but with 25 turnovers, there were times that just didn’t happen.

So realistically, they showed they could execute at a high level against a veteran squad that is expected to finish in the top four in the league. The Fever have a chance to hold their own against teams that aren’t quite at the level of the Sun.

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A’ja Wilson drops 30 points in Aces’ first win of the season

A’ja Wilson goes for 30 points to propel the Aces past the Mercury 89-80 in the first game of the season.

What do the Aces take away from their opener as they launch their three-peat campaign? Voepel: Gray’s absence — the Aces won’t say how long they expect her to be out with a foot injury — was evident in moments, especially when Las Vegas didn’t attack Phoenix’s zone as well as it wanted in an 89-80 win.

“I think we have to get used to defenses switching up as long as Chelsea’s not out there,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “They’re going to put pressure on [us] to constantly make reads. It’s a really great growth opportunity for the rest of the team — whether that’s organizing us, making reads.”

Still, guard Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum combined for 42 points and 11 assists with just three turnovers. And A’ja Wilson — who looked in MVP form despite being critical of herself for shooting 10-of-22 from the field — showed her leadership on the court along with the big stats she put up (30 points, 18 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks).

“My message was just that I think we lost sight of who we are because it’s the first game,” Wilson said. “I feel like we were all just trying to put on that Superman cape. So I just helped my teammates understand that we can do that and still make each other better.”

Why did the Storm struggle offensively after adding All-Stars Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike? Pelton: In an 83-70 home loss to Minnesota that saw them get outscored 20-10 in the fourth quarter, the Storm looked very much like a team with only two weeks of practice together. Seattle committed 17 turnovers and shot just 37% from the field — 31% after halftime.

“I think generally, offensively, we had no flow,” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said postgame. “We had no ball reversals. We made it easy for Minnesota to defend us. I would start there. Offensively, we weren’t in sync.”

The result was too many difficult shots for Storm guard Jewell Loyd, whose 3-of-19 shooting (16%) was the worst accuracy in franchise history by a player who took at least 15 shots, per ESPN Stats & Information.

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Loyd’s quantified shot quality of 34% — the effective field goal percentage we’d expect based on the location of her shots, their type and the distance to nearby defenders — was the lowest of any player with at least five attempts on Tuesday.

After Loyd set a single-season WNBA record for total points last season (on a Storm team that finished 11-29), the arrival of Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike was supposed to change that. But Quinn felt her team reverted under pressure from the Lynx and an opening night crowd.

“It surprised me, but then it made sense to me because this is first-game atmosphere, all those things,” Quinn said. “You revert back to your habit and we have some habit building that needs to take place and it’s hard to break some habits in a week and a half.”

One particular long-range concern: Seattle generating more 3-point attempts. The Storm’s one made triple was their fewest since the 2016 season opener (a 96-66 loss at Los Angeles in Stewart’s WNBA debut) and their nine attempts their fewest since 2019. Minnesota — which got a combined 42 points and 20 rebounds from Napheesa Collier and Alanna Smith — held a 21-3 advantage in scoring beyond the arc.

After losing their home opener, the Storm now head on the road for a three-game road trip starting Friday in Minneapolis. Ten of the team’s first 16 games will come away from Seattle, something coach Noelle Quinn said she likes before the game.

“For this group in particular,” Quinn said, “I think it’s a great thing because we need to work out some kinks and I like the fact that we can do it in a tough environment.”

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Alyssa Thomas becomes 2nd WNBA player to record triple-double in season debut

Alyssa Thomas notches her 12th career triple-double with 13 points, 13 assist and 10 rebounds as the Sun top the Fever.

Who stood out for the Connecticut Sun? Voepel: Both the Sun (48.5%) and the Fever (48.0%) shot about the same percentage from the field, but Connecticut got 16 more shots and had 10 fewer turnovers. And while we have come to expect ageless DeWanna Bonner (20 points, six rebounds) and Thomas to play well every game, it’s also great for the Sun to see the progress of Tyasha Harris and Carrington in the backcourt. They combined for 32 points, plus Sun reserve guard Rachel Banham had 10. Add Carrington’s offense Tuesday to her exceptional job on defense, and she really stood out on opening night.

And then there was the return of Brionna Jones, who suffered a right Achilles injury last June. She had eight points and three rebounds, and the Sun are thrilled to have her back.

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Betnijah Laney-Hamilton takes over in 4th to lead Liberty to victory

Betnijah Laney-Hamilton scores 10 points in the fourth quarter to help the Liberty earn a comeback victory vs. the Mystics on opening night.

New York won its opener but needed a fourth-quarter rally. What worked for the Liberty? Voepel: The Liberty took advantage of a stronger defensive performance in the fourth quarter as well as the fact that Jonquel Jones and Betnijah Laney-Hamilton really came to play. They combined for 45 points and 12 rebounds and were at the forefront of the Liberty’s defense in an 85-80 victory.

Last year, Jones wasn’t fully healthy at the start of the season, and it took a while for her to get up to full speed. This year, she’s ready right now.

“Where I was last year vs. where I am this year — I don’t take it for granted,” said Jones, who is in her second season in New York. “I appreciate these moments and love going out there and playing hard.”

It wasn’t necessarily a strong debut offensively for Stewart, who was 3-of-9 from the field for 8 points, but she had 8 rebounds.

“It wasn’t a pretty game, and I thought Washington threw a lot at us,” New York coach Sandy Brondello said. “We found some rhythm.”

For Washington, Shakira Austin looked strong after being limited to 19 games last season due to injury. She had 13 points, 5 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. She chastised herself for missing a late putback, but there was a lot the Mystics had to like about how Austin played.

“It’s amazing just to be out there,” Austin said. “I was pretty poised and felt like I played to my strengths. Coming into this year, I wanted to expand that.”

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