Caitlin Clark Is Piling Up Points and Records at Her Own (Fast) Pace

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — In the closing minutes of the University of Iowa’s 87-78 victory over Rutgers on Thursday, Caitlin Clark flashed the basketball skills that have invited comparisons to Steph Curry and Sue Bird and earned admiration from Kevin Durant.

Clark, a 6-foot sophomore point guard from West Des Moines, drained a step-back 35-foot 3-pointer to push her team’s lead to 6. She carved her way into the paint for a couple of layups and then hit another 35-footer. On defense, she made her fifth steal of the night on Rutgers’s final possession, was fouled and made two free throws to secure the victory.

She finished with 32 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists and 5 steals, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter.

In games like that, Clark said, everything becomes slower to her and she is able to make the game easier for her teammates — and almost impossible for her opponents.

“Sometimes I’m playing too fast in a way,” Clark, 20, said after the game. She added, “I think I can almost see the game a step ahead, and that’s kind of what sets me apart and really helps me get to my spots on the floor and know what I need to do.”

Clark’s numbers this season have made her a candidate to be the national women’s player of the year. Aliyah Boston, a junior forward at No. 1 South Carolina who is averaging 16.8 points and 11.9 rebounds, appears to be her main competition.

On Sunday afternoon, against No. 6 Michigan, in front of a capacity crowd of more than 15,000 people in Iowa City, Clark led No. 21 Iowa to a 104-80 victory and a share, with Ohio State, of the Big Ten regular-season title. She scored 38 points, with 11 assists and 6 rebounds.

Iowa (20-7), which finished 14-4 in the Big Ten, is now aiming for deep runs in the coming conference and N.C.A.A. tournaments. Last year, Iowa was eliminated in the round of 16 by Connecticut, led by Paige Bueckers, the 2021 player of the year.

Clark has five triple-doubles this season and was the first player in Division I history, men’s or women’s, to have back-to-back 30-point triple-doubles. She leads Division I in scoring and assists, and is on a pace to become the first woman to lead the nation in both categories at that level. Trae Young, in the 2017-18 season for Oklahoma, was the only player in men’s basketball to do it.

Clark is averaging close to a triple-double: 27.5 points, 8.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds a game, while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and over 32.6 percent on 3-point attempts.

“She’s helping us in so many ways, scoring, assists, rebounding, and so to me she just impacts the game more because of the position that she plays,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said.

Clark’s court vision and pacing also benefit her teammates, like 6-foot-4 Monika Czinano, who had 23 points against Rutgers and 19 against Michigan, many on plays in the post and some on open shots that resulted from Clark’s passing through a defensive swarm.

“Yeah, there were even some passes tonight where there was not a single defender on me,” Czinano said last week. “That’s the highest percentage shot in all of basketball. There’s not anything better than that.”

“I think she sees the play two or three passes ahead, and I think that’s a tribute to her understanding the game,” said the Rutgers assistant coach Nadine Domond, who starred at Iowa in the 1990s and was a first-round draft pick of the W.N.B.A.’s Liberty. Domond saw Clark play on the summer circuit in high school, and thought she was the “female Pete Maravich” because she saw plays unfold “before they even started.”

Clark’s highlights have become common to see on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” but her game has attracted attention long before now. Durant, the Nets forward, first saw Clark play during the girls’ national championships of the Amateur Athletic Union in Chicago in the summer before Clark’s senior year of high school. “She always had the ball in her hand, everybody was playing off of her, she just commanded the whole game,” he said this month on his podcast, “The ETCs.”

Durant added, “It looks like everybody on that court is way slower than her, when she gets into her stuff.”

Clark said she texts with Durant “quite a bit” about life on and off the basketball court. “He’s not only a really big fan of me, but a big fan of the women’s game, and that’s what you love to see,” she said. “He’s a huge supporter, so I have a lot of respect for him.”

Clark, the youngest of three children, was raised in a family of athletes. Eleven of her extended family members have played collegiate sports, including her father, Brent, who played baseball and basketball at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and her brother Blake, who plays football at Iowa State.

Growing up, she played soccer and basketball against Blake and her other brother, Colin. She was the only girl on an all-boys’ youth basketball team.

“I grew up with two brothers, I grew up with a bunch of cousins who were boys, so I just got pushed around and I really think that’s what made me who I am today,” she said. “I just had to compete with bigger, stronger, faster.”

She added, “I was supercompetitive, and I cried every time I lost.”

At Dowling Catholic High School, Clark was named the Gatorade Iowa girls’ basketball player of the year after her junior season. She set two state records in her high school group size, scoring 60 points in a single game and making 13 three-pointers in another.

But despite her national reputation, Clark decided to stay in-state for college, in large part because she wanted to remain close to home. Bluder and her top assistant, Jan Jensen, worked tirelessly to get her, with Jensen regularly making the 90-minute trip to 6 a.m. open gyms at Dowling Catholic and also traveling to Bangkok to see Clark win a gold medal with a U.S.A. Basketball age group team.

Isaac Prewitt, Iowa’s team manager, rebounds for Clark and her teammates every day in practice and says that nothing she does in a game surprises him. He recalled a scrimmage last fall when Clark and the first-team players were competing against the practice squad and trailing by 11 points with 50 seconds remaining.

“She hit like six 3s in a row from the logo and there were some off one leg,” he said. “It was some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen, period, at any basketball level at all.”

Off the court, Prewitt said Clark was a lot of fun to spend time with, too.

“If we’re all hanging out off the court at somebody’s house or apartment, she’s always the one trying to get everybody to have a good time and cracking jokes and having fun with literally anybody that’s there,” he said.

Clark’s shooting has inspired comparisons to N.B.A. stars like Curry, Young and Damian Lillard. Bluder said that those comparisons were flattering but that she would like to see her compared to female players, too.

“There are so many good women that have been in our game that we can compare her to, Sabrina Ionescu and Sue Bird, and those are people that I’d like to compare her to as well,” Bluder said.

Clark said it was her dream to play in the W.N.B.A., but she will not be eligible until 2023, when she reaches the league’s minimum age of 22. (In the N.B.A., it’s 19.)

Though she acknowledged she “doesn’t have a choice” about being able to leave school early, she has been able to reap some benefit from her performance while there. In October, her parents negotiated her endorsement deal with the supermarket chain Hy-Vee, making her the company’s first collegiate athlete partner under the new N.C.A.A. policy that allows college athletes to hold brand deals and partnerships of their own. She joined the N.F.L. players Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Kirk Cousins as endorsers of the brand.

For now, Clark said she was happy at Iowa. “I’m super-excited, and I think this offense and this culture is just so perfect for me and perfect for my game,” she said. “And obviously we want to win a lot more games so I have no reason to leave here.”

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