WNBA

WNBA rookie progress report: It hasn’t been easy, but Caitlin Clark isn’t the only first-year player making an impact

WNBA rookie progress report: It hasn't been easy, but Caitlin Clark isn’t the only first-year player making an impact

Every rookie has a “welcome to the league” moment. Caitlin Clark had hers against Chicago, when Chennedy Carter hit her with an off-ball body check that was later upgraded to a flagrant foul. Angel Reese had hers against Connecticut a week earlier, when Alyssa Thomas hit Reese in the neck with her forearm, sending her to the ground and resulting in an ejection for Thomas. And Cameron Brink was welcomed, not by a hard foul, but by trying to stick with 14-year veteran Tina Charles, who put up 21 points and 14 rebounds against Brink on May 15.

The WNBA is a challenging, physical league, and the rookie class knows it.

“I mean, I want them to come at me every day," Reese said after the Connecticut game. "I want them to come at everybody. I mean, they're not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y'all know that. They're not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I'm Angel Reese or because I'm a rookie. Like, thank you, AT, for sending the message to me, because I got back up, and I kept going and kept pushing.”

Despite the increased talent and physicality from college to the pros, several rookies — including Clark, Reese and Brink — are transitioning well.

(Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Clark, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, has started all 11 games for Indiana, averaging 15.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1 block per contest. The Iowa grad has had five 20-plus point games, with her WNBA career high coming in an 88-82 loss against the Sparks on May 28. In that game, she had 30 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks. Clark also had a near-triple-double in another loss to L.A. on May 24, finishing with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists. It hasn’t been a seamless transition for Clark. She’s leading the Fever in points per game, but also in turnovers, with 5.4 per contest. Clark’s turnover mark is also the highest in the WNBA.

Clark admitted that the physicality of the league has impacted her turnover numbers.

"I think everybody is physical with me, they get away with things that probably other people don't get away with," she said following a loss to L.A. on May 28. "It's tough, but that's just the fact of the matter. This is a very physical game, and you're going to get pressure. This is professional basketball. It is what it is, honestly."

Reese, the No. 7 pick in the draft, has also been a starter, playing 28 minutes per game for the Sky. Reese was known for her rebounding in college, something that has translated well to the WNBA. She’s averaging 8.9 boards per contest, which ranks seventh in the league and is the best mark of the rookie class by over four rebounds. Reese is also averaging 10.6 points, 1.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game.

Reese’s best game came in a loss to Seattle on May 28, when she recorded 11 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Reese has been consistent, scoring at least 6 points and grabbing at least 5 rebounds in every contest. Her biggest challenge has been efficiency, as the rookie is shooting 35.3% from the field. She made 49.8% of her attempts in college.

Stanford’s all-time leader in blocked shots has continued her defensive prowess in the WNBA, where she is averaging 2.6 blocks per game. That puts her third in the league behind prolific shot-blockers Ezi Magbegor and A’ja Wilson. Brink, the No. 2 pick in the draft, will be a key part of the Sparks as they continue to rebuild. She’s started every game for the 2-6 Sparks, playing 24.6 minutes and averaging 7.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals.

Brink’s best scoring game came in an 84-83 loss to Dallas on May 26, when she finished with 21 points. Her best overall performance was a 15-point, 9-rebound and 2-block showing in a loss to Indiana on May 24. The biggest critique of Brink’s game in college was the tendency to get in foul trouble, something she’s still battling in the pros. Brink has yet to foul out, but she has come close, recording five fouls in four of her eight games.

The forward has been humble about her transition to the WNBA. She went on Paul George’s podcast and discussed her difficult outing against Charles and the Dream.

“I just hope, like, the vets know that it’s so much respect from my end,” Brink said. “Like, Tina Charles just handed me my ass yesterday … and I’m, like, ‘Great, Tina, thank you. I learned a lot.’”

One of the biggest surprises from draft night was Martin, who was in attendance to support Clark. She ended up on the stage as well, after the defending champion Aces snagged Martin with the 15th overall selection. So far, Martin has fit in well with the team. She did a little bit of everything during her career at Iowa and has continued that style of play. Martin comes off the bench to play 21 minutes per game, posting 5.2 points, 4 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, while shooting 35.3% from beyond the arc.

Martin has become a glue player for the Aces, and according to coach Becky Hammon, the rookie’s high IQ has helped her earn consistent playing time.

"Her mind jumps off the pages,” Hammon said May 29. “She's somebody who understands angles, being in the right place at the right time, making the right read.”

The Sparks had an excellent draft, picking up Jackson in addition to Brink. The Tennessee product has been heralded for the past two seasons as a player who is “pro ready,” and she’s proved it in eight games with L.A. The No. 4 overall pick is averaging 10 points per game, third on the team behind Dearica Hamby and Kia Nurse, while shooting 49% from the field and 47% from beyond the arc. Jackson came off the bench in her first five games, but earned a starting spot after an injury to Layshia Clarendon.

Cardoso injured her shoulder in a preseason game against the Lynx, so the No. 3 overall draft pick didn’t make her debut until Saturday’s loss to the Fever and former South Carolina teammate Aliyah Boston. Cardoso has only one game under her belt, but the 6-foot-7 center impressed in her 18 minutes off the bench. Cardoso scored 11 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in her limited playing time, while also shooting 5-of-7 from the field.

The Mystics (0-8) are currently the worst team in the WNBA and have yet to win a game. That, coupled with an injury to starting point guard Brittney Sykes, has left little to be excited about in Washington. But Edwards has been a bright spot. The UConn product has looked polished in her eight games, playing 20 minutes per game with two starts. Edwards is averaging 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds. Her best game came on May 19 against Seattle, when the forward grabbed 11 rebounds and scored 9 points.

When the Lynx drafted Pili eighth overall, head coach Cheryl Reese said she’d been eyeing the Utah graduate since two seasons ago, when she still played for USC. Reese is excited about Pili but is taking her time with the rookie’s development. Pili has played limited minutes for Minnesota, but had a potential breakout game in a 95-71 win over Phoenix on May 31. Pili scored 20 points in 15 minutes, shooting 7-of-9 from the field and 4-of-4 from beyond the arc, while also adding 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

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