Leistikow: Caitlin Clark's Iowa basketball career is half over. What comes next?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

On a Tuesday morning during her summer break back home in West Des Moines, Caitlin Clark (naturally) can be found with a basketball in her hands.

Clark is known for her “logo shots,” the ones she brashly drains with regularity from 30 feet and beyond. But today, she stands just 5 feet away from the rim.

With her back to the hoop in a backyard home gym of a family friend, Clark — called “the most entertaining player in college basketball” by Yahoo Sports — is getting playfully frustrated that a new post move that she’s practicing is off to a rough start.

"That’s a travel. For sure!” the consensus all-American guard for Iowa yells at herself. “A hundred and ten percent!”

Her trainer of the past five years, Kevin O’Hare, is the one throwing her passes. He believes the most dynamic offensive player in the college game has lots of room to improve. O'Hare is getting her to work on going to her left and to use her rangy 6-foot frame to post up shorter point guards to generate an even greater offensive arsenal.

"With as many shooters as Iowa has and as good a passer as she is, if you get her in the post and they come with double teams, there’s obviously going to be someone open,” O’Hare says. “And they shoot it at a high clip. I think that can add to her game. A lot.”

Clark tries the move again. Pump fake. Dribble between the legs. But ... she dribbles one too many times on her way to the rim. 

Two years into her college career with two to go, national women's basketball star Caitlin Clark has no regrets. “I never want to leave Iowa,” she says. “I want to stay in college forever.”

The next time, the move is exactly what O’Hare wants, and she scores after a power dribble with the left hand. Then she does it correctly again. And again.

It is a scary proposition to opponents awaiting the 2022-23 Iowa women’s basketball season that Clark is continuing to improve.

After becoming the first Division I women’s basketball player to lead the nation in scoring (27.0 points) and assists (8.0 per game) in the same season … and leading Iowa to a Big Ten regular-season and conference-tournament title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament … Clark says she's "hungry as ever for more."

“Say we made it to the Final Four last year, I would still be working out like this,” she says. “That’s just the way I am."

The microphones and cameras are here for a reason. One, because Clark, still just 20 years old, is a nationally known sports figure. But two, because, as she recently came to grips with on Twitter, her college career is already halfway over.

And that begs the question: What does Caitlin Clark have planned for her Second Act?

Motivation is easy to find for Caitlin Clark

In today’s college-sports climate of transfer portals and NIL collectives that essentially make everyone a free agent (if they want to be), Clark would be attractive to any basketball program in the country. But Clark — who in October became the first college athlete, man or woman, to be sponsored by Hy-Vee — is a lifelong Iowan who doesn't desire to be anywhere else. 

What a gift for fans in Iowa and for coach Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes that Clark admittedly isn’t distracted by money-making opportunities and wants to use these next two years to bring as much success as possible to her team. (Yes, she could conceivably stay three more years by using a free COVID-19 year of eligibility, but four years of college then a pro career is the plan.)

A top-five national recruit out of Dowling Catholic High School who could’ve gone anywhere in the country, Clark says after two years of college she absolutely made the right choice.

“I never want to leave Iowa,” she says. “I want to stay in college forever.”

As far as team goals go, taking Iowa to its second-ever Final Four is atop Clark's list. Clark readily knows that the 2023 Final Four is in Dallas, and she pulls out her phone to reveal the latest Final Four logo atop her team's text-message chat. 

Motivation is still pretty fresh, considering the Hawkeyes got knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in a second-round upset by 10th-seeded Creighton in March. She needs no reminder that she shot 4-for-19 from the floor in that 64-62 loss. Yet older brother Blake will occasionally text her a photo of Creighton players celebrating and the Carver-Hawkeye Arena scoreboard.

Leave it to an older brother to know how to stoke his sister's fire.

“It gets you going on the inside a little bit,” Clark says. “It just makes you want to work even harder and prove everybody wrong.”

Every starter is back off a Hawkeye team that overcame a ton of adversity — including a two-week pause in-season for a COVID-19 outbreak (mostly among the coaches) and February injuries to two key starters — to post a 24-8 record and twice cut down Big Ten title nets. That includes center Monika Czinano, who last season averaged 21.2 points per game and led the country with 67.9% shooting.

"It was a little hard for us from time to time," Clark says. "But there was also that stride we hit at the end of the year where we were tremendous. And if we could play like that every single game, we're going to be unstoppable. And I think everybody around the country knows that, too.”

Caitlin Clark played every minute of key Iowa games last year. A transfer point guard from Central Michigan could help save her legs for a long season.

She is excited to spend the summer in Iowa City, starting in early June. Normally, Clark's summers are spent traveling the world with USA Basketball. Staying in Iowa will help her get acclimated to new teammates — including highly anticipated freshmen Jada Gyamfi, Taylor McCabe and Hannah Stuelke. Transfer point guard transfer Molly Davis, who averaged 18.6 points a game last year for Central Michigan, should help Clark get a little more backup ... and rest. The fast-paced Hawkeyes are using all 15 of their available scholarships with the hopes of building a deeper team than last year's.

“Practices are going to be super competitive. It's going to be a lot of people vying for playing time,” Clark says. “But if you want to go far, you need a deep team. If you look at (national champion) South Carolina, they have a lot of really good players and she (Dawn Staley) goes to her bench quite a bit. Being able to develop a lot of people that are ready to go when their name is called will be huge for us.”

Individually, Clark has an ambitious agenda

Clark recently attended the state high school track meet, a rare opportunity to see younger brother Colin compete. She was stopped constantly for chats and photo opportunities. Clark continues to be surprised that she's a celebrity wherever she goes.

“I’m 20 years old. I come home and I do normal things. When somebody asks me for a picture, I’m like, ‘I promise you, I’m not that cool,’” Clark says, laughing. “I don't feel like I'm a celebrity or famous, but it’s so cool for people to be excited about our game and our program.”

In an amusing story since she’s been home the past few weeks, Clark says she was in Hy-Vee (savvy plug) and waiting for her mom near the floral section with her Starbucks coffee. A woman approached and asked where the basil was located. Clark unassumingly pointed her in the right direction.

Caitlin Clark made 88 of 100 mid-range shots in a shooting trill at a recent workout at a family friend's home in West Des Moines.

“I was working for Hy-Vee for a second," Clark says. "It was funny.

“She started walking away, and she turns around and says, ‘I think I know you. You had such an incredible year.' That’s the No. 1 thing everybody says to me. It's like, ‘We’ve never watched women's basketball before. We watch every single one of your games.’ For me, that's the coolest part.”

As Clark's college career enters the second half, she doesn't feel pressure to continue impressing people who are tuning in to see her logo shots and highlight-reel passes.

As Clark sees it, her stardom is helping to pull in new fans of her teammates.  

“I had somebody come up to me the other day and was like, 'It seems like all you guys are just best friends,'" Clark says. “And I'm like, ‘Yeah, we are. I swear. We love each other. We never get annoyed of each other.’”

On the court, Clark has an agenda of individual goals.

No. 1, better defense.

According to HerHoopStats.com, Clark’s offense is in the 99th or 100th percentile in nearly every offensive category among Division I players. But as a freshman, her defense was graded in the fifth percentile. "Like, horrible," she says.

As a sophomore, her defense jumped to the 64th percentile. Continuing that progress is a priority, and staying out of foul trouble can help her cause. Now entering her junior year, she has a better idea of how opponents try to draw charges against her.

No. 2, reducing her mistakes.

“Limiting turnovers is a huge one for me,” Clark says, “and that was talked about a lot in my postseason meeting (with Bluder)."

Clark averaged 4.75 turnovers per game last season. In a mid-season loss to Maryland, she committed 10. She says she'll continue to push the envelope in her game but aim to make better in-game decisions.

No. 3, keeping her cool.

O’Hare is urging Clark to be less abrasive when contesting calls with officials.

“It’s got to be when one of her teammates is shooting a free throw and she leans over to the ref and says, ‘Did you see that person grab me? Just keep an eye on that,’” O’Hare says. “(It’s those) type of conversations, rather than the antics and all that. But that’s something she’s working on."

Clark overhears O'Hare and grins. She's gotten better over the years at channeling her emotions, but there's always room to improve.

This one-hour training session is over. Clark on several occasions had her hands on her knees as sweat soaked her gray Hawkeye T-shirt.

She’s not taking it easy during the summer break.

That was evidenced by a mid-range shooting drill, in which Clark takes 20 jump shots at five different spots just inside the 3-point line. On this day, Clark sets her personal best in five years of running this drill with O’Hare — canning 88 of 100 shots.

Caitlin Clark is aiming to improve her inside game as she enters her junior season at Iowa.

There’s no doubt, Clark isn’t satisfied with what she’s accomplished in two years at Iowa. And she's still getting better.

“Being able to be here for two years, I know I definitely made the right choice,” Clark says. “Our program is really special. More than anything, I’m just grateful for everything that’s unfolded, and it’s been a lot of fun. But I’m just as hungry as ever for more.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.