First-year UCLA coach Mick Cronin has been looking on the recruiting trail for tough, hard-nosed prospects who aren’t afraid to play defense. A year ago, Etiwanda High guard Jaylen Clark did not fit the description Cronin was seeking.
Clark is quick to admit he’s a much different player than he was last season. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound wing was all about himself while playing his first three seasons for Corona Centennial High.
“I was immature, big-headed, didn’t care about nobody else,” Clark said. “If I went for 20 [points], I didn’t care if we won or lost.”
A transfer to Etiwanda for his senior year has helped Clark transform into one of top two-way players in Southern California and exactly the type of unselfish player Cronin has been looking to add to the Bruins’ program.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Clark said of Cronin. “They’re not taking no BS this year. None at all. You don’t want to play, you can go sit. He doesn’t care who you are, what position you play, how well you shoot. If you ain’t playing defense, you’re not coming out on the court.”
That straight-forward approach led to Cronin picking up his first Southland commitment Wednesday when Clark announced his intentions to attend UCLA.
“It’s great because you can be the hometown hero,” Clark said. “They’ve been struggling right now, so if a kid from California came or two kids or three kids and turned the school back to what it used to be, the great UCLA, with Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Bill [Walton] and Darren Collison, like that’d be a great thing to see.”
Clark wanted to stay on the West Coast for college and he had aspirations of playing in Los Angeles, but most important to him was finding a place where he felt at home. That’s what he says he’s getting at UCLA, similar to how he feels at Etiwanda. He’s gone from being a star at Centennial to a part of a family with the Eagles.
“It’s like the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Everything has went so well,” Clark said of his transition. “These are all really like my family now. I grew up with four of the kids on the team, so I knew them really well. And it made me mature faster.”
The physical four-star prospect is more concerned about his teammates’ success. He is quick to point out his attempts to make others better around him. Following a 63-33 win over Westchester in the Nike Extravaganza on Saturday at Mater Dei, Clark was laughing and joking with teammates despite an off night shooting that resulted in him scoring only seven points.
Previously, that would have ate at him despite the large margin of victory. Instead he wanted to talk about Brantly Stevenson scoring 20 points and making six three-point shots. Clark had helped set up Stevenson multiple times.
“I see him hit two [three-pointers]. I’m like ‘All right. Let me get him the ball,’ ” Clark said, trying to recount how many of his assists had gone to Stevenson. “I get energy from my teammates, help them, like we lift each other up. It’s just great. It’s a great feeling.”
Starts in practice
Etiwanda is 25-2 overall, 9-0 in league and ranked No. 3 in The Times’ top 25 rankings because of the competition that takes place during coach David Kleckner’s practices. It’s not unusual to see 6-4 junior guard Jahmai Mashack, a four-star prospect, and Clark going at each other.
“We’ve had some battles that you wouldn’t believe, like we would get into it sometimes. We argue, but all brothers argue,” Mashack said. “We come into practice everyday ready to work hard because I’m like, ‘I know J-Rock is here. I got to bring my A-game.’
“And he knows the same thing when he comes in the gym. I don’t take it lightly on him, but I love playing against him. He’s a great competitor and he’s really taken the lead even though it’s a new team. He’s been great.”
Surprised to see
Clark said college recruiters were surprised to see a different side of his game when they watched him this season.
“They just say like, ‘You play defense. You play hard.’ I take smarter shots now. I’m not just chucking. At my old school, I put up 20 [shots] and like wouldn’t blink. I’d just shoot,” he said. “When Cronin first came to see me, I shot six shots, made six shots, had three blocks, four steals so it was just an all-around good game.
"[The transformation] has just helped me learn how to play basketball the right way. It allows me to read the game better. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Stevenson, who hit five three-pointers in the first half Saturday and scored 23 points in a win over Damien on Wednesday night, could be carrying the Etiwanda family up to the Central Coast. The 6-3 shooting guard said he is leaning toward committing to Cal Poly.
Stevenson has to take his entrance exams and get back his scores, but said he loves the coaching staff and how the players made him feel like family on his official visit. He would be reuniting with Etiwanda senior point guard Camren Pierce, who has already signed with the Mustangs.