Some lessons about talent and teams from Caitlyn Clark’s first WNBA game

AP photo

Caitlyn Clark, the college basketball record-breaker who shoots and scores at will from nearly anywhere on the court, just played her first WNBA game.

She looked terrible.

The Indiana Fever picked her first in the WNBA draft and, last night, played a sold-out game against the Connecticut Sun in Connecticut. To say Clark had a slow start would be an understatement. She was whistled for two fouls in the first quarter. She had 10 turnovers, including dribbling the ball off her foot. She didn’t score a point until halfway through the second quarter. She eventually took eleven long-range three-point shots and made only four. The Sun beat the Fever 92-71.

This is a woman who just got a $28 million sponsorship deal from Nike, including her own shoe. WNBA teams that will be hosting the Indiana Fever are lining up larger arenas to deal with the surge of interest in seeing her play.

What happened?

Team > Individual

I watched the Fever-Sun game on ESPN. It was every bit as entertaining as the NBA playoffs that the best male players in the world are competing in right now.

But the Sun were well-coached. Well aware of her shooting prowess, they stationed two players to defend her, regardless of how far away she was from the basket. Caitlyn Clark is six feet tall, taller than most women, but three or four inches shorter than the defenders that were trapping her.

It was clear even to my untrained eyes that the Sun were a lot more adept at playing as a team. They staged a bunch of flawlessly executed passing plays, knew where each other were likely to be set up, and followed up their teammates’ misses.

Clark, on the other hand, joined the Fever only a month ago. That’s not enough time to really get to know your teammates. She fired a bunch of nifty passes — behind-the-back bouncers and long lobs — but her teammates weren’t expecting them and weren’t capable of handling them. When Clark got open, she pounced — in the end, she scored 20 points, leading all Fever scorers — but when she was swarmed by defenders, her team didn’t seem to have a plan for how to help her out and take advantage of the openness of her teammates.

Clark may have been the best pure player on the court, but it sure wasn’t apparent, because the Sun took away her chances to shine. And the Sun were a far better team than the Fever on both offense and defense, at least for this game, which is what made the difference.

Talent upsets teams

Caitlyn Clark will certainly take a lot away from this humbling experience. “There’s a lot to learn from; it’s the first one,” she told reporters after the game. “I would have liked to have played a little better tonight.”

A talent like Clark upsets an existing team. They’ll have to regroup and figure out how to play better together. Her coach will scheme up what to do when she’s swarmed with taller defenders, which every opponent will surely try now. She’ll work with her teammates on those passes, so they know what to expect from each other. The Fever will certainly be better with Clark than without her, once she and they figure out who they are.

Whoever you are and whatever you do, you’ll probably experience a situation like this in your career. You might be the hotshot new creative contributor, the analytical wizard, the super-productive app coder, or the preternaturally talented public speaker joining an existing team. Or you might already be on a team that’s been working well when a talent like that appears.

It’s going to be rough. You’re going to have lots of days where you wonder, if I’m so talented (or, if the new contributor is so talented), why aren’t we able to do great things?

Nothing really gets done at work without a team, and wild talents are hard to adjust to.

That might leave you all with your noses out of joint, spending your time on scheming for power in the new alignment, on finding excuses to show off or to humiliate the newbie.

Or, you all might have the maturity to figure out where the new talent fits in, and to build a support structure that lets her shine in a way that benefits everybody. That’s work. It takes humility on everybody’s part, and creativity.

Caitlyn Clark and her team are sure to figure out how to work together like winners. (Nike, among many others, is counting on it).

How about you. Are you ready to put in the work to make wild talent into an actual advantage?

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