In a nearly empty arena in late November 2020, Caitlin Clark shot her first college 3-pointer. Time was running out in the first quarter of the Hawkeyes’ game against Northern Iowa, when Clark forced a half-court steal and made his way down the right wing. With two defenders around her, she stood up. Her attempt was blocked.
This did not discourage her.
Now a senior, Clark is perhaps the biggest star in both men’s and women’s college basketball. She made more than 400 3-pointers during her college career and rewrote the record books, at Iowa and nationally. “We see it every single day in practice, she makes a shot that amazes you or she makes a pass that blows your mind,” Iowa assistant Abby Stamp says.
Clark passes with pinpoint precision. Teammates and coaches alike praise his work ethic and improved leadership skills. But it’s Clark’s 3-point shots that often immediately catch the eye of spectators. He has been compared to other recent basketball greats: Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard and New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, to name a few. But how does Clark compare to these sharpshooters?
Although the NBA 3-point line and the college 3-point line are different distances (the NBA is 23 feet 9 inches at the top of the arc, and the college line and the WNBA line are both 22 feet 1 ¾ inch at the top), Atletico has broken down into six categories to show how prolific Clark truly is and to explain how she has become so lethal from behind the arc. The comparison — use the button at the top of most graphs to toggle between Clark’s numbers from last season and this year (with games through Dec. 14) — reveals how this college star already shoots as well as some top pros Of all times.
Clark’s comfort with long-range shooting comes from years of practice. While visiting home in Des Moines, Clark often shoots 100 3-pointers during practices, says his coach Kevin O’Hare. His goal is to do at least 50. “It’s something he’s always been working on,” O’Hare says. He adds that before Clark makes any attempts, she “does all the basic first things to get to that point.” Considering she attempts so many from 30+ feet, a 3 from 25 to 30 feet is very much in range.
Through Dec. 14, just over 31% of Clark’s shot attempts came from within 25 to 30 feet of the rim, which is 22.1% higher than the national college average this year, according to CBB Analytics. She gets 40.5% of these looks, more than 11% more than her peers.
It is no coincidence that he shoots from such a distance, nor is it a coincidence that such attempts are successful. In addition to offseason training sessions, Stamp says Clark works on these attempts before, during and after training. Iowa’s bigs often set higher screens in practices when Clark is on the ball, knowing he is more likely to stop from such distances during games. In this regard, he is like Curry, Lillard and Ionescu in how their teams adjust spacing when they are on the court.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has always been offensive-minded, imploring her teams to play in peace. The setup was ideal for Clark, who likes to push the ball and make a play before his opponents can prepare. Clark has made more than 50 3-pointers in the first 10 seconds of possession this season. Last season he made 137 3-pointers above the break, shooting 39 percent of those attempts. “Sometimes he immediately gets his best look as soon as we get to midcourt,” Stamp says.
In these initial shooting situations, Clark tries to balance, avoiding forcing shots and instead trying to understand when to involve teammates and allow possessions to develop. “It’s not an easy science, the shot selection thing with her, because we’ve seen her hit so many challenging shots throughout his training and career,” Stamp says. Iowa sees a good effort for all of its players as one that has pace and range. Clark’s range of action is, of course, different from that of his peers, as is his willingness to stop immediately. He’s like Curry in that regard, with the Warriors star averaging 5.2 3-point attempts with 15-24 seconds left on the clock last season.
Clark, not surprisingly, is Iowa’s primary creator. This season, according to CBB Analytics, his usage rate is in the 100th percentile nationally, behind only USC freshman star JuJu Watkins. In addition to being an elite shooter, Clark passes with accuracy. As his college career progressed, he also found new ways to finish. “We were really excited about how he developed his entire game,” Stamp says.
From the perimeter, however, Clark showed he could create his own shot and take advantage of his teammates’ drop kicks. Last season, he led the nation in unassisted 3-pointers, with 1.8 per game. He leads the country again this season, also ranking in the 98th percentile in assisted three-pointers, making 0.7 more per game. “I would compare her to Steph; obviously, take that with a grain of salt,” O’Hare says. “How far she shoots, her release, how good she is with the ball in her hands at creating things.” As the data shows, Clark, Lillard and Curry can become all assisted and unassisted chances.Ionescu has shown the ability to shoot from long range in the WNBA, but over the last three seasons she has made 0.56 unassisted 3-pointers per game.
Clark rarely avoids attempting a no-catch 3-pointer. As a freshman at Iowa, he took 116 catch-and-shoot 3s, making 46.6 percent, according to Synergy Sports. Both his total number of catch-and-shoot attempts and percentage declined as a sophomore. But during his tenure, the Hawkeyes coaching staff continued to develop that part of Clark’s 3-point arsenal. “We really worked on trying to get off screens, change speed, change direction, sprint to the ball, set up our feet, set up to be able to catch and shoot off screens more,” Stamp says.
In private practices, you intend to put down cones to mark setup screens from Iowa’s bigs and mimic the many defensive machinations an opposing player might engage in when trying to slow Clark. He is on pace to shoot more catch-and-shoot 3s this season than previously in his college career. Unsurprisingly, it’s an area he’s thrived in, shooting at a better percentage than Lillard in his final season with the Portland Trail Blazers and nearly matching Curry’s production in 2022-23. Clark’s current shooting percentage on catch-and-shoot 3s is also higher than Ionescu’s during his final season at Oregon, when he shot a still-impressive 34% on such chances, according to Synergy Sports.
Few players, if any, have had a greener green light than Clark. With each milestone he achieves, he validates the fact that he has accomplished much that no other player in college has done. However, Stamp thinks of another comparison for Clark. He cites former Naismith Player of the Year Megan Gustafson, who had been Iowa’s all-time leading scorer until Clark surpassed her earlier this season. Gustafson is a 6-foot-3 post player who attempted just two 3s in four years at Iowa, but she and Clark are both “masters of their craft” in Stamp’s eyes.
This past weekend, Clark moved to No. 9 all-time in career highs in women’s college basketball. If she stays healthy and maintains her current scoring average, she is on track to surpass former Washington star Kelsey Plum for the No. 1 spot before the end of the season. It remains uncertain whether Clark will decide to join the WNBA or return for a fifth year at Iowa, but her success has already put her in conversation with basketball’s elite.
— AtleticoSeth Partnow contributed to this report.
(Illustrations and visual data: John Bradford / Atletico; Photo by Stephen Curry: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images, Photo by Caitlin Clark: G Fiume/Getty Images and Steph Chambers/Getty Images, Photo by Sabrina Ionescu/Mitchell Leff)