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Caitlin Clark is tired for a reason: the WNBA’s tough opening schedule

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Caitlin Clark is tired.

And really, who can blame her?

The No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft has had an up-and-down start to her professional career, due in no small part to a brutally tough opening schedule. Clark and the Indiana Fever played eleven games in the first twenty days of the season, a calendar so packed that they could barely hold a full practice. And no, they don’t have sleeping pods in their locker room.

But for Clark, who will play her 14th game on Thursday when the Fever host the Liberty, the exhaustion extends beyond just the past 31 days.

The WNBA is unique in that rookies essentially have no break between their last college game and their first professional season. The draft is typically held about a week after the national championship and training camp begins two weeks later. In between, rookies must move to a new city, make numerous media appearances, and complete college courses. This leaves little time to kick up your paws and take a cat nap.

Still in progress: Clark vs. other No. 1 picks and their playing time

Clark called the turnaround “clearly not ideal.” Navigating rest and recovery has been one of her biggest adjustments over the past month, she said.

“It’s tough,” Indiana coach Christie Sides said. “She was just coming off a college season and going all the way to the Final Four, so she was really tired and starting to play against the best players in the world. So it’s about recovery and what she needs to do to be ready for the next game.”

A complicating factor with Clark is how many obligations she has off the court, between media and endorsement appearances. Such is life as one of the country’s most famous athletes. Sides said Fever management and coaches are trying to figure out how to help Clark juggle everything while making sure “we’re taking care of Caitlin.”

How Clark’s stats compare to previous No. 1 picks

Moreover, the Clark mania that swept the country did not start last month: the 22-year-old has spent the last four years in the spotlight, a whirlwind tour with NIL commitments, several US basketball camps and tournaments and a lot of media. stains. She hasn’t exactly gotten any time off since she burst onto the national radar in 2020, her freshman year at Iowa.

Clark may be known for her logo 3s, but the Des Moines native is much more than someone who can launch from beyond the arc. Part of her college appeal was that she did what many thought impossible, leading Iowa — a solid program but not a traditional hoops powerhouse — to back-to-back national championships.

MORE: Caitlin Clark rejected by USA Basketball. Fever star left the Olympic team for Paris

MORE: Caitlin Clark warms up with best shooting performance of WNBA career: ‘The basket looks bigger’

Additionally, the leading scorer in college basketball history hasn’t missed a game during her four years in Iowa City. She knew, especially in her senior year, that people paid a lot of money to see her. She played through bumps, bruises and minor illnesses, determined to put on a show for every paying customer. Additionally, Clark has been playing and practicing since early August due to Iowa’s overseas tour last summer. That’s a lot of miles on the hardwood.

WNBA rookies like Caitlin Clark learn to ‘sleep standing up’

Clark is the victim of a compressed schedule this season due to the month-long Olympic break, which begins July 21. She also takes a beating every time she steps on the ground, a result of being picked up by defenders all over the field. It’s undoubtedly a sign of respect that opponents feel the need to guard her 40 minutes a night. But it’s taking a toll physically, especially for someone who plays 32.6 minutes per game, the most of any 2024 rookie (Dallas’ Sevgi Uzun is next at 31.8) through Tuesday. It’s also the most minutes a No. 1 pick has played since 2016, when Breanna Stewart averaged 34.7 minutes in her first ten games.

It’s especially tiring for someone of Clark’s thin frame. At 152 pounds, the 6-foot-1 guard is rail thin and not nearly as strong as she needs to be to excel in the pros. She is said to be keen to emulate Stephen Curry’s wiry but strong frame. She knows she has to grow. But where is the time for that?

Another important caveat: Many other top picks, including players like Stewart, Jackie Young (2019) and Sabrina Ionescu (2020), came from college basketball factories, where they had All-America teammates who also attracted a lot of defensive attention. In Iowa, Clark was very much a one-woman show.

“We’re trying to figure out where we can hit her here or there,” Sides said before the Fever’s ninth game. “She’s guarded all over the court, double-teamed and fighting on both ends. We’re really trying to give her some rest if we can.”

With the special attention Clark receives, coupled with each rookie’s transition into a league full of bigger, stronger, and faster women, it’s no wonder she only shoots 37.3% against the field and 33% against 3; that’s a significant drop from her 46.2% field goal percentage at Iowa. Fresh legs make a big difference, especially when shooting from more than 10 meters.

In college, if players aren’t playing well, the instinct is to hit the gym. But that’s not usually the way in the pros, because you need to rest and rest as much as possible. That was a big adjustment for Clark.

“In college you usually had a day off and then two days of preparation,” Clark said. “You don’t have that here. You come home at 4am, have training at 2pm, you watch a movie and you only have so many hours (in a day). At the same time, it’s the same scenario for every other team, it’s not like we’re coming up short… but you have to take care of your body. There is only so much you can do as a team and as an individual on the field. You almost play the game in your head because you just can’t practice.

Fever general manager Lin Dunn joked to USA TODAY Sports that professionals learn very quickly “how to sleep standing up – and on airplanes.”

‘Unprecedented’ opening schedule for Caitlin Clark, Indiana Fever leads to exhaustion

Dunn said that after the Fever’s intense start, a schedule she described as “unprecedented,” everyone “came home mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted – how can you not be?”

Clark versus other No. 1 picks in their final NCAA season and first WNBA games

“This is a situation where less is better,” Dunn said. “If we play five games in seven days, you can’t go to the gym – you have to lie in an ice bath and watch film. so much less time (as a professional) because you travel, play, eat, sleep and that’s it. So you don’t go in and watch an hour of film – it’s: what can we get done in 10 minutes. ? We don’t want to tire them mentally either.”

The key now, according to Dunn, is to be as efficient as possible with time on the field, which may mean shortening or even canceling practices. Rookies like Clark get a crash course not only in WNBA physicality, but also in time management.

After Indiana’s opening stretch of 11 games in 20 days, the Fever enjoyed some time together off the floor, eschewing practice for activities like a team dinner and a boat outing. Building chemistry is crucial for a young roster, but sometimes it’s about “just getting away from the gym,” Dunn said. In addition, the Fever is exploring cryotherapy and other tactics that can speed player recovery.

Aside from physical exhaustion, Clark isn’t tired of the game she loves.

“It wasn’t hard for me to wake up and want to play basketball,” Clark said last week before dropping 30 points on the Mystics in Indiana’s 85-83 win — which came after four days of rest. “I think the back-to-backs have been the biggest adjustment.”

Clark’s summer would have been even tougher if she had made the Olympic roster. After finding out she was left out, Clark told Sides, “Hey coach, they woke up a monster.”

Now, with a built-in three-week break, she will be well rested.

Contributions: Chris Bumbaca

Email Lindsay Schnell at [email protected] and follow her on social media @Lindsay_Schnell