Welcome to the WNBA: Caitlin Clark's regular-season debut is anything but easy

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Welcome to the WNBA. Don’t say Diana Taurasi didn’t try to warn everyone.

Caitlin Clark isn’t at Iowa anymore, even if the gameday vibes gave off that impression at Mohegan Sun Arena. And if the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas didn’t make that clear in the first few minutes, DeWanna Bonner completed the task in the final ones.

The 15th-year veteran stomped and stood, chest out, for nearly a minute after drawing a three-point play to push the lead back to 16 and time dwindling for any Clark heroics. A few feet back, Thomas let out one of her many demonstrative yells of the night. The sold-out crowd of 8,910 — still less than the Sun's 2023 season high — answered the call as it did once again in the waning seconds when DiJonai Carrington pumped them up to celebrate a 92-71 Connecticut win.

No generational talent, no matter how great she might have been in college or eventually will become in the pros, was going to come into the house of a veteran team and light it up in her rookie debut. The Connecticut Sun are a franchise so accustomed to discrediting the disrespect, they built an entire identity around it. And for months now, all they heard was how Clark would torch the league, win MVP and overtake the scoring record one day.

The only record the rookie claimed on opening night was the Indiana Fever’s franchise record for turnovers (10) — also the most in a WNBA debut. The team totaled 25, more than the quiet 20 points Clark scored in her first official WNBA game on inefficient 5-of-15 shooting (4-of-11 from 3).

“Connecticut came in and they punched us in the mouth tonight,” Indiana Fever head coach Christie Side said. “That's who they are. Connecticut Sun is a good team.”

“I thought our first couple of possessions were OK, and then they kind of went on a run and we really struggled to score,” Clark said. “So I would agree with Coach, for sure.”

To put it more bluntly: Reality hits hard. That's all Taurasi was saying.

Clark said her first impressions of her first game revolved around the physicality. Enter Thomas, the welcome-t0-the-league moment tantalizing fans since the schedule was released and Clark announced she would enter the WNBA Draft. Thomas delivered the veteran niceties early, drawing two quick fouls from Clark that forced the guard to the bench for half of the first quarter. The crowd roared, and Thomas smiled her way to the free-throw line.

For as much attention Clark drew coming into the night, the spotlight shifted to theshoulders ofThomas and her two torn labrums. The MVP runner-up picked up where she left off with a 13-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound performance after averaging nearly a triple-double last season and losing the second-closest MVP vote in league history.

“For me, personally, I felt like a lot of people felt like last season was a fluke and it wasn’t going to happen again this season,” Bonner, who moved into fifth on the all-time scoring list Tuesday, said. “So for [Thomas] to set the tone and like, ‘Yeah, that wasn't a fluke, I'm back,’ that’s huge of her.”

Thomas, an 11-year veteran, cut through a defender to rebound her own shot at the start of the fourth, and when Sun head coach Stephanie White didn’t like the guard matchups, she put Thomas in to cling to Clark on the perimeter. The fourth quarter was Clark’s most aggressive and successful until the vet had her say.

“The fans of the WNBA who have been around for a while know exactly the type of player that she is,” White said. “For us to introduce her to a new audience, [to] introduce her versatility, her competitive spirit, the way that she approaches the game [and] her professionalism? It was big. It was one of the most exciting things for me that I wanted to happen tonight.”

Millions followed Clark and her rookie class from the collegiate ranks to the WNBA, where players of Thomas’ caliber are on every roster. She did everything and was everywhere, as she’s done her entire career. But it was Carrington, a three-year reserve moving into a starting role this year, that gave Clark the most fits.

“It was an automatic because that's what she does. She's an elite defender,” White said of the matchup.

Clark fed Aliyah Boston for the Fever’s first points of the year on the opening possession — a task Clark said earlier in the day she wanted to complete — before the excitement took a dive. Clark missed her first three attempts and didn’t score the first points of her career until the 5:24 mark of the second quarter. It was a play she predicted two hours earlier.

“Honestly, what I've thought about is like it'd be nice to get a layup as my first basket,” Clark told reporters pregame. “Why not get a high percentage to start it off, right?”

Those became few and far between for everyone against the Sun’s elite defense. Clark’s anticipated first 3 fell through on a 26-footer with 30 seconds until halftime. She hit three more in the contest, some in answer to the Sun’s scoring, but none to launch the iconic runs of Iowa lore. Clark added three assists and kept out of more foul trouble with two more in the next three quarters.

NaLyssa Smith continued her strong preseason showing with 13 points as the Fever’s only other double-digit scorer, but she was 5-of-12. Boston struggled again to find shots and had four points (2-of-6 shooting). Erica Wheeler and Kelsey Mitchell, who came off the bench in her return from an ankle injury that shelved her in the preseason, each scored eight. The Fever attempted 50 shots to the Sun’s 66.

The Fever hold promise, but that potential takes more time than 10 practices and two preseason warmups. Sides started the day by describing the team’s May schedule as “unbelievable” in strength, and by night’s end kept it to “not kind.” The team chartered home at nearly midnight Tuesday to prepare for its home opener against the championship runner-up New York Liberty on Thursday. The Fever head to Brooklyn for a rematch Saturday.

The reality is there are no true days off in this league. The tough opponents are coming faster than Clark’s 3s can right now. There isn’t time for the group to practice, leaving film as the main option.

“For me the biggest challenge, and it's what I told them, you don't have time to sit on this game and just stay mad or stay upset,” Sides said. “We've got to move forward. We've got to get to New York, we've got to figure out what we did tonight that we can do better.”

Clark and Smith echoed the sentiment. It’s “back to the drawing board,” Clark said, and it’s on them as pros to execute, Smith added. They weren’t the ones who ever said it would be easy.

“I know the outside world thinks I’m going to do some amazing things, but that might take some time,” Clark said at morning shootaround. “If things aren’t perfect right away, or one game is not as amazing as I want it to be, give yourself grace, continue to learn, continue to get better from it.”

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