Caitlin Clark, Kate Martin solving rookie year together – apart

LAS VEGAS — Of course Caitlin Clark talked trash. Kate Martin expected nothing less. 

It was May 25, and the WNBA rookies − Clark of the Indiana Fever, Martin of the Las Vegas Aces − were matched against each other for the first time in their professional careers. Martin was trying to be serious. Clark wasn’t. 

‘Man, she’s not very good at basketball isn’t she?’ Clark said to the official as he handed the ball to Martin, who suppressed a smile. 

Later, it was Clark’s turn to smile. When the No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft realized she was about to guard her best friend and former Iowa teammate, she couldn’t stop grinning. A photo of the moment went viral, the latest keepsake for the midwestern natives whose love of basketball has led them on a journey no one saw coming. 

That they get to experience it together makes it that much sweeter. 

‘It’s so rare in this league for two people from the same team to both make it, unless you go to UConn or South Carolina or something, there’s so many of them in the league,’ Martin told USA TODAY Sports, with a laugh. ‘It’s really nice to have one of your best friends going through a similar experience. She knows exactly what I mean every time I say something; it’s hard to talk to other friends (about the WNBA) because they just don’t understand our jobs.’ 

The two meet again Tuesday when the Aces host the Fever (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Sometimes it’s still unreal to Martin that this is her reality now.

‘I never would have thought I’d be in this position,’ she said. ‘I always knew Caitlin was going to change the world, but I’m super grateful to be here, too.’

‘She knows how to play with superstars’

Long before her name was called in April, everyone knew Clark would make history as the No. 1 pick, perhaps the most heralded rookie to ever join the league. Martin was in the crowd to support Clark. But when her name was called in the second round − pick No. 18 overall to the two-time defending champion Aces − everyone was surprised. 

Everyone except Clark. 

Clark loves to gush about Martin, her roadtrip roommate when the two were at Iowa, leading the Hawkeyes to back-to-back Final Fours. 

‘It’s kind of rare at the pro level what she can bring to a team, but she’s one of those people that’s not gonna care if she scores points, not gonna care how many rebounds she has or how many assists she has − she’s just gonna come in and play as hard as she possibly gonna, gonna be the best teammate she can be and those are the type of people you want in your locker room,’ Clark said. 

But Martin’s contributions are more than just a ‘glue guy,’ Clark emphasized. 

‘She makes shots, she makes 3s, she always has her feet ready,’ Clark said. ‘From a basketball standpoint at times she could get a little overlooked. But she could do some amazing things − she can do some things I couldn’t do! Her mid-post game is really good, she has a nice little fadeaway, she has a high basketball IQ. Those are the type of players (Aces coach) Becky (Hammon) wants. I think she fits that system perfectly.’ 

Hammon agrees. 

The two-time WNBA champion coach hoped that everyone else would be so enamored with Clark, the all-time scoring leader in the history of college basketball, that they’d overlook Martin, allowing the Aces to draft her. 

‘Caitlin Clark is amazing, I love watching that kid, but − you don’t take one person and put their team in the Final Four,’ Hammon said. ‘You’ve got to have other pieces. To me, Kate was the next most important piece. She knew how to impact a game without having all the plays called for her. On this team, I’m not calling plays for Kate Martin. She knows how to play with superstars.’ 

Those superstars, led by two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, have embraced Martin. The Aces’ pranks on Martin − they pretended to leave her behind at dinner, forcing her to chase the team bus; and for their preseason game against Puerto Rico in South Carolina, Wilson made Martin dress head-to-toe in Gamecocks gear − have been all over social media. But so have tender moments, like when Wilson bought Martin a cake and tiara to celebrate her 24th birthday. 

The consensus throughout the WNBA: No one is having more fun in her rookie season than Martin.

Caitlin Clark, Kate Martin in different roles

Clark and Martin are in dramatically different roles as pros. Clark, who leads all rookies in points (16.2 per game) and assists (6.9), is the star of the show in Indiana, drawing double-teams and tons of media attention. Martin comes off the bench, the quintessential role player. She’s averaging 3.9 points and 2.2 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game.

They talk every day, usually via text message, and spend time together whenever their chaotic schedules allow. Their favorite pastime: Exploring new restaurants and trying different desserts. Clark is a sucker for warm chocolate chip cookies. Martin loves anything with lemon and blueberry. 

Though their lives are ruled by basketball, they try to not talk hoops constantly. Martin feels for Clark, who has become so famous she can barely leave her apartment. Clark’s play has been picked apart to the nth degree throughout her first six weeks in the league, an exhausting reality that comes with her platform. 

When either one of them needs a lift, the other is there to provide a pep talk. 

‘I’ve had my down moments and she’s hyped me up, just like she did at Iowa,’ Martin said. ‘I’ve never been in Caitlin’s shoes and I never will be, she’s on a completely different stage than me, but as much as I can be a listening ear and encourage her back, I try to do that.’ 

Lisa Bluder, the now-retired Iowa coach who recruited Martin and Clark to Iowa City, has been in the arena each time her former Hawkeyes have played each other. Watching them on the court together — plus Las Vegas center Megan Gustafson, a 2019 Iowa grad — was “so rewarding,” Bluder said. 

‘When you see your athletes achieve their dreams, that’s what coaching is all about,’ Bluder said. ‘I absolutely love it. They’re doing what they love to do. And when all three of them were on the floor at the same time, that was a pretty cool moment.’ 

Bluder knows, too, how freeing it is for Clark to talk with Martin, someone Clark can let her guard down around. Every move Clark makes and every word she says is scrutinized. That would weigh on anyone, especially a 22-year-old. While Bluder is thrilled that Martin has found a place in the WNBA, she’s equally happy that because of it, ‘Caitlin has someone she can talk to who gets it − I think she really needs that.’  

Following each other’s success from afar

Clark and Martin might try to avoid having basketball dominate their conversations, but they do follow each other’s stat lines closely. Martin signed up for WNBA league pass to watch all of Clark’s games, and Clark is often checking the box score before and after pregame to see how Martin is playing. They analyze each other’s contributions and share tips; Martin said she especially appreciates any and all advice from Clark, who is renowned for her excellent hoops IQ. They also discuss dress strategy, a nod to the recent WNBA trend of photographing players’ pregame looks. 

‘We always send each other photos like ‘wait, do you like this outfit?’ ‘ Martin said, laughing. ‘That’s a fun little piece about the WNBA. We were both nervous (at the beginning of the season) like, ‘What are we going to wear? We always just wear sweatpants!’ ‘

The Aces and Fever will meet twice more, with games scheduled in Indianapolis on Sept. 11 and Sept. 13. Clark and Martin can’t wait. 

And yes, there’s sure to be trash talk in those matchups, too. That’s how they like it. 

Email Lindsay Schnell at lschnell@usatoday.com and follow her on social media @Lindsay_Schnell

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