July 19, 2024


The Intersection of Information and Insight

Data dive: Caitlin Clark vs. Steph Curry and other top shooters

6 min read

In a nearly empty arena in late November 2020, Caitlin Clark shot her first college 3-pointer. Time was ticking down in the first quarter of the Hawkeyes’ matchup against Northern Iowa. Clark forced a steal at midcourt and weaved her way to the right wing. With two defenders around her, she rose up. Her attempt was blocked.

That didn’t discourage her.

Now a senior, Clark is perhaps the biggest star across both men’s and women’s college basketball. She’s made more than 400 3-pointers throughout her college career and re-written the record book — at Iowa and nationally. “We see it every single day in practice, she hits one (shot) that amazes you or makes one pass that makes your jaw kind of drop,” Iowa assistant Abby Stamp says.

Clark passes with pin-point accuracy. Teammates and coaches alike laud her work ethic and improved leadership skills. But it’s Clark’s 3-point shooting which often immediately jumps out to viewers. She has been compared to some other recent greats in the basketball world — Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard and New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, to name a few. But how does Clark actually stack up when compared to such sharp-shooters?

Though the NBA and college 3-point line are different distances (the NBA is 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the arc, and the college line and WNBA line are both 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches at the top), The Athletic dove into six categories to show just how prolific Clark really is and to explain how she’s become so lethal from behind the arc. The comparison — use the button at the top of most graphs to toggle through Clark’s numbers from last season and this year (with games through Dec. 14) — reveals how this college star already shoots like some all-time professional greats.

Clark’s comfort at shooting from long range stems from years of practice. While visiting home in Des Moines, Clark often shoots 100 logo 3-pointers during workouts, her trainer Kevin O’Hare says. Her goal is to make at least 50. “It’s just something that she’s always worked on,” O’Hare says. He adds that before Clark attempts any heaves she “does all the early fundamental things to get out to that point.” Considering she attempts that many from beyond 30 feet, a 25-to-30-foot 3 is very much in range.

Through Dec. 14, just more than 31 percent of Clark’s shot attempts came from between 25 and 30 feet of the rim, which is 22.1 percent above this year’s national average in college, according to CBB Analytics. She is shooting 40.5 percent on such looks, more than 11 percent greater than her peers.

It’s not a coincidence she shoots from such a distance, nor is it chance when such attempts go in. In addition to offseason training sessions, Stamp says Clark works on such attempts before, during and after practice. Iowa bigs also often set higher screens in practices when Clark is on the ball, knowing that she’s more likely to pull up from such distances in games. In that regard, she’s like Curry, Lillard and Ionescu in how their own teams adjust spacing when they are on the floor.

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder always has been offensive-minded, imploring her teams to play with pace. The setup has been ideal for Clark, who is fond of pushing the basketball and making a play before her opponents can get set. Clark has taken more than 50 3s in the first 10 seconds of a possession this season. She took 137 above-the-break 3s last season, shooting 39 percent on such attempts. “Sometimes she’s gonna get that best look right away as we come across half court,” Stamp says.

In these early-shot situations, Clark navigates a balancing act, avoiding forcing up shots and instead figuring out when to get teammates involved and allow possessions to develop. “It’s not an easy science, the shot selection question with her, because we’ve seen her make so many challenging shots over the course of practices and her career,” Stamp says. Iowa views a good attempt for all of its players as one that is in rhythm and in range. Clark’s range is, of course, different from her peers, as is her willingness to pull up right away. She’s like Curry in that regard, with the Warriors star having averaged 5.2 3-point attempts last season with between 15-24 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Clark, not surprisingly, is Iowa’s lead creator. This season, according to CBB Analytics, her usage rate is in the 100th percentile nationally, trailing only USC freshman star JuJu Watkins. In addition to being an elite shooter, Clark passes with precision. As her college career has progressed, she has found new ways to finish around the rim as well. “We’ve been just so thrilled with the way she’s developed her entire game,” Stamp says.

From the perimeter, though, Clark has shown she can create her own shot and benefit from kick-outs from her teammates. Last season, she led the nation in unassisted 3-pointers, with 1.8 per game. She is leading the country again this season, ranking in the 98th percentile of assisted 3-pointers as well by making 0.7 more per game. “I would compare her to Steph; obviously, you take it with a grain of salt,” O’Hare says. “In how far out she shoots, her release, how good she is with the ball in her hands to create stuff.” As the data shows, Clark, Lillard and Curry all can convert on assisted and unassisted chances. Ionescu has proven she can shoot from long range in the WNBA, but over the last three seasons, she made 0.56 unassisted 3s per game.

Clark seldom shies away from attempting a 3-pointer off the catch. As an Iowa freshman, she took 116 catch-and-shoot 3s, making 46.6 percent, according to Synergy Sports. Both her total number of catch-and-shoot attempts and percentage slipped as a sophomore. But throughout her tenure, the Hawkeyes’ coaching staff has continued to develop that part of Clark’s 3-point arsenal. “We really worked on trying to come off screens, change speed, change directions, sprint to the ball, get your feet ready, get yourself square to be able to catch-and-shoot off screens more,” Stamp says.

In private workouts, that has meant putting down cones to mark Iowa bigs setting screens, and mimicking the many defensive machinations an opposing player could take when trying to slow Clark. She is on pace to shoot more catch-and-shoot 3s this season than previously in her college career. Not surprisingly, it’s an area in which she’s thrived — shooting a better percentage than Lillard in his final season with the Portland Trail Blazers and nearly matching Curry’s output in 2022-23. Clark’s current shooting percentage on catch-and-shoot 3s is also superior to Ionescu during her final season at Oregon, when she shot a still-impressive 34 percent on such chances, according to Synergy Sports.

Few players, if any, have had greener lights than Clark. With every milestone, she cements the fact that she has accomplished plenty that no other player in college has done. Still, Stamp does think of another comparison for Clark. She cites Megan Gustafson, a former Naismith Player of the Year, who had been Iowa’s all-time leading scorer until Clark passed her earlier this season. Gustafson is a 6-foot-3 post player who attempted only two 3s in four years at Iowa, but she and Clark are both “masters of their craft” in the eyes of Stamp.

This past weekend, Clark moved to No. 9 all-time in career scoring in women’s college basketball. If she stays healthy and maintains her current scoring average, she is on pace to pass former Washington star Kelsey Plum for No. 1 before the end of the season. Whether Clark then decides to enter the WNBA or return for a fifth year at Iowa remains uncertain, but her success has already put her in conversations with basketball’s elite.

The Athletic’s Seth Partnow contributed to this report.

(Illustration and data visuals: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo of Stephen Curry: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images, photos of Caitlin Clark: G Fiume / Getty Images and Steph Chambers / Getty Images, photo of Sabrina Ionescu / Mitchell Leff)

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