In a nearly empty arena in late November 2020, Caitlin Clark shot her first collegiate 3-pointer. Time was ticking in the first quarter of the Hawkeyes' matchup against Northern Iowa. Clark forced a steal at midcourt and made his way to the right sideline. With two defenders around her, she stood up. Her attempt was blocked.
That didn't discourage her.
Now a senior, Clark is perhaps the biggest star in men's and women's college basketball. She has made more than 400 three-pointers throughout her college career and has rewritten the record book, at Iowa and nationally. “We see it every day in practice, she makes a (shot) that surprises you or she makes a pass that blows you away,” Iowa assistant Abby Stamp says.
Clark passes with pinpoint precision. Teammates and coaches alike praise his work ethic and improved leadership skills. But it's Clark's three-point shots that often immediately jump out to viewers. He has been compared to other recent basketball greats: Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard, and New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, to name a few. . But how does Clark stack up against such accurate shooters?
Although the NBA and college 3-point line have different distances (the NBA is 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the arc, and the college line and WNBA line are 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches at the upper part), The Athletic He dove into six categories to show how prolific Clark really is and explain how she's become so lethal behind the arc. The comparison (use the button at the top of most graphs to toggle between Clark's numbers from last season and this year (with games through Dec. 14)) reveals how this college star already shoots like some of the great professionals of all time.
Clark's comfort shooting from long range comes from years of practice. While visiting his home in Des Moines, Clark often shoots 100 3-pointers with the logo during practice, says his coach Kevin O'Hare. His goal is to get to at least 50. “It's something he's always worked on,” O'Hare says. He adds that before Clark attempts any endeavor, she “does all the fundamental things to get to that point.” Considering she attempts so many from over 30 feet, a 3 from 25 to 30 feet is well within reach.
Through Dec. 14, just over 31 percent of Clark's shot attempts came from between 25 and 30 feet from the rim, which is 22.1 percent above the national average this year in college. according to CBB Analytics. She's scoring 40.5 percent on those types of looks, more than 11 percent higher than her peers.
It is no coincidence that he shoots from such a distance, nor is it a coincidence that such attempts are made. In addition to offseason training sessions, Stamp says Clark works on those attempts before, during and after practice. Iowa's bigs also tend to set higher screens in practice when Clark has the ball, knowing that he's more likely to pull up from those distances in games. In that sense, he's like Curry, Lillard and Ionescu in how his own teams adjust spacing when they're on the court.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has always been offensively minded, imploring her teams to play with tempo. The setup has been ideal for Clark, who likes to push the basketball and make a play before his opponents can set up. Clark has made more than 50 3-pointers in the first 10 seconds of a possession this season. She made 137 3-pointers before the break last season, hitting 39 percent on those attempts. “Sometimes she'll get the best look right away when we get to half court,” Stamp says.
In these early shot situations, Clark pulls off a balancing act, avoiding forcing shots and instead figuring out when to involve his teammates and allow possessions to develop. “It's not an easy science about shot selection with her, because we've seen her take a lot of challenging shots throughout practice and throughout his career,” Stamp says. Iowa believes that a good shot for all of its players is one that has pace and range. Clark's range is, of course, different from his peers, as is his willingness to stop immediately. She's like Curry in that regard, as the Warriors star averaged 5.2 3-point attempts last season with between 15 and 24 seconds left on the shot clock.
Clark, unsurprisingly, is Iowa's top creator. This season, according to CBB Analytics, his usage rate is in the 100th percentile nationally, second only to USC freshman star JuJu Watkins. In addition to being an elite marksman, Clark passes with precision. As his college career progressed, he also found new ways to finish around the rim. “We're very excited with the way he developed his entire game,” Stamp says.
However, from the perimeter, Clark has shown that he can create his own shot and benefit from his teammates' kicks. Last season, he led the nation in unassisted three-pointers, with 1.8 per game. She leads the country again this season, ranking in the 98th percentile for assisted three-pointers and scoring 0.7 more per game. “I would compare her to Steph; Obviously, you have to take it with a grain of salt,” says O'Hare. “On how far she shoots, on how free he is, on how good she is with the ball in her hands to create things.” As the data shows, Clark, Lillard and Curry can convert assisted and unassisted opportunities. Ionescu has shown that she can shoot from long range in the WNBA, but over the past three seasons, she made 0.56 unassisted three-pointers per game.
Clark rarely avoids attempting a 3-pointer after the catch. As a freshman at Iowa, he made 116 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, shooting 46.6 percent, according to Synergy Sports. Both his total number of catch-and-shoot attempts and his percentage declined in his sophomore year. But throughout his tenure, the Hawkeyes coaching staff has continued to develop that part of Clark's 3-point arsenal. “We really worked on trying to get off screens, change speed, change direction, run to the ball, get our feet ready, get upright so we can catch and shoot more off screens,” Stamp says.
In private workouts, that has meant setting up cones to mark the screens of Iowa's bigs and mimicking the many defensive machinations an opposing player might pull off when trying to stop Clark. He is on pace to shoot more 3-pointers this season than ever before in his college career. Not surprisingly, it's an area where he has thrived: He shot a better percentage than Lillard in his final season with the Portland Trail Blazers and nearly matched Curry's production in 2022-23. Clark's current shooting percentage on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers is also higher than Ionescu's during his final season at Oregon, when he shot a still-impressive 34 percent on such opportunities, according to Synergy Sports.
Few, if any, players have had more green lights than Clark. With each milestone, he cements the fact that he has accomplished much that no other player in college has accomplished. Still, Stamp thinks of another comparison for Clark. She cites former Naismith Player of the Year Megan Gustafson, who had been Iowa's all-time leading scorer until Clark surpassed her earlier this season. Gustafson is a 6-foot-3 post player who attempted just two 3-pointers in four years at Iowa, but she and Clark are “masters of her craft” in Stamp's eyes.
Last weekend, Clark moved into No. 9 all-time in scoring in women's college basketball. If she stays healthy and maintains her current scoring average, she is on pace to overtake former Washington star Kelsey Plum for the No. 1 spot before the end of the season. It remains uncertain whether Clark decides to enter the WNBA or return for a fifth year at Iowa, but her success has already put her in conversations with basketball's elite.
— The AthleticSeth Partnow contributed to this report.
(Illustration and visual data: John Bradford / The Athletic; Stephen Curry Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images, Caitlin Clark Photos: G Fiume/Getty Images and Steph Chambers/Getty Images, Sabrina Ionescu/Mitchell Leff Photo)
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