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Is Caitlin Clark or Paige Bueckers the nation’s top player?

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After UConn‘s win over Syracuse in the second round of the 2024 women’s NCAA tournament, UConn coach Geno Auriemma made headlines by declaring his star Paige Bueckers “the best player in America.”

Elsewhere, the discussion has been about whether Iowa guard Caitlin Clark — who became the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division I basketball history, men’s or women’s, earlier this year — might be the greatest women’s college player of all time, let alone this season.

To a degree, Auriemma walked back his comments during last weekend’s regional in Portland. He noted that many other coaches would probably call their own star the best in the country and joked he’d never said anything at all on the topic once the Huskies’ matchup with Clark and Iowa in the Final Four was set.

Nonetheless, Auriemma’s argument wasn’t entirely off base. His full comments, which were left out of the headlines, noted Bueckers’ statistical versatility. “In this world of analytics, the numbers say that she is,” Auriemma said. “And the whole stat sheet says that she is.”

Though Clark is undoubtedly the better scorer and playmaker, Bueckers — who won the majority of national player of the year awards as a freshman, including the Naismith and Wooden honors — has helped UConn overcome frontcourt injuries by defending opposing post players. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the versatile Bueckers has already become the first player since 2000 with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in three different games in the same tournament.

So what do the advanced statistics actually tell us about Bueckers’ performance this season relative to Clark’s? Let’s break them down.

Clark is the engine for Iowa’s efficient offense

It doesn’t require breaking down stats on a per-possession basis to reveal Clark is the nation’s best scorer. If anything, however, her performance looks more impressive when factoring in both volume and efficiency.

At 27.1 PPG, USC‘s JuJu Watkins — who became the highest-scoring freshman in NCAA Division I history Monday — was in the same ballpark as Clark’s 32.0 PPG. (No other player averaged even 24 PPG.) Yet Watkins’ high-scoring totals were more a product of her national best 43% usage rate than the kind of hyper-efficient scoring we saw from Clark, who finished third behind Watkins and Florida guard Aliyah Matharu.

Consider that Clark’s .616 true shooting percentage (TS%), which factors in all points and scoring plays used either as shot attempts or trips to the free throw line, was a full .1 better than Watkins (.513) or anyone in the country with a 35% usage rate or higher save Villanova‘s Lucy Olsen (.519).

Flipped from the other perspective, just six other players besides Clark managed a .600 TS% or better while finishing at least 30% of their team’s plays. (Bueckers, at a 29% usage rate and a .636 TS% that’s a bit better than Clark’s, just misses this cutoff.) The next highest usage in this group behind Clark’s 40% was 33% for Utah post Alissa Pili.

When we graph usage and TS%, Clark is truly in her own world.

As that graph indicates, maintaining high efficiency at Clark’s high usage rate is more difficult than doing it in Bueckers’ more modest offensive role. Still, both players stand out for their well-rounded offensive games. According to Synergy Sports tracking, Bueckers averaged at least a point per play on each of her six most common play types. For Clark, it was four of her top five — all but transition.

Both players are especially dangerous off-ball threats, ranking second (Bueckers) and third (Clark) in average points from off-ball screens among Division I players with at least 100 such plays behind Gonzaga specialist Brynna Maxwell.

Because of those opportunities, Clark isn’t entirely dependent on creating her own shot. Still, just 39% of her field goals this season were assisted, as compared to 55% for Bueckers according to CBB Analytics, reflecting their added difficulty.

It’s not solely Clark’s scoring that makes her so valuable on offense. She also led the NCAA with 9.0 APG. Back when both players were freshmen, Bueckers averaged 5.8 APG to Clark’s 7.1. With Nika Muhl‘s emergence as a lead ball handler, Bueckers’ average dropped to a career-low 3.9 this season while Clark pushed her average to a new career high.

With the ball in her hands less frequently, Bueckers commits fewer turnovers. Her 2.62 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked in the top 20, while Clark’s daring passes dropped her ratio to 1.89.

Ultimately, the strength of the Hawkeyes’ offense might be the best testament to Clark’s value at that end of the court. Without any other five-star recruits or certain WNBA prospects, Iowa leads in HerHoopStats’ offensive rating with an efficiency adjusted for opposition nearly seven points better than the next-best team (South Carolina). UConn’s offense, ranked fifth, is strong but not on the same level.

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Rebecca Lobo and Andraya Carter discuss the Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers showdown and South Carolina’s dominance heading into the Final Four.

Bueckers bigger than her size on defense

At 5-foot-11, Bueckers is actually listed an inch shorter than the 6-foot-0 Clark. You wouldn’t know it from her defensive statistics. With incumbent starting center Dorka Juhasz heading to the WNBA, Bueckers leads the Huskies with 1.4 BPG to go along with her team-high 2.3 SPG. And after the loss of Aubrey Griffin in the frontcourt, Bueckers stepped up her contributions on the glass, averaging 5.8 RPG the remainder of the season.

That made Bueckers one of six players in major conferences to average at least five rebounds, two steals and a block per game, a group that also includes Watkins and LSU‘s duo of Flau’jae Johnson and Aneesah Morrow. Among them, only the 6-foot-2 Watkins blocked shots more frequently than Bueckers.

Clark uses her size to be a terrific defensive rebounder in her own right, having averaged as many as 8.0 RPG in 2021-22 and 7.3 this season. Her rates of steals (1.8 per game) and blocks (0.5, tied for the team lead) are also good for a perimeter player. Still, Clark isn’t asked to do as much defensively as Bueckers, who was given the primary defensive assignment on Watkins through much of Monday’s regional final.

Notably, Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder likes to use zone far more often than Auriemma, limiting Clark’s individual defensive responsibility. Per Synergy Sports tracking, Iowa played zone on 22% of defensive plays, as compared to 5% for UConn.

So far during the NCAA tournament, Bueckers has been at her best defensively. She has upped her rebounding average to 9.0 per game and has at least three steals in all four games, averaging 3.3 per contest.

Although Bueckers can’t take as much individual credit as Clark can for her team’s offense, the Huskies have been far better defensively this season than the Hawkeyes. Their HerHoopStats defensive rating ranks second behind South Carolina, while Iowa has advanced to the Final Four despite ranking 22nd in the metric.

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UConn reaches record 23rd Final Four behind Bueckers’ 28-point night

Paige Bueckers scores 28 points to go with 10 rebounds and 6 assists as UConn tops USC to reach its 23rd Final Four.

Overall value favors Clark, but there’s a case for Bueckers

We’ve established that conventional wisdom is right to favor Clark on offense and Bueckers on defense. When we put those together, the results depend on your metric of choice. Sports-Reference.com offers a pair of player value stats, and Clark leads with Bueckers second in win shares, while Bueckers has the nation’s best rating in their box plus-minus (BPM) metric.

My wins above replacement player (WARP) metric also favors Clark over Bueckers as the nation’s top two players, with an estimated 14.5 WARP for Clark to Bueckers’ 13.4. Both WARP and win shares reflect the kind of offensive dominance for Clark we see in the individual and team statistics, while BPM rates Bueckers (plus-15.5 points per 100 possessions) nearly as strong as Clark (plus-16.3).

Ultimately, the idea that Bueckers is nearly as good offensively is hard for me to justify. Bueckers is outstanding in her own right, but Clark is carrying one of the nation’s heaviest offensive burdens with unparalleled efficiency, producing the nation’s best offense.

Although Auriemma is undoubtedly right that Bueckers has the more complete game, Clark’s strengths are so exceptional and in such key areas that she has been the best player in America this season — at least until we see the two players go head-to-head Friday night.



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