Lisa Bluder, the women’s basketball coach at Iowa, had developed a concrete definition of a good shot attempt during her four decades of coaching experience. A player needs to be in range, in rhythm and uncontested.
And then, in 2020, a 6-foot point guard named Caitlin Clark arrived on campus — and that definition fell apart.
Clark, who has led Division I in made 3-pointers in two of her three seasons at Iowa, regularly shoots from mere steps inside the midcourt line, sometimes off-balance, and often over the outstretched arms of defenders, defying Bluder’s three pillars.
“I have definitely had to change that,” Bluder said. “But she’s a special player, so she gets special opportunities.”
Clark has become one of college basketball’s biggest stars, captivating audiences and frustrating coaches (sometimes even her own) with her long-range shooting accuracy. Clark is a finalist for the 2023 Naismith national player of the year award, and her dynamic offensive play has Iowa (30-6) in the round of 16 for the third time in the past four N.C.A.A. tournaments. The Hawkeyes will play sixth-seeded Colorado (27-8) on Friday in Seattle.
“She can score from anywhere, and I mean anywhere,” North Carolina State Coach Wes Moore said after Clark scored 45 points, with five made 3-pointers, against his team earlier this season. “I don’t know how you stop her. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In a recent interview, Clark said her favorite time to take 3-pointers is when the game is in transition: off a rebound, a steal or even an inbound pass if she can quickly push the ball up the court. Clark’s effectiveness in transition has Iowa ranked eighth in Division I in fast-break points. (There’s even a 10-minute video of Clark taking jumpers in transition.)
The transition 3-pointer is another shot that coaches have generally shied away from, considering it to have a low success rate, but old basketball rules have never mattered to Clark.
“When I’m in the gym, I’m shooting transition 3s, a little bit behind the line, and on the move,” said the 21-year-old Clark.
“They’re not just shots that I get in the game and put up,” she said, adding: “They’re shots that I’m continually working on and trying to refine.”
The 3-point arc is just over 22 feet from the rim at the top of the key, and most defenders start hounding Clark from there, forcing her to take shots farther and farther back. But Clark is even more effective on attempts from 25 to 30 feet away from the rim than she is on 3-pointers within 25 feet. On the deeper attempts, she is shooting 43.8 percent, almost 14 percentage points higher than the Division I average of 30.1 percent, according to CBB Analytics, a website that tracks player stats. She has attempted 20 more 3-pointers from the deeper zone than she has closer to the line.
“Sometimes, for her, a 25- or 27-footer is a lot more open than a 24-footer,” Bluder said. “So, you know, why not, right?”
CBB Analytics treats shots from farther than 30 feet as heaves, typically shots taken at the ends of quarters or games that otherwise wouldn’t happen. But for Clark, shots from that far out have become somewhat routine. She is shooting 30 percent this season from over 30 feet, making 10 of her 33 attempts — six more scores than the next closest player.
“It’s going to force us to change what we consider heaves,” said Nicholas Canova, the founder of CBB Analytics. “We’ll definitely bump back what we consider a heave this summer because of players like her.”
Clark has been pushing her own basketball boundaries since elementary school. In her early years, she remembers growing frustrated that her father wouldn’t allow her to take deeper shots, instead forcing her to practice layups and midrange shooting. It wasn’t until Clark was around 10 years old that she finally began taking 3-pointers, often practicing with her two brothers in their driveway before school.
But soon she needed more room for deeper shots. So her dad removed more grass from the family’s lawn to make space for his daughter’s range.
On the driveway, with guidance from her father, Clark perfected the form that has become so effective. For her, the most important part of the shot is how she positions her legs and feet. As she sprints past defenders and shoots from long range, her dad’s constant directives of “feet under your body” run through her head. “When I do miss, I’m usually off-balance,” Clark said.
But Clark can still devastate opponents even when that ideal form goes by the wayside. In a game against Indiana last month, she caught a pass and flung the ball toward the rim as time expired, her left leg kicking out in the air before she landed on her right. The shot went in to give Iowa the win.
“I didn’t have much time to get my feet set, honestly,” Clark said while laughing. “That’s kind of one you just kind of hope you can get up and get in.”
The most memorable game of Clark’s career for Clark and Bluder came in February 2022 against Michigan. Iowa had only seven healthy players, and Clark said Bluder gave her the “green light” to bend the good shot rule even more than she already had been doing.
Iowa lost, but Clark scored 46 points, 25 of which came in the fourth quarter. On one shot, she pulled up inside of Michigan’s blue “M” logo at halfcourt. Video of Clark’s shooting went viral on social media.
“I think that’s when the whole world kind of picked up on it,” Bluder said.
Since then, her stock has continued to rise, with innumerable big games full of deep shots — even if Bluder has had to reel Clark in from time to time.
When Clark takes a deep transition 3-pointer that doesn’t match even Bluder’s revamped definition of a good attempt, the coach uses the phrase “time and score” to remind Clark that her shot wasn’t necessary in that situation. Bluder pointed to instances when Clark has hit one or two big 3s and shoots another, either too early in the shot clock or too deep for even her, that can turn into points in transition for the opposing team.
“If she makes one, you better believe that the next time she comes down, she’s going to take it again,” Bluder said, adding: “But sometimes, you know, you’ve got to take the good with the bad and the bad with the good with her.”