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Aliyah Boston And Caitlin Clark Are Both Redefining Basketball Greatness

The level of passion toward the two front-runners of the women’s college basketball player of the year award — South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark — is understandable. 

They haven’t simply had great seasons, though both Boston and Clark certainly posted numbers that stand up against any in the game: Boston is the runaway leader in total win shares with 14, and Clark is the leader in offensive win shares with 9.9. In both cases, they have redefined the ceiling for the storied programs they play for, amazing even their longtime coaches — Dawn Staley for Boston in South Carolina and Lisa Bluder for Clark in Iowa.

“As people all recognize, Caitlin is a leading scorer in the country,” Bluder said to me last month after an Iowa victory over Rutgers. “Well, yeah, but she leads the country in assists, too. And not only that, she’s our No. 1 rebounder. And she’s one of our best free throw-shooters as well. So she impacts the game in so many different ways that people sometimes just get fixated on that scoring. It’s other things as well.”

To put her in some Iowa-specific context: Kathleen Doyle is one of the greatest point guards in Hawkeye history, a WNBA player who just signed with the Chicago Sky. Her senior-season assist percentage was 36.1

Clark has topped 40 in each of her first two seasons.

With Boston, there’s the incredible reality that while playing the same position as the iconic A’ja Wilson — so legendary there’s already a statue of her on South Carolina’s campus, despite only graduating in 2018 — somehow Boston is on track to statistically exceed her. 

In her first three seasons, Wilson posted 9.4, 9.9 and 12.9 win shares. Boston has checked in at 10.7, 10.1 and 14 so far in her junior year, meaning she’s already bested Wilson’s junior season with the NCAA Tournament still ahead of her.

“I mean, it’s a luxury to have Aliyah Boston,” Staley said in a Zoom interview. “Because she’s able to do so many things. Her ball-handling has improved.” 

“If you could believe this, her IQ has improved,” Staley noted with a chuckle about the hyper-cerebral Boston. “Her ability to handle physicality — double-teaming, triple-teaming has improved — and she’s had a target on her back, you know, for as long as she’s played college basketball. … Her ability to efficiently shoot the outside shot and not just be confined to the block in the paint has helped her.”

Again, these are all areas Boston has gotten better in since she finished seventh in the nation among all players in win shares as a freshman

But while both players’ respective impacts are clearly massive, each has a profoundly different argument to make for the nation’s top spot.

In ways that simply don’t compute, Clark is nothing less than the engine of the nation’s top-ranked Power Five team in offensive efficiency. Her assist percentage of 42.6 is well ahead of the pack among Power Five players, something her teammates and coach say goes beyond just a question of other Hawkeyes like Monika Czinano, the machine-like finisher at the rim, or her trio of teammates — Tami Taiwo, McKenna Warnock and Gabby Marshall — all shooting north of 39 percent from three.

“Caitlin throws passes sometimes, like around the defender, where she knows I’m going to be on the cuts,” Czinano told me. “That’s something that you almost can’t even teach really, just court awareness and IQ. So that’s really cool to see. And it sets me up for the highest percentage shot.”

While the scouting reports mean that opposing teams are going to send their best defenders (often two or three of them) at Clark anytime she has the ball in shooting range, it’s not really the same thing with Clark as it is with other perimeter players. She’s simply capable of scoring from further away. Note her shot chart here in 2021-22, courtesy of CBB Analytics:

CBB Analytics

The number of red hexagons more than 28 feet from the basket — some more than 30 feet out — reflect how defenses need to effectively pick up Clark at midcourt.

Even her defense has improved in her sophomore year. By win shares, Clark actually lost 1.0 win last year on defense, but she’s at 1.5 so far this season. One WNBA talent evaluator told me a lot of this comes down to teaching her better defensive techniques — that given her obvious workrate, her ceiling is a very good defender at the next level.

That is, however, what separates Boston when evaluating her in 2021-22: She is already as potent a defensive force as exists in the nation, the leading interior defender for the top Power Five defense in the country.

Boston does it in all the usual ways — a block percentage north of 8, top-20 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, a steal percentage of 2.3 that more befits a guard than a big — but Staley points out that there are aspects of Boston’s defensive dominance that require watching her up close, things she’s seen since Boston arrived on campus, versatility that allows Staley to use her as a 4, a 5, even a super-sized 3.

“I knew she would know how to guard,” Staley said. “Guarding someone coming off screens. I know she will communicate enough if she gets beat off the dribble, the switch. What she brings to the table is incredible when you actually just watch it, and you’re really a purist and an enthusiast for basketball. You see her impact is incredible.”

That is the essential reality of the truly great — why their supporters, so often watching primarily the games of their favored player, are so certain they are right. To me, Boston has the edge. For all her defensive greatness, Boston is also third in the country in offensive win shares for the 21st-ranked national offense. And as Staley pointed out, the Gamecocks run their offense through Boston, so “she touches the ball as much as a guard does,” even from a primary post position.

But who can blame an Iowa fan for seeing Clark float an impossible pass to Warnock on the baseline in the waning seconds of the Rutgers game to help seal an Iowa win — more a football quarterback than a point guard in that moment — without thinking just how impossibly lost the Hawkeyes would be without her?

And the same goes for players like NaLyssa Smith of Baylor, Rhyne Howard of Kentucky, Maddy Siegrist of Villanova, Aneesah Morrow of DePaul (like Boston before her, the rare freshman with north of 10 win shares) and even mid-major stalwarts like Dyaisha Fair of Buffalo, Jasmine Dickey of Delaware and Abby Meyers of Princeton. 

The delightful truth is that women’s basketball has a “yes-and” reality, not a “there must be only one” reality. Even Staley herself has had to recalibrate.

“I thought I was going to be the coach that just got one,” Staley said, referring to Wilson. “I enjoyed my four years with A’ja, I was soaking it up so much. … And then we get Aliyah Boston, and Aliyah Boston her freshman year, first time she met with the media, she’s like, ‘I don’t want to be A’ja Wilson. I want to be Aliyah Boston.’”

And three years into those words coming true?

“She gives me something to look forward to,” Staley said. “I think we’re gonna get another one, because she came along.” 

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.