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Jaylen Clark could be just what UCLA’s sagging defense needs

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark takes a shot during the second half against Washington on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

His team needing one final stop, nurturing a three-point lead in the waning seconds, UCLA coach Mick Cronin went with his best defensive option.

He put Jaylen Clark in the game.

The freshman guard who had made only a cameo appearance against Washington on Saturday before checking back in with 23.9 seconds to play showed why his coach wanted him on the court.

Clark chased Huskies guard Erik Stevenson around a screen and fronted him beyond the three-point line, contesting his long-range shot that bounced off the back of the rim.

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Stop made. Game won.

No big deal, according to Clark.

“I mean, that’s just what I do,” Clark said Tuesday on a videoconference. “It felt like any other possession.”

UCLA, which has won six consecutive games, is ranked in the AP men’s college basketball poll for the first time since the season’s opening week.

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Clark’s explosiveness and intuitiveness make him among the top defenders on a team that often struggles in that department, ranking No. 91 nationally in defensive efficiency in the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy.

Cronin listed Clark alongside Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jules Bernard as UCLA’s most athletic players, acknowledging Clark’s potential to bolster a defense that often fails to stay in front of quick opponents.

“If your question is who should get more minutes to help us defensively,” Cronin told a reporter, “there’s only one answer and that’s Jaylen Clark.”

The follow-up question: How does Clark get more minutes?

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Cronin said he could sub for Jaquez, giving the heavily used sophomore guard more rest to increase his offensive productivity, or come in for Bernard in the event of foul trouble.

Clark has played sparingly, averaging 5.3 minutes in 12 appearances, but his playing time has enjoyed a recent uptick. He played 10 minutes against Arizona before logging a season-high 16 minutes against Washington State during the Bruins’ 30-point victory.

His playing time was limited to four minutes against Washington, Cronin said, because the Huskies’ zone necessitated the Bruins put more of their top shooters on the court.

Clark has long valued getting stops because he played for Rancho Cucamonga Etiwanda High coach Dave Kleckner, a defensive guru Clark described as even more cutthroat than Cronin.

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“If you couldn’t defend at all, he didn’t care who you were, he’d just pull you out,” Clark said, calling the style of defense “very similar” to Cronin’s.

Power forward Jalen Hill and Clark push one another to see who can be the best perimeter defender on the team, but they might have taken the competition a bit too far on that late Washington possession.

Hill joined Clark on the perimeter in defending Stevenson, momentarily leaving Huskies guard Quade Green open in the corner. Luckily for Hill, Stevenson ignored his teammate and took the fateful shot.

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At 6-feet-5 and a wiry 205 pounds, Clark doesn’t back down from a challenge, often guarding Hill and fellow forward Cody Riley in practice. He said he’ll defend any player on the court, from point guard to center.

“It’s something I love doing,” Clark said of playing tenacious defense. “I’ve been in positions before where that’s kept me on the floor, so I just learned how to be great at it.”

Smith’s road to recovery

Senior guard Chris Smith completed successful surgery for the knee ligament he tore last month, Cronin said, allowing him to start rehabilitation in advance of his professional career.

“The key for him, whether he can work out or not” for NBA teams, Cronin said, “is that he can get to the combine and people can see that he’s progressed, that he’s worked his butt off and he’s going to be 100% whether it’s June 1, July 1, Aug. 1, Sept. 1 — Sept. 1 probably being the latest. He’s just got to make sure that he’s attacking his rehab and working on his upper-body strength and all the things he can control.”


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