When evaluating the next great American point guard, the question now is: Why not Clarendon?
It has been a remarkable leap forward for someone who had not played the primary point guard position in the pros until recently. At California, which reached the Final Four in 2013, her senior season, Clarendon shared distribution duties with Brittany Boyd, now of the Liberty.
“One of the reasons we were so good that year was that we essentially had two point guards on the floor at all times,” Bears Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Layshia was technically our two guard, but had the green light to handle the ball and push in transition whenever she wanted. I think it made her a better player because she had to think like a point guard, but also play with the mentality of a go-to scorer.”
Still, that mixed role made the transition to the professional ranks difficult. Stuck behind the point guard Briann January in Indiana, Clarendon found herself battling for time off the ball in an offense that was slower-paced than she was used to in college.
Her 3-point percentage had always hovered around the low 30s in college, and she seldom got enough time on the court to find a rhythm for it with the Fever.
By 2015, her final year in Indiana, Clarendon had improved her 3-point percentage to 40.6 percent. Clarendon is built more like a point guard than the lankier twos that populate the league, and she has struggled to add muscle to her frame. The Fever seemed to view her as a rotation player at most, and sent her to Atlanta for a second-round pick.
Her new coach, Michael Cooper, thought Clarendon could be something more. He started her in 32 of 34 games last season, when she split time as primary ballhandler with Carla Cortijo and Angel McCoughtry, the Dream star who took up a significant portion of the team’s offensive sets in a point forward role.
“I think her point guard ability and her basketball I.Q. puts her on another level, because she’s a big guard, a physical guard,” Cooper said. “And the uniqueness we have with her is, she’s able to take that shot up above the free throw line and make it. But now she’s proven she’s a very good assist person for us.”
Now, with McCoughtry taking the season off for rest and recuperation, Clarendon’s assist percentage is 39 percent. That ranked best in the league entering the second half of the year, just ahead of, yes, Bird.
“When I go against Sue, I’m trying to crush her now,” Clarendon said of her childhood idol. “Because my first years in Indiana, it was tough, being a bench player, not knowing what your role is. But now, I know what my role is in this league.”
Clarendon’s play helped lead to All-Star Game appearances for Dream guard Tiffany Hayes and center Elizabeth Williams. Guard Brittney Sykes, who joined the starting lineup at the end of June, is making a case for rookie of the year.
They all credit Clarendon’s ability to see the game and recognize when they should receive the ball.
“Having someone who can read defenses really well is fun to play with,” Williams said.
The Dream have managed to maintain their offensive output from last season, despite McCoughtry’s absence. The development of Clarendon, Hayes, Williams, Sykes and Damiris Dantas gives Atlanta a quintet of players younger than 28 to build around.
Clarendon’s 2017 season, for all of its success, may be underselling her overall game — she has made only 15.4 percent of her 3-point attempts, by far the worst mark of her career, which she and Cooper believe is a fluke. So there is reason to believe her best days are still ahead.
But even as she makes sure to stay in the present, Clarendon says she has visions of taking her place on the next national team, to prove that magazine article wrong, and to serve as heir apparent to Bird.
“So I use that as fuel,” Clarendon said. “If I’m struggling, or it’s a really tough workout, it’s like: ‘There’s no elite guards. There’s no elite guards.’ I’m going to be that elite guard.”
Continue reading the main story