Caitlin Clark vs. Angel Reese is more than just a matchup of rookie stars

A career high in scoring. A double-double.

Rookies Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese reached classic form in the days leading up to their first meeting in the WNBA. Clark, the logo-3 shooting heavyweight, scored 30 points while shooting 42.8%, both career-bests, alongside a packed stat line in a loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday. Reese, the double-double queen in college, secured her first professional double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds in a loss to Seattle the same night.

Clark’s Indiana Fever (1-8) hosts Reese’s Chicago Sky (3-3), which could have No. 3 overall draft pick Kamilla Cardoso back from injury to make her pro debut on Saturday (CBS, 12 p.m. ET) in the first of four matchups this season. It also is the opening game of the streamlined Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season tournament with a prize pool of $500,000. Teams play their five conference opponents once each; the team with the highest winning percentage in the East and West play on June 25 in the fourth annual title game.

Clark and Reese are accustomed to competition with big stakes. They met on the court four times in college (Reese’s teams were 3-1), but it’s the two most recent matchups in the NCAA tournament that created a rivalry reminiscent of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese at the WNBA Draft held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 15, 2024 in New York, New York. (Photo by Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese have certainly taken their places in the WNBA. (Photo by Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

Reese, a Maryland transfer who played Iowa twice as a freshman in the Big Ten, left college with a national championship. The world saw her point at her ring finger as the minutes ticked off LSU’s victory over Iowa in the 2023 NCAA national championship game.

In the highly anticipated rematch in 2024, Clark’s 41 points led Iowa past LSU into the Final Four and eventually the program’s second consecutive title game. Clark tripled Iowa’s appearances in the Final Four and entered the pros fresh off blasting through NCAA all-time scoring records believed to be untouchable.

Their legacies are intertwined for life. Their active perch atop the rookie class and their futures in the WNBA history books are no different.

It’s likely one of them will be named the season’s first Rookie of the Month by the WNBA in the coming days. Clark leads all rookies in scoring average (17.6 ppg), assists (6.6 apg), efficiency (16.9) and turnovers (5.7). In one of her most interesting early stats, she ranks second in blocks (1.1 bpg) behind Cameron Brink (2.7) and ahead of Aaliyah Edwards (1.0). Brink is also a strong contender for the monthly award.

Clark, a 6-foot point guard, is already among the league’s best in assists, 3-pointers (2.7 makes per game rank sixth) and free throws (4.7 makes per game rank eighth). Her assist average currently ranks third all-time among rookies, trailing Ticha Penicheiro (7.5) and Suzie McConnell Serio (6.4), each of whom played in the league’s second season. While through nine games, her scoring average is 11th all-time among rookies with a 55.4 true shooting percentage that’s in the top 50 among active players.

Reese, a 6-foot-3 forward, leads all active rookies in rebounding (8.6) over Brink (5.4) and Clark (5.1). She’s second in scoring average (11.0 ppg), fifth in assists (2.0 apg), sixth in turnovers (2.0 tpg) and third in efficiency (12.5, behind Brink’s 15.0).

She’s atop the league in offensive rebounding (4.5 per game rank first), 10th in overall rebounding (8.2) and 16th in free throws made (3.7 ). Her rebounding average currently ranks seventh all time among rookies.

Despite mirroring success in their specialities, they entered their professional careers with vastly differing expectations.

When Clark landed in Indianapolis as the city’s sensational superstar destined for professional greatness, the Fever became anticipated winners in waiting. Fans dreamed of Clark lighting up the scoreboard when she wasn’t feeding 2023 No. 1 overall pick Aliyah Boston in the post. Their thoughts were on a postseason berth for the first time since 2016.

In some fans’ vision, Clark is the shining light of promise that extends to the entire WNBA. The outside pressure is as loud as Gainbridge Fieldhouse when their point guard enters full Classic Clark mode and hits deep triples.

Reese bounced around draft boards, starting as a second-round projection and moving into the first round as her senior year progressed. She faced questions of whether her game would translate. Rebounding against professionals is different from doing it on the collegiate level, and she hasn’t yet developed a consistent mid-range or outside shot.

Chicago, rebuilding from a freefall after their unlikely 2021 championship as a No. 6 seed, is the franchise in transition and drafted Reese No. 7 overall. The Sky hired first-year head coach Tereesa Weatherspoon, a Hall of Fame player, to launch a rebuild. They practice in a public recreation center while other teams build personalized practice facilities, and the front office was quiet in free agency one year after their superstar core left for better, brighter markets. They weren’t expected to be a playoff contender.

That’s the thing about expectations. They’re based merely on a strong belief. Reality is set by a mixture of individuals. Chicago and Reese have the upper hand going into Saturday.

Indiana faced the toughest start of any team in the league and it showed. Playing seven games in 12 days against the league’s three best teams (New York, Connecticut and Las Vegas) and top MVP finalists (Breanna Stewart, Alyssa Thomas and A’ja Wilson) did the Fever no early favors. They’ve struggled to put together a full game, have looked disheveled and haven’t been able to capitalize on easy, early looks. Their single win was against Los Angeles, which drafted Brink second overall, and Indiana couldn’t win the rematch days later.

Fever head coach Christie Sides noted again after a 103-88 loss to Seattle on Thursday that such little practice time has negatively impacted her team’s ability to improve, specifically on the defensive end. The Fever are giving up an average of 89.8 ppg, last in the league and trailing the top-ranked Sun by 16 points.

Indiana can approach the next five games as a fresh slate — a season within a season — which would be smart because their season is already 25% complete. The Fever play their second back-to-back — both included travel — against the Sky at home on Saturday and at New York on Sunday. The Fever then finally have a breather with four days of rest before Friday’s game at Washington and two days’ rest between each of the final Commissioner’s Cup games.

Chicago’s schedule wasn't much easier in terms of competition. The Sky joined the Fever as the two franchises to face three of the top four teams within the season’s first two weeks. They split a two-game road trip to Dallas, upset title runner-up New York and lost single-digit contests to Connecticut and Seattle.

Their veteran-heavy starting lineup has more experience to rely upon than Indiana. And they had practice time to put things together and rest. They’ve played two of their six games on one or fewer days’ rest; the Fever played seven of their nine that way.

Much like the meeting of superstars exactly two months ago, this game will come down to Indiana vs. Chicago. The result could factor heavily into playoff seeding because the Nos. 7-10 teams in the standings are often within a game of each other by season’s end. Yet, everyone’s eyes will still be on Clark and Reese, two fierce competitors who were in vastly different situations when they last met with a trophy on the line.