The Caitlin Counter: Clark's all-around game is key to the Fever's success

It was a classic Caitlin Clark clinic in the first and final minutes of Indiana’s first win against New York over the weekend. And her triple-double — the first by a rookie in the league’s 28-year history — is no small feat. It’s not simply that first-year players haven’t done it. Few players of any experience level have reached the mark in the WNBA.

And it’s that stat-packing the Fever need to keep winning this year, not Clark scoring a bunch of points to lead them offensively. At Iowa, the Hawkeyes won all 17 games she notched a triple-double; when she scored at least 40, they went 9-4. Most of those nine wins came later in her collegiate career when she could do both surrounded by teammates who knew each other’s tendencies.

The rookie flirted with triple-doubles in the games leading up to Saturday. She fell one rebound short against Phoenix during the Fever’s first win over a team with at least a .500 record. She was four rebounds short against Las Vegas and it was the same at Chicago in late June. Against Washington, it was four assists. And in a prior game against Chicago, she fell two rebounds and one assist shy.

“Obviously, it's cool," Clark said of the triple-double she reached with 7:07 still to play against New York. "My teammates have been finishing the ball [at a] really, really high rate. My assist numbers, that's because of them."

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)

She’s averaging 11.2 assists over her last five games, all but one against teams in the top half of the standings (Liberty, Aces, Mercury, Storm and the Sky are in eighth). She’s averaging 7.4 assists on the season. Her 15.8 scoring average in those five games is in line with her season average. The triple-double was the first in the WNBA’s 38 total triple-doubles in its history to come against a team with the league’s best record.

Until a couple of years ago, a triple-double was a rare feat. Alyssa Thomas leaped into MVP consideration last year largely because of her historic numbers and near triple-double stat line. Clark became the 17th player to record one. It is hard to do because games are shorter than in the NBA (40 minutes to 48), and because it takes a team-wide effort. Teammates have to knock down shots, which the Fever are doing at an increasing rate of late, and clear room for Clark to rebound and trigger the transition offense.

Clark’s name goes down in the record book, but this is a Fever feat the fans who continue to sell out Gainbridge Fieldhouse should be excited to see for the future. (And they are.) Improvement will come, and that’s more illustrative with wins than by pouring in points.

Clark is the only rookie in WNBA history to average at least 10 points, five rebounds and five assists as of Monday, per Across the Timeline. Six players have done it at any point in their careers. Candace Parker didn’t do it until her eighth season. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, whose first games in the league track similarly to Clark’s, did it in her second through fourth seasons. Ionescu is the active collegiate triple-double leader in both women’s and men’s NCAA Division I. Thomas is in her third consecutive season of doing it. She’s currently averaging 11.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 7.9 assists in her 11th season. She holds the WNBA record with 13 triple-doubles.

We're tracking Clark's numbers in comparison with Candace Parker, who was the only WNBA rookie to be named league MVP.

Season averages: Points (FG%/3FG%/FT%), rebounds, assists (turnovers), steals, blocks
Advanced stats: Player efficiency rating; offensive/defensive rating (via Her Hoop Stats); true shooting percentage, win shares per 40; plus/minus

Caitlin Clark

Season averages: 16.1 PPG (39.3/33.1/88.8); 6 RPG, 7.4 APG (5.5 TOV); 1.4 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Advanced (through 22 games): 15.8 PER; 99/107.2 O/DRTG; 56.5 TS%; 0.9 WS; -5.2 +/-

Totals through 22 games: 355 PTS (108-275/60-181/79-89), 131 REB, 162 AST (122 TOV), 30 STL, 17 BLK

Notable league rankings: Clark continues to remain top 10 in many offensive totals because she’s played more games than nearly every other player. She ranks fourth in assists per game behind Alyssa Thomas (8.5), Natasha Cloud (7.6) and Jackie Young (7.0), and sixth in assist percentage (33.2%). But she ranks ninth in assists per 40 minutes (7.4).

She ranks 15th in scoring, 31st in rebounds, 18th in steals and 21st in blocks through Tuesday night. Her 27.7% usage rate remains top 10 and she leads the league in free-throw rate at 32.1%.

Candace Parker

Season averages: 18.5 PTS (52.3/42.3/73.3); 9.5 REB, 3.4 AST (2.8TOV); 1.3 STL, 2.3 BLK
Advanced (full season): 27.4 PER; 112.5/88.4 O/DRTG; 58.2 TS%; 0.24 WS; 3.5 +/-

Totals through 22 games: 416 PTS (159-310/8-18/90-122), 213 REB, 85 AST (68 TOV), 34 STL, 51 BLK

Notable league rankings (full season): Parker led the league in rebounding as a rookie, finished fifth in scoring and 17th in assists per game. Those remain among the best numbers of her career. The advanced stats ranked top five across the board with the exception of her 11th-best offensive rating. She was named Player of the Week once in August.

Every couple of weeks we’ll compare Clark to another rookie in history based on one statistical category comparison.

It’s time for the Sue Bird comparison.

Clark passed a few Bird marks over the weekend. Clark became the fastest player in league history to reach 350 points and 150 assists, doing so in her 22nd game to Bird’s 25th. And she overtook the most double-doubles with assists mark for a rookie, reaching four to Bird’s three. That record will likely balloon with an entire half of a regular season left to play and nearly all of the Fever able to practice together during the Olympic break later this month.

Bird’s career is illustrious and well-told at this point largely as a result of the recent rise in interest in the WNBA overlapping her final seasons. The former UConn point guard became synonymous with Seattle when the Storm drafted her No. 1 overall in 2002. She stayed there her entire 19-year career and won four WNBA championships in three different decades. She’s all over the record books, ranking first in career assists (3,234), fourth in average assists (5.6) and fifth in assist percentage (32.5).

As a rookie tasked with leading a franchise playing its third season, Bird averaged 14.4 points (17th), 2.6 rebounds (91st), 6 assists (second) and 1.7 steals (8th). She averaged 3.4 turnovers and shot 40% from 3. Her 91.1 free-throw percentage led the league.

Bird earned All-Star and All-WNBA first-team honors as a rookie, but lost the Rookie of the Year race to none other than Fever icon Tamika Catchings. Bird also drew MVP votes, finishing fifth. Catchings finished third behind veterans Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie.

Clark and Angel Reese are in a battle for the Rookie of the Year award with many saying over the last week it could come down to whose team finishes with a better record. Reese recently set her own record, as well.