Caitlin Clark isn't the first guard to go No. 1; here's how she might compare

INDIANAPOLIS — Preseason games — in any sport — are rarely remarkable. Friday in Dallas might be the exception.

In an exhibition game against the Dallas Wings, Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark will make her WNBA debut, and as her career starts, she faces the huge expectations that usually accompany being a No. 1 draft pick.

But after a record-breaking four seasons at Iowa, Clark has more eyes on her than any previous top selection.

How might she compare to the great guards who went before her as the top pick?

Will she be an elite passer like Sue Bird and Sabrina Ionescu? Will Clark — who scored more points than any women’s or men’s player in Division I history — be a WNBA scoring phenom like Diana Taurasi or Seimone Augustus? Can she develop into a top-notch defender like Jackie Young?

Before Clark plays her first WNBA preseason game Friday, we looked at all the former guards who were drafted first overall and have helped set the standard in the WNBA: Bird (2002), Taurasi (2004), Augustus (2006), Lindsey Harding (2007), Jewell Loyd (2015), Kelsey Plum (2017), Young (2019), Ionescu (2020) and Rhyne Howard (2022), plus Angel McCoughtry (2009), who played more in the small forward role but was listed as a forward-guard.

Five of these No. 1 picks — Taurasi, Augustus, McCoughtry, Loyd and Howard — won WNBA Rookie of the Year, but only one — Taurasi in 2009 — won the league MVP award. Bird, Taurasi, Augustus, Loyd, Plum and Young all have won at least two WNBA titles; that group plus McCoughtry were Olympic gold medalists, too.

Here is a look at how they represent the best in the WNBA, and how Clark — who will make her regular-season debut May 14 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) when Indiana plays at the Connecticut Sun — might project in those categories.

Point guard/leadership ability: Bird

When it comes to measuring point guard success, Bird is the gold standard. Before retiring after the 2022 season, she won two NCAA titles at UConn, four WNBA championships with the Seattle Storm and five Olympic gold medals competing for the United States.

Indiana general manager Lin Dunn drafted Bird when she was at Seattle in 2002.

“I see many [similar] characteristics between Bird and Clark,” Dunn said. “The interesting thing about Caitlin is her versatility. I felt like Sue was a true point guard; she really wasn’t a shooting guard. I see Caitlin as a real point guard who can also be a combo and play the 2 because of her shooting ability. When I look at the great guards I have seen, Caitlin has the potential — if she stays healthy, adapts quickly to the physicality of this league — to have that kind of career.”

Bird talked about expanding her ability to understand her teammates and get the best from them. Clark learned to do that at Iowa and will try to do the same at the pro level.

“One of the biggest pieces of advice she’s said is just continue to be yourself,” Clark said of the conversations she has had with Bird. “That’s going to be important for me going forward as there’s going to be moments where things don’t work as maybe they have in the past, but don’t lose confidence in who I’ve been and what I’ve been able to do.

“She said there’s always going to be learning curves and challenges. And having a little grace in that, too. Whether it’s me having grace for myself, or asking my teammates and leaning on them and asking them ways I can improve.”

Scoring sensations: Taurasi and Augustus

Taurasi is the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and enters her 20th season in the league with 10,108 points. Augustus, who finished her career in 2021, is tied with retired Seattle center Lauren Jackson at 13th in scoring at 6,005 points. Both Taurasi and Augustus were elite scorers from their first WNBA games.

Augustus, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this past weekend and will go into the Naismith Hall of Fame later this year, averaged 21.9 points in her rookie season, while Taurasi averaged 17.9. Howard’s 16.2 PPG in her first season ranks as the best among the more recent No. 1 picks at guard.

Taurasi is also the WNBA’s career leader in 3-point field goals with 1,361. Bird is second in that category at 1,001.

Clark, the Division I career scoring leader with 3,951 points, is also the NCAA women’s career leader in 3-pointers made with 548.

As a senior, Clark averaged 31.6 points, and she finished at an NCAA-record 28.4 PPG for her career. The highest season average for any WNBA player is 25.29 by Taurasi in 2006, and Loyd logged the second highest at 24.71 last season.

It’s likely unrealistic to expect Clark to exactly replicate her college scoring. That said, Dunn and Fever coach Christie Sides are confident about Clark’s scoring ability.



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Elite passing: Bird and Ionescu

Bird is the WNBA’s career assists leader at 3,234. She averaged 5.6 assists in 580 regular-season games and 6.1 assists in 60 playoff games. Among younger top draft picks at guard, Ionescu has stood out as a playmaker: She averaged 5.9 assists in three full seasons plus an injury-shortened rookie campaign in which she played just three games.

At Iowa, Clark averaged 8.9 assists as a senior and 8.2 for her career; her total of 1,144 ranks third in Division I history.

“Her ability to pass and her willingness to pass … that’s what all of our players are talking about right now,” Sides said.

Dunn said Clark already has made some passes in training camp that have wowed her.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to anyway,” Dunn said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a passer quite like her in the women’s game. It’s her floor vision, but it’s also the strength of her hands. She’s not only able to make the pass, but it has so much power behind it. She’s got good core strength and leg strength. She can put more power behind even a lengthy pass than I’ve ever seen.”

Triple-double potential: Ionescu

Rebounding is usually the key stat for guards to get triple-doubles. Ionescu excelled at that in college at Oregon — where she had an NCAA-record 26 triple-doubles — and has continued to do it with the Liberty. Ionescu is still early in her WNBA career but has averaged more rebounds (6.1) than any of the other players on this list.

Clark is 6 feet tall, which puts her on the taller side for WNBA guards. Among the players we are evaluating here, Howard is the tallest at 6-foot-2; Harding and Plum are the shortest at 5-8.

Clark nearly finished at 3,000/1,000/1,000 for points, assists and rebounds at Iowa, totaling 990 rebounds (7.1 RPG). She had 17 career triple-doubles.

So far, the 5-11 Ionescu has four triple-doubles in the WNBA. In recent seasons, the number of triple-doubles has been trending upward. That said, Clark is joining a team with some stellar rebounders, such as Aliyah Boston (8.4 RPG last season) and NaLyssa Smith (9.2 RPG in 2023).



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Defensive stars: Harding, McCoughtry, Young

Harding is the outlier in this group of guards; she wasn’t really a 3-point shooter. During her nine-season WNBA career, she hit double digits in 3s just four times and finished with 80 total and 25.2% shooting from behind the arc. However, she had a double-digit scoring average for six seasons and was a consistent playmaker, averaging 4.0 assists for her career. And Harding was known from her Duke days as a strong defensive guard, especially on the ball.

But McCoughtry is the most elite defensive player on this list: She was on the WNBA’s all-defensive first or second team seven times, and at 6-1 with exceptional quickness could guard many types of players. She ranked in the top 10 in steals in the WNBA in seven seasons, three of those at No. 1.

Among more recent guard picks, Young has become a star both offensively and defensively. She didn’t have a big rookie season stats-wise, but as her Most Improved Player award from 2022 showed, she has blossomed into the player Las Vegas hoped for when she was drafted first overall after her junior year at Notre Dame.

Clark isn’t expected to be like Harding, McCoughtry or Young as a defender; not many players reach that level. But Dunn believes Clark’s defensive ceiling is higher than people think. At Iowa, Clark averaged 1.5 steals.

“I think everybody is optimistic about her offensive skills, and a little pessimistic about her defensive skills,” Dunn said. “I’m not as pessimistic because from watching her Iowa career, they allowed her to rest sometimes on defense. They had to, because of how many minutes she played and how much energy she had to have on offense.

“But I think she’s quicker, faster and a better defender than she got credit for. Now, she’s not as physically strong as, say, someone who is 28 years old and is a veteran player. But she is not weak defensively as some people have made her out to be.”

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