Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun crash the Caitlin Clark party — Lindsay Gottlieb talks JuJu Watkins, USC

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 15, 2024

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference. As DiJonai Carrington walked triumphantly out of the back corridor of Mohegan Sun Arena late Tuesday night, dressed to kill as always, having defended Caitlin Clark like it was the role she’d prepared for her entire life, a pair of Mohegan service workers congratulated her and then one said to the other, once she was out of earshot: “She sure showed Caitlin!”

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Caitlin, yes, but also the larger basketball world. In an audience as large as any in recent memory for a WNBA game, Carrington and the Connecticut Sun provided some harsh lessons to the uber-talented rookie. Nothing out of Tuesday night was remotely surprising to those familiar with the league, from the outcome, a 92-71 Sun win, to the ways in which Connecticut dragged the gameflow into the mud, closed off passing lanes, and took every single bit of Clark hype as rocket fuel for the team’s performance. The Sun reached the WNBA semifinals last season, added critical role players like Rachel Banham and Moriah Jefferson (addressing their biggest limitation, spreading the floor), and Bri Jones is back healthy, too. They might be even better than last year’s vintage.

One WNBA talent evaluator would have bet the house on the Sun, speaking metaphorically, of course. Even the nature of the early foul trouble Clark experienced — two quick ones, courtesy of official Isaac Barnett — served a a “Welcome to the WNBA” moment no less than Rachel Banham bodyslamming Clark to the ground as she attempted to finish at the rim.

Another WNBA talent evaluator, asked just before the game about the chances Barnett would call two early fouls on Clark, replied: “200 percent.”

But if the circumstances of the game itself all worked against Clark, with a road visit to a veteran team particularly built to limit the separators in Clark’s game, it must be noted as well that Clark found a way to get more comfortable in the second half. This wasn’t a rookie getting worn down. It was a classic example of finding her way, and that’s even with Alyssa Thomas guarding her at times in the fourth quarter.

“I would say definitely in the second half, I just felt we ran stuff a little bit better, we got the offense into more actions, we swung the ball a little bit better,” Clark said. “I think I was able to get a few mismatches and capitalize on those trips.”

Ultimately, even Christie Sides, Indiana’s talented head coach who will figure out how to make all the pieces work, bristled slightly at a reporter inquiring about Carrington “shutting down” Clark, noting that she managed 20 points and four threes. And that’s as critical a takeaway here as any. This was, for a variety of reasons ranging from opponent to her own experience, the floor of The Caitlin Clark Experience. It is easy to envision how this looks as the season progresses, in games against teams less-disciplined at clogging offensive flow, Clark learning which plays to select from her own catalogue, her teammates getting accustomed to Clark-style deliveries, all of it putting less wear on her legs ahead of her 30-foot bombs, her team learning one another and creating spacing that the talent on Indiana should allow for, especially once Kelsey Mitchell is back playing starter minutes once again. I spoke to Mitchell postgame, and her excitement at the way her left ankle responded to the stops and starts from the opener gushed out of her.

But the circumstances, too, were utterly perfect for Alyssa Thomas. The greatness of AT has come to be more appreciated in aggregate — a further understanding of what it means to see a WNBA powered by Thomas and her eclectic collection of skills as the years pass and Thomas, somehow, only gets better at delivering for her team. She betrays no signs of ever getting tired — I asked Rachel Banham about it after the game, and Banham told me if AT ever does get tired, she’s never seen a sign of it. Only when I asked her about the gap between her accomplishments, a Knoxville and Springfield future for her once she retires if there’s any justice in the world, and the relative hype she receives to other players in the league, did any sign of weariness creep into Thomas’ sigh of an answer as she said she’d been doing this for 11 years.

“It feeds me,” Thomas said of that perception gap. “I feed off it a bit. But nothing changes for me in the way I approach the game. Either way, whether there’s no one watching or everybody in the gym watching — I think that’s what I want to set the standard as for my game.”

Her fiancee, DeWanna Bonner, chuckled as she tried to put Thomas in perspective. “Man, how do you add?”, Bonner, seldom at a loss for a quote, began. “Yeah, I guess I am out of words.” Bonner, too, reached a ludicrous new plateau, fifth all-time in WNBA history in points scored. If she simply replicates her 2023 season — and she showed no signs of slowing down Tuesday night — she’ll be second all-time. She’s put together a Knoxville and Springfield career, too.

Stathead Stat of the Week

Caitlin Clark has scored 242 points and had 93 assists so far this season. She is the only player in WNBA history with more than 240 points and 90 assists through their first 15 games.

Stathead is your all-access pass to the Basketball and College Basketball Reference databases. Our discovery tools are built for women’s basketball fans like you. Answer your questions in a matter of seconds.

So if the short-term goal of allowing a large new television audience drink deeply from the magic of Caitlin Clark failed to materialize Tuesday night, the greater good of that audience, who came for Caitlin, getting to experience the intricate beauty of the skills Carrington, Thomas and Bonner bring to the table serve the larger project of exposing a new set of people to the very rich set of stories and spectacle that make the already-existing WNBA fan base so rabid and loyal.

I had a Sun fan approach me in the arena as I walked toward the postgame interviews, making me promise that our coverage at The Next wouldn’t ignore Thomas and Bonner in favor of Clark. (It won’t — we have a terrific Sun reporter, Noa Dalzell, and I’m editing her story right after I hit send on this one.) And by the end of the night, it was Clark answering questions about Thomas, not the other way around, with a number of reporters sent to cover the Clark phenomenon coming back to editors with plenty of Sun ideas to follow.

“She impacts the game in every single area,” Clark said of Thomas. “Whether it’s offensively, whether it’s defensively, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s passing, whether it’s rebounding, those are the hardest players to guard, especially a player like her, that they can get the ball off the rim and push it up to court like this creates matchup problems. I thought we did a pretty good job. Obviously she’s gonna do what she does every single night. That’s just how good she is.”

Thanks to all the hype around Caitlin Clark, more viewers than ever before know that about Alyssa Thomas now, too.

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.