Weekend Focus: Memphis native Clark shining in reserve for potent Warriors
By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Kevin Durant needed to follow up and make his point clear.
There was another teaching moment unfolding, and one of Durant’s closest confidants among his new Golden State teammates was trying to explain how he missed two open looks earlier in an NBA Finals game. So on Durant’s way to the showers in the Warriors’ locker room, he stopped at Ian Clark’s stall.
“You’re going to knock those down, man,” Durant said as he clutched the black towel draped around his waist and nodded approval toward Clark’s direction. “Just stay solid. Don’t drift with your motion. You know we’ll be coming back to you next game, so be ready.”
The scene unfolded with dozens of reporters crammed into the room last week after Golden State set a dominant tone in a series they now lead 3-0 with a chance to close out the Cavaliers in Game 4 on Friday in Cleveland. But that recent exchange between the two players appeared as personal as the many private moments they’ve shared along the way through Durant’s first season in Golden State and Clark’s most productive campaign with the Warriors.
“People might think it’s hard,” Clark told Grind City Media of the challenge a developing NBA prospect faces to find his place on Golden State’s star-studded, record-setting roster. “It’s not hard at all because you have a lot of big-time guys on this team that actually want to talk to you. With (Durant) coming in, he’s been like that, talking to me since training camp, just trying to help me out.”
Clark has done plenty to help himself this season, too. The Memphis native and 6-3 combo guard has been groomed by Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on a Warriors’ team closing in on a second championship in three seasons. Clark, 26, is wrapping up his second season with Golden State.
So his journey from an overlooked prep prospect out of Germantown High to a valued sideman on the NBA’s most prolific squad has included contributions to last year’s historic 73-win record and this year’s quest to become the first team in league history to go undefeated in the playoffs. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for Clark, who in the final year of his contract set career highs while averaging 6.8 points on 48.7 percent from the field and 37.4 from three-point range in 14.8 minutes a game.
Clark entered the Finals as the Warriors’ leading scorer among reserves during the 2017 playoffs. Clark, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are the lone second-unit holdovers from last season’s team that lost to Cleveland in the Finals. The Warriors stripped down a chunk of their roster to create enough salary to land Durant in free agency last summer after they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Cavaliers.
Benefitting from the supporting cast makeover, Clark saw his playing time and scoring average both nearly double from his first year with Golden State to this season. Carving out a role behind Curry and Thompson on the strength of his deep-range shooting and defense, Clark has scored in double figures 18 times during the regular season and reached at least 20 points on four occasions.
“It’s been a learning curve, especially with a team like this that was coming off a championship before I got here,” said Clark, who signed his first one-year deal two months after the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals. “Being able to learn from veteran guys and trying to get better was key. Last year, I had spurts where I used that to my advantage and this year I’ve gotten more opportunities and I wanted to make sure I showed off what I’ve learned and what I worked from last summer.”
Making the most of opportunities has been a routine process for Clark since he was lightly recruited out of high school. Attention from major college programs didn’t come until after he had already committed to Belmont University during his senior season at Germantown. He said the University of Memphis showed interest late in the recruiting process, but by then he had already settled on Belmont.
Every guy feels like they’ve been overlooked or slighted at some point, but I didn’t let that bother me.-- Ian Clark
Clark doesn’t look back with any grudges. To this day, he insists he understands why Leslie McDonald and Johnnie Williams were among the more highly-regarded prospects in town. Clark dug in at Belmont, where he was a four-time, All-Conference performer and departed as the program’s career leader in scoring (1,901) and made three-pointers (304).
As a senior, Clark ranked fourth in the nation in three-point shooting percentage and was the Ohio Valley Conference’s Co-Player of the Year in 2012-13. But he was overlooked again and went undrafted in 2013, but ended up on the Warriors’ summer league team with Draymond Green that went undefeated and won the championship in Las Vegas. Clark scored 33 points and drilled seven three-pointers to land MVP honors from the summer league title game.
“Every guy feels like they’ve been overlooked or slighted at some point, but I didn’t let that bother me,” Clark said. “I just focused on being the best player I could be, no matter where I was at – whether it was at Belmont, which kept getting to the NCAA Tournament, or even here. Belmont was still close enough to home and has great academics. I still got the best of both worlds, and my family got to see me play.”
Clark’s parents, who still live in Memphis, just have to travel a bit further to see him play now. His mother, Shelbia, is an accountant at Comcast/Xfinity and his father, Jon, is a testing administrator at Southwest Community College. The family traveled to the Bay to see the Warriors take a 2-0 lead in the Finals and had plans to be in Cleveland for a chance to watch the Warriors close out the series. Clark has played in all 15 postseason games and had his best performance with 10 points in Game 2.
Golden State assistant Mike Brown, who served as acting head coach until Steve Kerr returned from a medical absence last week, said Clark has gained the trust of teammates and coaches.
“His development really took a jump last year, but this year, with his time more consistent on that second unit, he’s shown more ability to shoot with range and move without the basketball,” Brown said. “He’s really become a dynamic player when he’s playing with those second-tier guys. And defensively, he’s giving us some toughness and is disruptive.”
Two breakout performances underscore Clark’s potential. He scored a career-high 36 points earlier this season against the Spurs, which was the highest point total by a Golden State reserve in three years. And on Nov. 1 against Portland, Clark made all eight of his shots, including three beyond the arc, to finish with 22 points. He was the franchise’s first backup to make at least eight shots without a miss in a game since Chris Mullin did so in 1996.
But the biggest highlight of Clark’s season came on Dec. 9, when Germantown High retired his jersey at a ceremony the night before the Warriors loss to the Grizzlies. As a courtesy, Clark texted his Golden State teammates about the event if they didn’t have any other plans while in Memphis.
“Just about everyone showed up,” Clark said of the event, which required additional security when the school learned Curry and Green were headed to the high school gym. “It was great. It shows the kind of support we have for one another. It’s not just in the locker room or on the court. They wanted to be a part of that. They’ll never know how much that meant to me and my family. They’re your brothers.”
Keeping Clark among the brotherhood might be a challenge, although Thompson said he can’t imagine the Warriors without Clark being a consummate defensive pest in practices and games.
“He’s always doing something really well, whether it’s making a shot or getting a deflection and steal or hitting a floater,” Thompson said. “He’s always making an impact. It started when he was summer league MVP in Vegas, and it’s paying off now. I hope we can retain him … because he’s an amazing player.”
Clark won’t allow his mind to drift further than the finals.
He stays in the moment, just like Durant stays in his ear.
“I’m focused on right here, right now, this season, this opportunity,” Clark said. “And then after that, I’ll focus on that other stuff when it comes. That’s how I’ve always been. That’s how I am.”
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