Lun. May 27th, 2024

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Scott Van Pelt laughed out loud and clapped. Sue Bird’s face lit up with bemusement. Because Diana Taurasi didn’t just answer the question that was on his mind as an ESPN «SportsCenter» anchor. She answered the question every player and coach who has been following the rise of Iowa Hawkeyes superstar guard Caitlin Clark has been talking about this spring:

«What will the league have in store for [her] when she gets there?» Van Pelt asked, lightly goading Taurasi.

«Look, SVP. Reality is coming,» Taurasi said. «We all went through it. That happens on the NBA side, and you’re going to see it on this side. You look superhuman playing against 18-year-olds, but you’re going to come with some grown women that have been playing professional basketball for a long time.»

It was classic Taurasi. Brash. Competitive. Unapologetic. And it seemed to turbocharge the conversation among WNBA stars past and present who’d made the journey to Cleveland to watch the women’s Final Four as well as text chains around the world with current players overseas.

Just how good will Clark be as a rookie? Can she possibly live up to the hype she has generated for the women’s game as a collegiate athlete? How will veterans who’ve fought for decades to earn more money and benefits from the league respond to a player who has been bringing in seven figures in NIL money as a college student for the past two years? Which veteran will lay the first shoulder into her chest to see how she responds?

The answer to the last one was unanimous: Taurasi.

«Diana’s like Kobe [Bryant],» two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne told ESPN. «She’s going to test you, so you have to be ready. That’s her, her personality. I love her from being on Team USA. She’s Kobe. I mean, Kobe plowed his own teammate [Pau Gasol] in the Olympics, so no one’s safe.»

Sure enough, Delle Donne said Taurasi did the same thing to her as a rookie.

«Dee did that thing where she tried to plow me when I was making a cut,» she said. «But after I went back at her, it didn’t happen again.»

For 2012 No. 1 pick Nneka Ogwumike, Tamika Catchings was the vet who gave her the «welcome to the league» treatment as a rookie.

«Tamika is such a sweetheart, so I don’t know if it was necessarily outwardly like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to school you,'» Ogwumike said. «But it’s like, ‘OK, they’re going to put the rookie on me. Let me go to work.’

«She didn’t have to say it for me to know that was what was going on.»

Bird was the No. 1 pick in 2002. She came into the league after winning two national championships at UConn, and like Clark, having captured the hearts of America with ponytailed swagger.

«There was a couple comments along the way from different players, but the story that tells it the best is when we played against the L.A. Sparks,» Bird told ESPN. » At the time they had a point guard named Nicky McCrimmon, and she was tough on defense. She could pick you up full court, that kind of a thing.

«But I noticed that it was a little more than normal. She was really picking me up full court, really pressuring me, and I was like, what the f—? Then she actually stripped me in the backcourt two times, which as point guard, is a nightmare. You never want to have that happen. Well, I heard later that [former Sparks coach] Michael Cooper had essentially put, not literally a bounty on my head, but basically before the game was like, ‘Yo, Nicky, every time you strip Sue, I’m going to give you whatever, whatever.'»

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WNBA commish details Caitlin Clark’s role in growing the league

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert talks about how Caitlin Clark can help grow the league globally with her platform.

Three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, who played for the Sparks from 1997 to 2009, said it’s heartening to hear this kind of competitiveness discussed so openly. When she came into the league, there was more of a disconnect between the public image players were encouraged to present and the reality on the court.

«Diana’s not retired. So she has the right to say, ‘Hey, that’s my spot. That’s my position. And you’re about to come in, so listen,'» Leslie told ESPN. «If it was me and I switched out on her, hell, I’m trying to block her shot every time. That’s how we’re made.»

Leslie was the seventh pick in the inaugural WNBA draft in 1997 after an illustrious career at USC, so she understands the pressure Clark will carry after being taken No. 1 in Monday’s WNBA draft by the Indiana Fever.

«The difference between Caitlin and I is that these young women have grown up seeing the WNBA, so they understand the stage much better than what we did,» Leslie said. «They don’t have to do all that we have to do. We were selling ourselves. We were selling our product. We were selling ourselves to our community. They don’t have to do all of that. Obviously, they have NIL commitments and contracts, but they also have the ability to say ‘no.’ We didn’t have the option to say ‘no.'»

«You constantly have to show your strengths as much as you can and hide your weaknesses as much as you can. … Immediately you get to see what they’re made of in this environment.»

Sue Bird on how familiar players get with each others’ games in the WNBA

None of the players ESPN spoke to for this story said they are jealous of Clark for the money she makes and will continue to make in a league they helped establish.

«When I think about the players that played before me and what they had to play for, what they weren’t getting, it’s like we’ve all had to take these steps to get to this Caitlin era,» Delle Donne said. «Hopefully the Caitlin era will then grow to the next one. Paige [Bueckers], JuJu [Watkins], finally the time is happening.

«It has taken too long, and we’ve missed out on seeing a lot of incredible people along the way. But it’s just a part of it. And Caitlin is so fun to watch. Whether people love her, hate her. You’re tuning in.»

Said Ogwumike: «In this league, when you get new talents, it’s just like any other team. There’s people who are trying to make sure that [they] make the team. That they’re still valuable and their spot is still there. So with that may come a bit of jealousy, a little bit of envy, but the reality is her impact is apparent.

«You can’t deny her impact. Anybody who says, ‘Oh, she’s not that great,’ is downright completely dense. She’s a threat. She’s a threat in so many different ways, but she’s also lifting the tides.

«Personally I’m excited to play against her. I’ve never played against someone like her. Plus, I want to get better.»

Bird retired after the 2022 season but stays in close touch with players in the league.

«Honestly, you can never take away what Caitlin has already done for women’s basketball, the impact she’s had, the eyeball she’s bringing,» Bird said. «What I hope is that that continues. I hope all the people Caitlin has brought to the league will stay because they love and appreciate her and want to see how her first WNBA season goes. But I also hope they stay because they’re seeing the high level, right? The high level that is the WNBA.»

Bird said she thinks Clark’s transition will go well because of the fit with Fever center Aliyah Boston, last year’s top draft pick. But there will be one huge difference to which Clark will need to adjust.

«You know what my favorite thing about the WNBA is?» Bird asked. «I’ve been saying this since I started playing in it. The best thing about the WNBA is 12 teams, 12 roster spots. We all know that 144 players — [it’s] so hard to make. It’s survival of the fittest. And the best part is you go out there and you have strengths and you have weaknesses. And the WNBA, because it’s such a small league and you see everybody all the time, people learn your weaknesses so fast.

«It’s like blood in the water. I’ve always loved that about it as an individual player, because you constantly have to show your strengths as much as you can and hide your weaknesses as much as you can, and/or adjust your game based on how teams play you or what they learn about you. To me, it’s like the ultimate mind game. … Immediately you get to see what they’re made of in this environment.»

Delle Donne is taking a break from her WNBA career but found herself glued to the NCAA tournament this season.

«I just hope with Caitlin, she gets to keep being Caitlin,» Delle Donne said. «It’s so much fun to watch her play. She’s a phenomenal passer. She can shoot the ball when she steps over half court. So I’m excited to see her game translate, and I just hope, I think her coach will allow her to be Caitlin.»

Delle Donne, who led Delaware to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament as a senior, was part of another heralded draft class in 2013, with Baylor’s Brittney Griner and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins-Smith.

«There was the whole ‘Three to See‘ thing that was going to save the league,» she recalled. «I already I felt the pressure of that. But I also felt like people were like, ‘Eh, she played in the mid-majors. She’s going to get her ass kicked when she plays in the pros.’

«But it motivated me, and I obviously believed in myself and my game and wasn’t fearful in any way. I was excited to go show people my game will translate no matter who I’m playing against.»

«She better be on the Olympic team. She’s a bona fide baller. There’s no doubt she’s already one of the best players in the world.»

Lisa Leslie on Caitlin Clark

Midway through her rookie season, however, Delle Donne felt worn down by all the extra commitments she was being asked to make.

«It’s not just basketball, it’s life,» she said. «She’s going to be pulled in so many directions, asked to do so much media, to do meet and greets at all the away games. Those were things that I said yes to in the beginning, and probably middle of my rookie season, I called my agent and I was like, ‘We need to shut this down. I am hitting a wall. I’m so exhausted.’ You’re coming off college and then the league wants you to do all these appearances because you’re the one they want to see.

«I’m sure she’s got incredible people on her corner, but it’s so much. And you feel the pressure. You want to grow the game, so you do it. But then I guess there just came a point for me where I was like, ‘I am so exhausted. If I’m not performing on the court, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing with these off-court appearances.'»

Delle Donne was grateful she at least had a few weeks between the NCAA tournament and the WNBA draft to go back to Delaware to wrap up her college life.

Candace Parker had no break between winning the 2008 national title at Tennessee and being drafted No. 1 by the Los Angeles Sparks.

«I didn’t even get to go to the championship parade,» Parker told ESPN. «The draft was the very next day after the national championship game. It was hard balancing agents, sneaker deals, meetings, the season just ended, the emotions. I was so drained.

«By the time the WNBA season ended, I had played an entire year straight through.»

Parker, of course, did just fine, becoming the first player to be named WNBA Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.

Clark will have had eight days between the national championship game and the draft. But she might also participate in the Olympics in Paris this July. Clark missed a mandatory Team USA camp because Iowa made the Final Four, so there is some question about whether she’ll be named to the team. Leslie said there shouldn’t be.

«She better be on the Olympic team,» Leslie said. «We should not leave the country without her. She’s a bona fide baller. There’s no doubt she’s already one of the best players in the world.»

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