There may be no defense for the way Jaylen Clark can confound UCLA’s opponents
Jaylen Clark makes defense sexy.
The junior guard generated one roar after another during UCLA’s season opener with his ability to frustrate. The loudest cheers inside Pauley Pavilion came when he poked away the ball from a helpless Sacramento State player in the final minutes, taking the steal for a breakaway dunk.
It was Clark’s career-high seventh steal and contributed to the Bruins scoring 26 points off turnovers during a runaway victory. Generating highlights in every category, Clark added 17 points on seven-for-seven shooting to go with eight rebounds, four assists and a block.
Those numbers don’t come around every day — or every two decades.
According to OptaSTATS, Clark is the only NBA, WNBA or NCAA Division I men’s or women’s player to collect 15 or more points, seven or more rebounds and seven or more steals while making every shot in a game in the last 20 years.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. looked healthy in UCLA’s season opener vs. Sacramento State. He may be ready for the leap to stardom after offseason ankle surgery.
“That’s super cool,” Clark said Wednesday when relayed that achievement. “I know I’m capable of that type of performance every night.”
That’s precisely what the rest of the Pac-12 should fear.
An early candidate for the conference’s most improved player, Clark’s ability to anticipate where a ball is headed and use his quick hands and active feet to take it away make him a defensive menace. Jaime Jaquez Jr. is the unfortunate recipient of that lethal combination every day in practice.
“He’s really got great instincts, he knows when someone’s gonna pass and when to be in the passing lane,” Jaquez said. “It’s just one of those things you can’t teach, he just has it.”
Those innate qualities are what drew coach Mick Cronin to Clark even though he didn’t reach double figures in scoring when the coach scouted him at Etiwanda High in Rancho Cucamonga.
“The little trick in our in-game evaluation is watching what guys do when they don’t have the ball, and he competes when he doesn’t have the ball,” Cronin said. “He plays every play of the game. You’ve got to get guys who play without the ball — they go after the ball, they rotate defensively, they sprint down the floor.”
The 6-foot-5 Clark does it all while defending an opponent’s top scorer or hottest player, something he did while shutting down North Carolina’s Caleb Love during the brief time he guarded Love during the teams’ Sweet 16 meeting in the NCAA tournament.
Clark has since moved into the starting lineup, increasing his chances to confound others. His defense figures to only get better Friday night against Long Beach State when Bruins freshman center Adem Bona makes his college debut after sitting out the opener while serving what amounted to a one-game NCAA suspension regarding amateurism rules.
“I always have a joke with him, like that’s my biggest competition for Pac-12 defensive player of the year because he’s a monster,” Clark said. “I don’t feel like I get beat very often but if I’m out there gambling and stuff like that, I know if I do get beat, Adem’s going to go send it back out.”
Across-the-board excellence from Jaylen Clark and a standout game from Jaime Jaquez Jr. power UCLA to a 76-50 win over Sacramento State.
If Clark has his way, he’ll swipe something else before he leaves UCLA — the school’s all-time steals record. He’s got a long way to go with 44 to his name, just a fraction of Earl Watson’s 235, but Jordan Adams’ single-season record of 95 could be within reach. Tyus Edney holds the single-game record with 11 steals against George Mason in December 1994.
As expected, UCLA announced the signing of Corona Centennial High forward-center Devin Williams and New York Christ the King guard-forward Brandon Williams (no relation), both ranked in the top 100 in their high school class. ... Cronin said redshirt freshman guard Will McClendon had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his injured knee and is targeting a mid-December college debut. … Hep Cronin, Mick’s father and the team’s good-luck charm during the 2021 run to the Final Four, was in the practice facility and plans to attend the Bruins’ next three games.
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