Caitlin Clark WNBA predictions: Strengths, hurdles to expect

Caitlin Clark on what the WNBA can expect from her (1:05)

Caitlin Clark sits down with Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America" and looks ahead to playing in the WNBA. (1:05)

Caitlin Clark enters her final Big Ten tournament hoping to lead Iowa to its third consecutive title. In 2022, the Hawkeyes won the tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Last year, Iowa won the championship at Target Center in Minneapolis, site of this season's tournament.

The senior guard's focus is fully on Iowa. But in a little more than five weeks, Gainbridge will become Clark's home arena if she is picked No. 1 as expected by the Indiana Fever in the WNBA draft. The Fever will visit Target Center -- where Clark, who was born in West Des Moines, Iowa, attended WNBA games as a child -- for the first of three regular-season contests on July 14.

So while Clark keeps her mind on the business at hand in making the most of her final college postseason, we're looking ahead to what is coming soon in her professional career. Like all WNBA rookies, Clark will experience a whirlwind of transition over the next few months.

How will she deal with the move to the WNBA? What aspects of the professional game might take the most time for her to adjust to? And with the Paris Olympics four months away, how does that factor in for Clark? ESPN talked to WNBA experts -- coaches, general managers and analysts -- for their insight.

How will Clark's offensive skills translate to the WNBA?

No NCAA Division I player has scored more points than Clark, and she's the only player since assists have been officially recorded in the college game to have at least 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. Her legacy is cemented as one of the greatest offensive players in college basketball history.

Clark averages 32.3 points this season and 28.3 for her career. For perspective, Diana Taurasi's 25.3 points per game in 2006 (her third year in the league) is the highest average in WNBA history. Cynthia Cooper, who played the first four seasons in the WNBA after a lengthy overseas career, has the highest WNBA career scoring average at 20.98. Breanna Stewart has the highest scoring average among active players at 20.82.

That said, experts told us that while her averages won't be as high as her college stats, Clark will remain an effective scorer in the WNBA and her assists numbers should be similar to the ones at Iowa. Clark will also have stronger talent around her, with young post players such as Aliyah Boston and NaLyssa Smith, who have great hands and finish strong at the rim. Fever guards Kelsey Mitchell and Erica Wheeler should help relieve Clark on some of the pressure of scoring and ballhandling.

"Everyone talks about things getting harder for her in the WNBA, but it's also true that some aspects of the pro game will make it easier for her," a WNBA general manager said. "She will be playing alongside the best players she's ever played with. You're not going to be able to just key in on her."

Still, experts point out that WNBA defenses will be better equipped to guard her full court, get in her passing lanes, cut off her drives and push her toward post players who will make it tough to get to the rim.

"She has played against some good defenses," a WNBA coach said, "but no college teams have a defense like, say, [the New York Liberty's] Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, or [the Las Vegas Aces'] A'ja Wilson and Kiah Stokes in the paint."

"I don't think Caitlin's offensive game has to change one bit at the next level. ... Those bombs, and the threat of pulling up for one every time down the floor, is a key ingredient to Clark's greatness and popularity."

Another expert said Clark could struggle when a big, quick wing player switches to guard her on dribble-handoffs, or when she's aggressively trapped.

"She plays at a great pace, but you still may see teams try to speed her up with the ball and try to push her toward your rim protector," a WNBA coach said.

Should Clark keep shooting her famed logo 3-pointers, those long-distance shots that have made her so hard to guard?

"I don't think Caitlin's offensive game has to change one bit at the next level," a WNBA analyst said. "I want her to take the same shots and make the same passes, with the hopes that her turnover numbers drop over the course of her career.

"Those bombs, and the threat of pulling up for one every time down the floor, is a key ingredient to Clark's greatness and popularity. It would be silly to limit that at the next level. Her shot range and ballhandling are keys to manipulating defenses to get teammates open looks. I think that translates, too. It wouldn't shock me if she averaged around eight assists per game her rookie year."

What will be Clark's biggest challenges on defense?

The assumption is this will be Clark's most difficult transition because it's generally that way for rookies. Even guards who come into the WNBA with a strong reputation for defense tend to need time to adjust to all the actions they must defend against and the speed, strength and skill of opponents.

Iowa isn't a bad defensive team, but it's not the Hawkeye's best aspect -- or Clark's. There's no sugar-coating it: Teams will look to pick on Clark defensively and expose any weaknesses. Whether in the half court or in transition, WNBA teams can take advantage of younger defenders in a variety of ways.

"You're guarding a great player every night, but also different kinds of great players," a WNBA GM said. "And it's the amount of times you get hit or bumped, like by multiple screens on the same play. You have to fight through so many different screening situations at our level.

"You don't play zone very often. So if you play 30 minutes a game, you might have to defend, say, 60 different screens in the game. That's a physical and mental adjustment. You have to know how you defend different screening, listen to your post players -- it's a lot of communication."

Clark is 6 feet tall and stronger than she might look. But she's still growing into her body, and opponents will try to outmuscle her.

"She's extremely smart and driven," a WNBA analyst said. "The biggest challenge is just the physical play."

A WNBA coach said, "She will be put in a pick-and-roll situations where teams look to attack her off the bounce. On transition, she will have to work hard to stay in front of quicker, more experienced guards."

There is also the different style of the pro game vs. college.

"There's a learning curve with terminology and actions," a WNBA coach said. "But she's ready and has the right mindset."

Caitlin Clark relives record-breaking shot on GMA

Caitlin Clark sits down with Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America" to relive her record-breaking shot vs. Michigan.

How will Clark be accepted in the league?

In any professional sports league, rookies tend to have some "Welcome to the big leagues, kid" moments. Clark will come in as the most hyped rookie in the WNBA. That's because of the records she has set, the attention she has generated and the fact that NIL changes have allowed college athletes to have even more exposure through endorsements.

It's only a recent development that a company such as Nike could create T-shirts, hang giant murals and have advertising campaigns for a college player. Clark was part of the first generation of college athletes to benefit from NIL. But all of that also puts a target on her back.

"You're going to have veterans who just want to prove to a new young 'it' player that, 'Hey, this league is tough,'" a WNBA GM said. "I mean, Sabrina Ionescu went through it. Kelsey Plum went through it. Almost every player that's new and hyped like this is going to go through that.

"Her teammates will do what they can to help her; it's in their best interest to do that. But some of it she just has to get through herself.

"There's a lot on the shoulders of a young guard with decision-making. She's probably not going to get [foul] calls that she did in college. Opponents will try to get in her head. But she's a quick learner, she moves well without the ball and I think people may be surprised at the things she can do off the ball."

What other aspects of the WNBA must Clark adjust to?

As mentioned, Clark's popularity has soared, and she now requires additional security just to get in and out of arenas. Security in general has been a hot-button issue in the WNBA in recent years as players become more recognizable and the league more popular.

Because the WNBA still flies mostly commercial, there's the reality of getting Clark through airports without her or her teammates being swarmed, for instance.

"The Fever have to be prepared," a WNBA analyst said. "They are going to need to have more security."

There's also the grind of WNBA travel -- long a topic of discussion and controversy -- and the schedule.

"College kids get in the rhythm of two games a week," one WNBA GM said. "They don't play five games in eight or nine days like we do."

A WNBA analyst said, "The WNBA schedule can be brutal, especially road trips and back-to-back games. Only four WNBA players [Arike Ogunbowale, Alyssa Thomas, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart] averaged as many or more minutes in their 2023 season than Caitlin has this college campaign [34.1 minutes per game]. Will the Fever want her to be on the court that much in her rookie campaign?"

Does Clark have a better chance to make the 2024 U.S. Olympic team because she's turning pro?

It's going to be tough for Clark or any WNBA rookie/college player to make the 12-player squad for the Paris Olympics.

USA Basketball has a history of adding a WNBA rookie to the Olympic team, such as with UConn's Taurasi in 2004 and Stewart in 2016 and Tennessee's Candace Parker in 2008. All three of those players came into the league after winning multiple national championships: Taurasi with three, Parker with two and Stewart with four. Clark made the NCAA final with Iowa last season, falling to LSU, and has another chance at the title this year. (ESPN currently projects Iowa as a No. 2 seed, and the Hawkeyes are still a candidate for a No. 1 seed depending on what happens in Champ Week and the Big Ten tournament.)

But there is a lot of guard talent with previous Olympic experience on the U.S. squad this year. Finding a spot for a rookie guard won't be easy.

Lastly, the timing doesn't work in the favor of someone still in college now to make the U.S. team. The Americans have their final training camp in Cleveland during the women's Final Four weekend. Anyone playing in the Final Four won't be able to participate. And the Olympic squad is expected to be named later in April or early May, likely before the WNBA season starts. Clark might not have an opportunity to make her case on the court with other USA Basketball players.

She does have USA Basketball experience and has proved a lot in her college career. Those things, plus the chance to give her Olympic exposure now to help with later in her USA Basketball career, are points in her favor. So it's not out of the realm of possibility. But it would seem Clark's shot at the 2028 Olympics, when she will be 26 and in her fifth WNBA season, is more likely.