Caitlin Clark brought home a gold medal for her international play this summer.
But the summer was also another step in the evolution of the Iowa sophomore guard’s game.
Clark’s 2020-21 season with the Hawkeyes was one for the program’s record book, but even she knows there are some flaws that need work.
Clark was the most valuable player in the FIBA U19 World Cup, where she led USA Basketball to the gold medal. She averaged 14.3 points, 5.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds in seven games, but this was not a summer vacation.
This was about getting better. Which meant breaking down video, learning how to be a leader.
This was about learning.
“I think it is a good measuring stick,” Clark said. “To see where you stand.”
Clark led the nation in five categories, including scoring (26.6 ppg) and assists (214). But as the oldest player on the USA team, she also had to learn how to be a leader, something that she and Iowa coach Lisa Bluder have talked about in the offseason.
“Obviously, being a freshman last year and playing such a prominent role, it’s hard developing (leadership),” Clark said.
She also learned how to play off the ball, working as a ‘2’ guard in the USA offense. That, Clark said, was something that will translate into next season, as opposing defenses will be built around stopping her.
“I know Coach Bluder and our coaching staff were excited for me to play off the ball a little bit,” Clark said. “Finding ways to get open without the ball in my hands, because next year everybody is going to know who I am. So that’s going to be a huge part of it. Setting screens to get open, finding ways to make it easier to get the ball in my hands.
“It’s definitely something we want. Obviously I’m going to have the ball in my hands most of the time playing the ‘1’, because I’m the only true point guard we have. That’s the position I’m most comfortable in, that’s what I’ve always played. Once we get moving in our offense, because it’s a read-and-react offense, I’m off the ball a good amount. So just finding ways to set screens to get open, that makes it easier for my teammates as well. When I’m off the ball, it helps them get the ball in their hands, makes it harder for defenses. I think it can open up a lot of different things.”
It was an adjustment.
“It was weird, because I would find myself running back to get the rebound from our posts, because I’m so used to having to get the ball and bring it up court, Clark said. “But, honestly, it was a quick adjustment. It wasn’t horrible.
“I really liked it, honestly. It helped me spot up and get good shots.”
There was also the physicality of the international game, something that is different from college. Again, it’s a preparation for what she’ll see next winter.
“The U-19 team medal is one of the hardest to win, just because a lot of the girls you’re playing have already turned pro overseas,” Clark said. “A lot of them have experience as professionals. The style of play is so much different than what you’ll see in college.”
And Clark got a lesson in defense. The Hawkeyes were 315th in field-goal percentage defense, 336th in scoring defense.
“If you want to be on the court in the international game, you have to play defense,” Clark said. “You have to be physical, you have to be able to guard. I think that’s something that I saw some improvement in, but it also challenged me to get better. Obviously there’s still a lot of room for me to grow.”
There is a lot of room for the Hawkeyes to grow as well. The evolution is more than just on an individual level.
“If you want to be great, you have to play defense,” Clark said. “And we know that. We’re not dumb. We know if we want to go far in the (NCAA) tournament, we have to play defense. That’s why this summer we focused so much on defense.”
It’s what Clark has to do to be better. The same can be said for her teammates, even if this is virtually the same roster as the one that reached the NCAA regional semifinals.
“That just shows that if we do improve (on defense), we can be pretty unstoppable,” Clark said.