Jaylen Clark is fulfilling a promise that has bolstered No. 12 UCLA
Some considered it the best AAU team to ever lace up sneakers. Those Compton Magic players couldn’t throw a pass in the summer of 2018 without it touching the hands of a future Pac-12 star, the roster featuring eventual NBA first-round draft picks Evan Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu as well as future college standouts Johnny Juzang, Jarod Lucas and Isaiah Mobley.
As he prepared to excitedly bound into the gym as a fringe member of this collection of all-stars, nearly everyone else a year or two older, Jaylen Clark received a sobering directive from his father.
“I want you to go in that gym and I want you to play defense 94 feet,” recalled Cornelius Clark, himself a former hard-nosed defender who had played one season at Modesto Junior College. “Nobody in AAU plays defense 94 feet, Jaylen. On that team, you’re never going to see the floor. You’re on the team, but you’re not going to play because they don’t need you, you’re the youngest kid and they’ve got all kinds of firepower.
“You play defense, you’re going to force your way on the floor.”
Looking back, it was as if the elder Clark had foretold his son’s basketball destiny. Jaylen played defense. He forced his way onto the floor. He became an essential part of the team.
A similar story arc has played out at UCLA, where Clark might be the hardest player to take off the floor near the end of his sophomore season. He has become a two-way force after persevering through a series of concussions and illnesses, combining lockdown defense with an emerging offensive repertoire for a team that badly needed an infusion of both.
It’s more than his active hands and quick feet that make the 6-foot-5 guard difficult to get past. Like a bouncer confronting a concert-goer without a ticket, Clark feels a mandate to deny.
“I take every matchup personal,” Clark said on the eve of the No. 12 Bruins’ showdown against Oregon on Thursday evening at Matthew Knight Arena. “When I step in front of somebody, I don’t feel like anyone should be able to score on me.”
The Pac-12 voting ‘no’ on the College Football Playoff expansion at the moment was a big blow for the SEC and opens the door to playoff equity.
Few have. Washington’s Terrell Brown Jr., the Pac-12’s leading scorer, was held to 13 points against the Bruins, nine below his season average, while making five of 17 shots. Arizona State guards DJ Horne, Jay Heath and Marreon Jackson combined to make 10 of 33 shots while struggling against a Clark-sparked defense that Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said was the best his team had faced all season.
Making him even more indispensable, Clark has complemented his defense with a recent offensive outburst, his 59 points during the last three games exceeding his output over the previous 10 games combined. Several of his baskets have come off turnovers, with Clark converting two steals into fast-break points against the Sun Devils, including a layup that inspired fans inside Pauley Pavilion to shower him with the game’s biggest ovation.
“You heard the crowd,” UCLA guard Jules Bernard said afterward. “Not only did the crowd feed off it, but we fed off it as well. You saw that with how many deflections we got in the first half. That energy, it really picked us up on both ends.”
Some have compared Clark’s emergence to that of former Bruins guard Russell Westbrook, who went from a bit player as a freshman to a sophomore sensation who became the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft. Clark isn’t ready to anoint himself the next superstar based on a week’s worth of strong play during which he averaged 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.7 steals.
“Realistically, it’s only been three games right now,” Clark said. “I’m trying to keep the ball rolling. Russell Westbrook, I’ve looked at his stats, he had a phenomenal sophomore year from start to finish. But I’m trying to pick it up to where I can be eventually compared to him.”
This was the kind of season-long impact Clark had hoped to make after summer workouts with Darren Collison, a former UCLA guard who left retirement to play three games with the Lakers this season, and Sean Marshall, a onetime Boston College standout who forged a long professional career overseas. The duo helped Clark with his shooting and better understanding how to compete against skilled and physical college players.
Moving up in the Bruins’ rotation, Clark knew, was all on him. His father had always said the remedy for too little playing time was to make practices his games, play his butt off and show his value. So it was with excitement that Jaylen called his father before the season to announce his progress.
“He said, ‘Dad, I’m killing it, I’m killing it,’ ” Cornelius Clark remembered.
Any doubt that it was an empty boast was erased when UCLA coach Mick Cronin described Clark as his most improved player and openly wondered how he was going to keep him off the court.
The answer came in jolting fashion. Literally. Clark absorbed a hit to the head in preseason and sat out the team’s exhibition game, the first of four or five blows he has withstood in a matter of months.
“I’ve gotten hit in the head so many times,” he said, “I don’t remember which one’s which.”
Next up was a head cold. Then came a bout with COVID-19 that forced him into a teamwide 26-day layoff. Finally, Clark had to go back into the concussion protocol late last month after a wayward elbow from Jaime Jaquez Jr. struck him in the head, forcing him to sit out five games as a precaution even though his father said he passed all the medical tests.
The Clarks kept their sense of humor amid the setbacks that prevented Jaylen from building any sort of rhythm before last week.
“I just told him, ‘Son, as long as I’ve been around the game of basketball, I’ve never ever known anybody to get hit in the head as much as you’re doing right now,’ ” Cornelius Clark said. “ ‘Stop running in head-first, pull your neck back or something.’ ”
“Dad,” he replied, “I get excited and I’m looking for the ball and I don’t know what’s in between me and the ball, I’m just following that ball.”
Contact was once something Clark actively avoided. Then he began playing youth football and had no choice. Turns as a defensive end, safety and wide receiver gave him experience delivering and withstanding hits.
The torment he inflicts these days isn’t just physical. Clark acknowledged that he likes to play mind games as he did with an Arizona State counterpart.
Jaylen Clark and Jules Bernard each finish with 16 points as UCLA fends off a second-half push by Arizona State to pick up its third consecutive win.
“The kid took off real quick and I kinda pulled on his arm and then went to swipe at the ball,” Clark said. “Now he’s worried about me grabbing him so he’s going to the refs complaining rather than just playing his game and he’s trying to make sure he shows the ref me grabbing him, but then I’m not gonna touch him for the next few plays. Then if the refs turn around, I’ll probably pull on his arm again just to keep him worried about fouls and all the other stuff that they don’t see.”
There’s no missing Clark’s impact on the Bruins, a player fulfilling his promise, a son rewarding his father for demanding his top effort at what he does best.
“That’s what turns me on, when he starts playing defense and giving energy to the team, man,” Cornelius Clark said. “Just play D.”
When: 6:30. P.M. Thursday
Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.
On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570.
Update: Cronin said point guard Tyger Campbell (shoulder) and guard Peyton Watson (knee) remained day to day after sitting out the team’s victory over Arizona State on Monday. The Bruins (20-5 overall, 11-4 Pac-12) will be facing a team in desperation mode after the Ducks (17-10, 10-6) were swept on the road last week by Arizona State and Arizona. Oregon is the only team to have beaten UCLA at Pauley Pavilion this season, emerging with an 84-81 overtime victory in January.
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