Caitlin Clark is chasing the legendary Candace Parker, but history says that won’t be easy

When Caitlin Clark takes the court for her first regular-season WNBA game on Tuesday night, Mohegan Sun Arena will be at capacity.

“WNBA Countdown” will air a half-hour pregame show on-site in rural Uncasville, Connecticut, for the 7:30 p.m. ET contest on ESPN2. The network will utilize a WNBA Finals-level production setup and provide the game stream on Disney+ as the first live sports league on the app. Millions are expected to tune in on opening night.

When the final buzzer sounds after the first 40 minutes of what’s expected to be a sensational rookie season for the record books, Clark and the Indiana Fever will hop onto a charter flight home rather than kill a potential off day between games with long travel and layovers.

All of this is what Candace Parker referred to when she said in her retirement announcement she promised she’d leave the game “in a better place than I came into it.” She didn’t know then about the specifics of the WNBA’s 28th season tipoff even as her presence helped create it.

It’s poetic that Parker exited the game as Clark entered it. There’s a clean split in eras of generational talents spoken about in similar tones with outsized influence on the league they represent. The looming question is if Clark can do what only Parker ever did: winning Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The prospect is understandable considering their parallel paths.

Parker headlined the 2008 WNBA Draft as the Sparks’ No. 1 pick in, as detailed in the Norwich Bulletin, “perhaps the best draft class the WNBA has ever seen.” Sylvia Fowles went No. 2 and Candice Wiggins No. 3.

Viewers tuned into the WNBA, then in its 12th season, for the first time. They loved watching a positionless forward who could dunk and bring the ball up the court. She was a first in setting a reestablished standard. And her pairing with center Lisa Leslie enticed fans in and out of Los Angeles. The Sparks doubled their win total from 10-24, tied for worst in the league, to 20-14 and a second-round playoff appearance.

Sound familiar? Clark’s 2024 draft class is projected to be league-changing. Viewership and attendance is soaring. Everyone loves a shooter who can lure fans into believing attempts from the logo are high-percentage shots. That distance shooting is fun and new. And her pairing with center Aliyah Boston has been anticipated and discussed for months. The expectation in Indianapolis is a postseason berth.

Parker’s presence reaches so wide that it’s common for stats to include the disclaimer “the first since Candace Parker,” a phrase used often in Across the Timeline data. WNBA stars called her a trailblazer and legend when news of the two-time MVPs retirement spread through the opening day of training camps.

Becoming the first since Parker to win ROY and MVP won’t be simple, even if bettors are placing 11 times more bets on Clark for MVP than anyone else. This is the league that Parker built, and it has more high-level, concentrated talent than ever. Every year that passes, the chance of a rookie wowing to a level higher than the established veterans dwindles.

It’s also a league that favors frontcourt numbers in MVP voting. No guard has won the award since Diana Taurasi in 2009, when she received 323 points to Fever star Tamika Catchings’ 163. The hotly contested 2023 MVP race featured three forwards: Liberty winner Breanna Stewart, Aces champion A’ja Wilson and do-it-all point-center Alyssa Thomas. All are favorites of media members to lead the MVP race again.

Heralded No. 1 picks come through the WNBA regularly and put up league-leading numbers. Stewart, the No. 1 pick in 2016, ranked sixth in scoring, second in rebounds and third in blocks that season. But Nneka Ogwumike won MVP as the third-best scorer and rebounder in the league, among other notable stats.

Wilson, the No. 1 pick in 2018 who’s won two MVPs, ranked third in scoring, sixth in rebounds and sixth in blocks that season. But Stewart ranked second, third and eighth, respectively, with top-10 rankings in nearly every category, including efficiency, to claim the 2018 MVP.

What each winner had outside of the stats was team success. The Aces, Liberty and Sun finished first through third last season behind their MVP candidates. Guard Jewell Loyd largely remained off the top of ballots because the Seattle Storm finished in the bottom four.

Most led their teams to titles the same year, and all but one MVP since 2014 led a roster that finished top two in the overall standings. Chicago and MVP Elena Delle Donne finished two wins behind the Liberty for third in 2015. That top-line success would be quite the season for the Fever, a team that hasn’t been in the eight-team playoffs since 2016.

The last MVP winner whose team finished below fourth in the regular-season standings?

A rookie generational talent by the name of Candace Parker, who went on to change the game as we know it.

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