Caitlin Clark’s next steps include the WNBA draft and maybe the Olympics

Caitlin Clark’s historic college career ended Sunday when she and Iowa lost, 87-75, to South Carolina in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament championship game.

For the second straight year, Clark’s Hawkeyes fell just one win short of the first national championship in program history.

Clark finished with a game-high 30 points (on 10-for-28 shooting) to go with eight rebounds and five assists, and she received a standing ovation when she left the court in the game’s closing seconds.

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The two-time Naismith Player of the Year scored 18 points in the first quarter to give Iowa an early lead, but South Carolina’s size and depth advantages provided decisive.

“It’s really hard to win these things,” Clark said. “I think I probably know that better than most people by now. To be so close twice, it definitely hurts. But at the same time, we were right there. We battled. We took down some really great teams to get back to this point and [did] something that’s really hard to do.”

Clark leaves the collegiate ranks as the all-time leader in career points (men’s and women’s), career three-pointers (women’s) and NCAA tournament points (women’s), among countless other national, Big Ten conference and Iowa records. South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley made a point to salute Clark during the postgame trophy presentation in Cleveland.

“I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport,” Staley said. “She carried a heavy load for our sport, and it just isn’t going to stop here on the collegiate tour. When she’s the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, she’s going to lift that league up as well. Caitlin Clark, if you’re out there, you’re one of the GOATs of our game. We appreciate you.”

Here’s a look at what’s next for Clark now that the face of women’s college basketball has played her final game for Iowa.

USA Basketball cuts

Clark was one of 14 players invited to attend USA Basketball’s training camp in Cleveland this week in advance of the Paris Olympics, but she was unable to participate because Iowa was still competing in the NCAA women’s tournament. Her possible inclusion on USA Basketball’s roster therefore remains unclear.

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USA Basketball Coach Cheryl Reeve will guide a 12-player roster in Paris this summer. Clark, the only candidate who played collegiately this season, is competing with 13 WNBA players to make the cut: Ariel Atkins, Shakira Austin, Aliyah Boston, Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner, Rhyne Howard, Sabrina Ionescu, Jewell Loyd, Kelsey Plum, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young.

WNBA draft

Clark won’t need to wait long to begin her professional career: The WNBA draft is set for April 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Long viewed as this year’s presumptive No. 1 pick, Clark is considered a potentially transformative star for a growing league that was founded in 1996 and could be seeking a new media rights agreement independent of the NBA.

In one sign of Clark’s star power, the WNBA sold tickets to the draft for the first time since 2016. Last month, the allotment of approximately 1,000 tickets sold out within 15 minutes. The cheapest available ticket on one secondary site topped $340 this week.

The Indiana Fever won the right to select first in this year’s draft in a lottery drawing comprising the four teams with the worst records during the 2023 WNBA season. Indiana went 13-27 last season to finish five games out of the playoffs and in 10th place in the 12-team league. With hopes soaring in light of Clark’s impending arrival, the Fever will hold a draft night watch party for fans at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

WNBA season begins

The good news for Clark as she makes the leap to the pros: She won’t have far to travel. The Fever is one of three WNBA franchises located in the Midwest, and Gainbridge Fieldhouse is less than 400 miles away from Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Hawkeyes fans hoping to follow Clark’s WNBA journey can make a 5½-hour drive from Iowa City to Indianapolis.

Even so, major adjustments are coming. Clark played in front of sold out home crowds that topped 15,000 fans as a senior, while the Fever ranked second-to-last in the WNBA with an average home attendance of 4,067 last season. And after reaching the Final Four in 2023 and 2024, Clark will join an Indiana team that has missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons and went a franchise-worst 5-31 in 2022.

“Whoever gets [Clark] is going to fill the seats up, win some basketball games and have some fun while she’s there,” Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant said last year. “She’s one of those players who attracts other players and who attracts casual fans and turns them into real fans.”

The Fever will hope that Boston, a center, and Clark can form a dynamic inside-outside duo capable of leading the team to its first winning season since 2015.

Boston, who was selected with the first pick in the 2023 draft out of South Carolina, earned all-star honors as a rookie, averaging 14.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. Under Christie Sides, who was hired as coach after the 2022 season, Indiana’s offense improved from 12th in 2022 to sixth in 2023.

Indiana’s season opener will come on the road against the Connecticut Sun on May 14. The Fever’s home opener will be May 16 against the New York Liberty, which lost to the Las Vegas Aces in the 2023 WNBA Finals.

All told, Indiana will play 40 games during the 2024 regular season, with a month-long break from July 17 to Aug. 16 to accommodate the Summer Olympics in Paris. The WNBA playoffs will begin in September.

Paris Olympics

If Clark makes the cut for Paris, she will join the women’s team’s chase for an eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal dating to the 1996 Games. The 22-year-old guard, who won gold medals with USA Basketball at under-19 tournaments in 2019 and 2021, would be the youngest player on the Olympic roster. By contrast, Taurasi, who will be 42 when the games begin in Paris, is seeking her sixth Olympic gold medal.

USA Basketball will open its play in the 12-team tournament in Group C. In the opening round, the Americans will face Japan on July 29, Belgium on Aug. 1 and Germany on Aug. 4. If the Americans advance out of the group stage, they will proceed to an eight-team knockout stage, which opens Aug. 7 in Paris. The semifinals will be held Aug. 9, and the gold medal game will take place Aug. 11.

Iowa jersey retirement

It goes without saying that Clark’s No. 22 jersey will soon hang in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena rafters.

Only two Iowa women’s players have had their numbers retired: Michelle Edwards (No. 30) and Megan Gustafson (No. 10). In both cases, Iowa retired their jerseys shortly after their collegiate careers were completed. Edwards, who finished her four-year career in 1988, had her jersey retired in 1990. Gustafson, who won the 2019 Naismith Trophy as a senior, had her jersey retired in January 2020, less than a year after she was selected in the 2019 WNBA draft.

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If Gustafson’s jersey retirement ceremony were to serve as a model, Clark would be honored at a home game during Iowa’s 2024-25 season.

NBA All-Star Weekend

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu stole the show with a one-on-one three-point contest during NBA All-Star Weekend in February. Shortly after the event, Curry and Ionescu hinted it could return during 2025 All-Star Weekend, which is set for San Francisco’s Chase Center.

Rumors then percolated that the format might expand to a two-on-two competition, possibly involving Curry’s teammate, Klay Thompson, and Clark.

Given the success of the inaugural event, which took place before the Slam Dunk Contest on all-star Saturday night, and Clark’s three-point acumen, which has often prompted comparisons to Curry, the NBA would be foolish not to include her in next year’s festivities.

Other Iowa honors?
Will Iowa and its fans be satisfied with a jersey retirement, or will Clark’s remarkable collegiate career be worthy of a larger tribute? Already, the Hawkeyes have placed a decal with her jersey number on their court to recognize the exact spot where she launched a deep three-pointer to move past Kelsey Plum as the NCAA’s all-time leading women’s scorer in February.

Iowa should also consider hanging banners to acknowledge Clark’s NCAA records for scoring and three-pointers.

Thinking even bigger: Dan Gable, an Olympic gold medal winning wrestler and longtime wrestling coach, and Nile Kinnick, a Heisman trophy-winning football player, have been honored with bronze statues outside Iowa’s athletic facilities.

Given Clark’s popularity and homegrown appeal in Iowa, a statue depicting her signature three-point shot seems like a no-brainer. Remember, Clark was honored at Iowa’s 2023 state fair with a life-size statue made of butter.

There is one last precedent to consider: Iowa has named its wrestling complex after Gable and its football stadium after Kinnick. Could that lead to a Clark Court? Clark Arena? Clark Library?

Championship validation

Though Clark won state player of the year honors at Dowling Catholic High and national player of the year honors at Iowa, she enters the WNBA without a state high school championship or an NCAA championship on her résumé. WNBA star and former Connecticut Husky Breanna Stewart took note of this omission, saying this week that Clark needed a title to stake her claim to being the greatest women’s college basketball player of all time.

Clark, for her part, said Saturday she shouldn’t be judged solely by Iowa’s national title performance.

“I don’t want my legacy to be, ‘Oh, Caitlin won X amount of games or Caitlin scored X amount of points.’ I hope it’s what I was able to do for the game of women’s basketball,” she said. “I hope it’s the young boys and young girls that are inspired to play this sport or dream to do whatever they want to do in their lives.

I think it’s just the people that we’ve brought together, the joy we’ve brought to people, the way people are recognizing women’s basketball as a sport. It’s fun to watch. Everybody loves it. It can be on the highest of stages. I think you see that with the viewership numbers. To me, for it to come down to 40 minutes and for me to validate myself within 40 minutes, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.”

Whether in 2024 or sometime down the road, a gold medal with USA Basketball at the Olympics seems a virtual certainty. But the defining question Clark will face in the WNBA is the same one confronted by all great athletes: Can she translate her individual brilliance to team success and win a championship?

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