The state of the Caitlin Clark/Paige Bueckers debate — Vic Schaefer talks Texas

Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, March 27, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference. Back in March 2021, I wrote this about Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark:

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“And you should be prepared for Clark/Bueckers debates for the next 20 years. Because they are both transcendent talents.

Briefly, on the discourse: debating them is fun and good. Pretending that praise for one is somehow, inherently, dismissing the other is foolish.

Don’t miss it. This is Chapter One of a long, fun book.”

It’s three years later, and every bit of this remains true. There are 16 teams left in the final NCAA Tournament featuring both of them. By May 2025, both Clark and Bueckers will be in the WNBA, and the expectation is they will be signature players on their teams — Clark for the Indiana Fever, Bueckers for whoever is the combination of terrible on the court followed by fortunate enough to collect the number one pick in the 2025 WNBA Draft.

Assuming health, this will be one of the great individual rivalries in the league, another Sue Bird vs. Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles vs. Brittney Griner. And the arguments both can and should follow: which player is better?

We’ll get a few opportunities to provide ammunition to either of their cases over the next two weeks.

If Iowa ascends to another Final Four, the Clark collegiate case gets buttressed by back-to-back trips to the national semifinals, equalling Bueckers’ first two seasons*. If Bueckers does so, she’s edged Clark in Final Four appearances, 3-to-1, with one more opportunity to add to her lead.

And if they both do, we’ll see them face off on Friday night, April 5 in Cleveland.

There are plenty of newcomers to women’s basketball, brought here by Clark, who don’t realize this has been going on for a while, and Clark wasn’t always the obvious leader, or even always in the lead in public perception of their two games. Entering college, ESPN had Bueckers atop the list of freshmen, Clark fourth. (By the way, look at that list. Usually there are some big misses among the top names. Not this time!) We didn’t get to see them on the same court at the 2020 McDonald’s All-American Game due to COVID. (Last season’s McDonald’s co-MVPs were Hannah Hidalgo and JuJu Watkins, by the way. Which tracks!)

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Then Clark and Bueckers put together such incredible freshmen seasons that the USBWA named them co-Freshmen of the Year. And it was Bueckers who won their first head-to-head matchup in the NCAA Tournament.

What’s happened since, principally Bueckers’ injury history and Clark’s durability, helped reset the pecking order for now. Nor will we see a WNBA be forced to decide between them, with Clark entering the 2024 draft and Bueckers returning to school. The gap in attention has clearly annoyed UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, and in his defense, the chasm in attention does not reflect how closely the two have performed on the court this season. By win shares, Clark checks in atop the country at 12.1. Bueckers? 11.5. No one else is higher than Merchantville, New Jersey’s own Hannah Hidalgo, at 10.0.

So the two are close, and such things are fluid, as we know. I decided to check informally, and reached out to nine WNBA talent evaluators with the simple question: if you had the first overall pick, and both were available, Clark or Bueckers? And why?

One answer summarized where most people fell on this: “Clark. Durability!”

That’s the critical difference in perception right now, and I asked about drafting for the long-term, rather than for, say, one game or one season. Clark’s ability to log huge minutes and stay on the floor is a separator. Like with any record, it helped Clark’s pursuit of them to be playing at such an elite level, yes, but also always playing.

Still, Bueckers played 36 games already this season, averaged north of 36 minutes per contest in her freshman season. Another year like that in 2024-25, and a primary reason to pick Clark over Bueckers could get neutralized.

So what else? Talent evaluators in the league spoke reverentially of both players, to be clear. Edges went to Clark on such counts as “physically stronger”, “taller, maybe a better passer”, “ability to read third layer of defense is better than most her age”. Bueckers drew the edge on such things as “rebounding, pull ups”, “mid-range and creating for herself”. No one sees this question as obvious or permanent in either direction.

Another battle between these two at the Final Four would only add to the debate. More significantly, the chance to see them both play ball is the real win for the sport. As one WNBA figure put it: “The more stars, the better!” And no one is willing to cede the ground permanently. Another WNBA figure wrote: “Today I’d say Clark due to the passing and Bueckers injury history. But I may have a different answer in a few weeks.”

Then again, as previously discussed in this space, for all their greatness, neither Iowa nor UConn are anything close to the favorites to win it all. That’s still South Carolina, who won their first two games by (just vibes, I didn’t look this up) 1,374 points.

And the debate goes far beyond Bueckers vs. Clark at the individual level, too. One WNBA figure responded to my question of Bueckers vs. Clark simply: “JuJu.”

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bueckers had only been to one Final Four. That is, of course, incorrect. I will blame my effort to memory-hole the entire COVID era.

Stat of the Week: Powered by Stathead Basketball

Caitlin Clark had 30 points in Sunday’s NCAA Championship game, the fourth time since 2003 that someone scored 30+ in a Final. Of the four, only one player won the game and the title. See who in Stathead.

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. Plans start at $9 per month and your first month is on us.

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Written by Howard Megdal

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