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Examining Caitlin Clark's performance so far in her rookie WNBA career

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Caitlin Clark's jump from college basketball superstar to the WNBA's Indiana Fever has been a bit rough.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I mean, that's clearly a foul which was called. The question is, will they call it unnecessary? Chennedy...

MARTÍNEZ: On Saturday, as heard on ESPN, the Chicago Sky's Chennedy Carter threw her shoulder into Clark in between plays, sending Clark to the floor. After the game, Indiana coach Christie Sides said Clark's been taking a lot of hits in the season's opening weeks.

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CHRISTIE SIDES: It's tough, you know, to keep getting hammered the way she does and to not get rewarded with free throws or, you know, just a foul call. Like, she's continuing to fight through that. And that's what, you know, I appreciate that from her - really proud of her for doing that.

MARTÍNEZ: Ben Pickman covers women's college basketball and the WNBA for the Athletic. Ben, Clark's coach says the team's been sending videos to the league office about the hard hits that they feel that she's been taking. From what you've seen, part of the game or over the top so far?

BEN PICKMAN: I mean, I think the play on Saturday that sparked a lot of this conversation involving Chennedy Carter was not a basketball play. And even the Chicago Sky's coach Teresa Weatherspoon came out and said that. So I think that is a little bit more of the exception in this case. But we have seen opponents be very physical with Caitlin Clark early on this year. But I would say not in an abnormal way by any means. They're just guarding her 30, 35, 40 feet out from the basket, face-guarding her, really, at all times. You know, Caitlin Clark has certainly had some rough performances early on in her WNBA career - a 10-turnover debut, one of 10 shooting on Sunday night against the Liberty. But a lot of that is because she is the center of attention. Teams are treating her like a star player from the jump. And so she is having to adjust to the physicality of the league, and she's doing it by being the top of every opponent scouting report right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, she's a lethal scorer with incredible range. So how do you defend that is by being rough. It happens in every single sport. It's just not uncommon. Here's the thing, though. Does the Indiana Fever need to find a enforcer to protect her? I mean, sports sometimes have one person on the roster that protects the star. Does Indiana need to find one for her?

PICKMAN: It's a great question. And I know, you know, you think about hockey or sometimes the NBA, they have, you know, players who play a little bit more of that role. One of the issues right now for the Fever, and in the WNBA more broadly, is it's really hard to kind of add players during the season and kind of make these trades to tinker with the roster. So I wouldn't expect any kind of overhaul changes right now this season to protect Caitlin Clark. I think much more of a focus for the Indiana Fever is trying to find ways to get her space, to free her up, to, you know, give her opportunities where she can shoot a little bit more freely. She can play-make more freely without defenders in her face. I think that is the intention right now of the Fever coaching staff as they look to, you know, rebound from a little bit of a rough start and prepare for their next game on Friday.

MARTÍNEZ: Tamika Catchings was a 10-time all star with the Fever. She says the League needs to protect your player. So should the WNBA do more to protect its stars?

PICKMAN: I guess I'm not really sure, you know, exactly what they would do. I know people I've seen allude to the Jordan rules, for instance, in the late '90s. I think the thing that is, you know, I've thought about as it relates to the League right now is the Fever played 11 games in 20 days, which is a pretty crazy number. They were just the second team since 2007 to do so. And they had played 11 games, playing twice as - nearly twice as many as the defending champion Las Vegas Aces in that same period. So the League didn't do the Fever any scheduling favors by putting them on so often. It's a really young team with plenty to learn. So, you know, I guess we'll see as the season goes on.

MARTÍNEZ: And they've lost nine of them. If they don't - won them, we might be having a different conversation. That's Ben Pickman with the Athletic. Ben, thanks a lot.

PICKMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.