AP Photo - Wade Payne
For anyone who has an eye for the game of basketball, it's obvious that Middle Tennessee State University forward Alysha Clark has among the best basketball instincts of any 2010 WNBA Draft prospect.
"That's a player that has some great instincts to score the ball," said Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve in a pre-draft teleconference. "That's something that's not easy to find."
Yet despite a seemingly natural ability and one of the few statistical profiles in the 2010 draft that clearly points to WNBA success, Clark's draft stock remained uncertain just days before the draft because of concerns over her size.
"You look at Alysha Clark's numbers and you're like, 'Wow'," said Chicago Sky coach Steven Key about a week before the draft with a chuckle of disbelief. "If she's 6'1" or 6'2" she might be a top 1, 2 or 3 pick. But because she's 5'10" and -- I didn't measure her, so, maybe she's 5'9", I don't know, maybe she is truly 5'10" -- in our league it's going to be hard for her to play that position given some of the people who are the elite players on our level like Candice Dupree, Asjha Jones, Sancho Lyttle, Tina Thompson to name a few. It's gonna be very tough at that size in order to get that done. I'm not saying she can't, but obviously whoever is going to take her and play her at that position is taking a gamble."
Although Clark relayed in our conversation the day before the draft that she had spoken with coaches drafting in the top 10 - wisely laughing at me when I asked for her to tell me who they were - the difficulty of projecting her WNBA position seemed to cause a dilemma for coaches and general managers.
"Alysha Clark has taken a team like Middle Tennessee State [to the tournament]," said Reeve. "Alysha is a person who has elevated their play - without Alysha Clark there's no way that they'd achieve the success that they have the last couple of years. I think the most difficult part with Alysha Clark is not, ‘Can she play?'; I think it's, ‘What position does she play? Where does she help you?' Some teams will be content with leaving her playing in a forward position and letting her play around the basket. And I just think if you draft a player like Alysha Clark it's one of two things: you either understand how to use her and use her in that way or you say, ‘We'll wait. We'll wait for her to develop her perimeter game.'"
The concern is rational: how could a 5'10" post player possibly be successful transitioning to the small forward position in the WNBA?
"I think it's one of the most difficult transitions to go from a four player to a three," said Reeve. "It's a completely different skill set."
It's a challenge that even Clark acknowledges, not only for the difference in technical skills, but also for the difference in mindset that it takes to navigate a different space. But for her, it's more of a confidence thing than a skill thing.
"I think it's a confidence thing," said Clark. "I think if you've been playing with your back to the basket for so long and then all of a sudden you're facing up, well now you're seeing the whole court instead of just a little piece of it. So it's just a different aspect and that's just something that's going to take practice and reps. Once you get confidence with that you're fine, I guess. You have to gain confidence to play inside on the block so I think it's just the same thing. But, for me, I've done that stuff in practice - I've had experience at it -- so it's not going to be as new to me or as shocking to me. But it's still going to take time for me to get used to it and adjust."
In that sense, Clark might be the type of player hurt most by the quick turnaround in the WNBA between the tournament in draft, which doesn't allow for the pre-draft camps and private workouts that NBA prospects might get. Without the opportunity to show what she can do in game situations, she can't really show how she responds to game situations.
"Just the fact that the last couple of years that she has not played any position other than that - like facing the basket and being able to put the ball on the floor - it's just one of those things you just don't know about," said Key.
However, watching her play even for a few minutes, it's evident that Clark does in fact have the capacity to play around the perimeter, even if she's far more effective at getting easy shots in the post. Moreover, she obviously isn't the traditional post player who just establishes position and overpowers opponents - she gets a number of her scoring opportunities by flashing open quickly and making quick moves to the basket or getting quick hitters moving to the basket and using the backboard as well as any college player. There is more to her game than just being a post scorer.
"Everybody has seen me on the block, playing with my back to the basket and that's where my team needed me so that's what I did," said Clark. "A lot of people are questioning how I transition into that small forward position and I've worked on that stuff ever since I transferred to Middle. I may not have done it in the games a lot or whatever but in practices I get those kind of reps. After practice certain times I've worked with the men's coach and just kind of work on that kind of stuff just so I can be ready for this - I don't want to come in and be blindsided by it."
Nevertheless, Clark expected to be a first round pick on draft day when we talked on Tuesday.
Unfortunately for Clark, that's not what happened. Fortunately for the Silver Stars she fell to the second round.
The obvious explanation for why Clark fell to the San Antonio Silver Stars with the 17th pick is that the "gamble" of taking a player with so many question marks led teams to take other players with less question marks. Nevertheless, San Antonio GM Dan Hughes had to be pleased to find Clark remaining on the board in the middle of the second round.
"Very surprised -- we never talked about her being available in second round," said Silver Stars GM Dan Hughes when asked about Clark via email. "We expected her to go in first round."
Of course, like many other players drafted this year, Clark's next challenge will be fighting for a roster spot in a league limited to 11-player rosters. Reeve suggested that Clark would either have to find a team that could use her in a role that maximized her strengths or perhaps wait a year for her to suggest. To the former point, Reeve made an interesting WNBA comparison.
"Utilize her, for example, the way the Detroit Shock utilized Swin Cash: they would have her run to the block and to the sideline on their transition break," said Reeve, when describing possibilities for Clark's transition. "If you look Swin, most of her career with Detroit she played around the basket - that's one way you could use Alysha. It's a tough transition in a short period of time. For a team to draft her expecting for her to play the three and run off screens and fire away, that's not her game. But if you draft her and if you slice cut her to the basket and do some things that capitalize on her strengths, then she could be a good player."
We can quibble about whether the Cash comparison is fully accurate - Cash is 6'1", not 5'10". But the reality is that in order for Clark to make a roster, someone will probably indeed have to find a uniquely tailored and specific role for Clark within their system in order for her to contribute in her rookie year until she does adjust to the small forward position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clark liked the comparison.
"I like to run and get up and down the floor - that's the style we played at Middle," said Clark when asked about the comparison to Seattle Storm forward Swin Cash. "That's a good comparison because I was actually talking to coach about that - transition, where you get your buckets [is] you run the floor hard and go from there."
As a second round pick on a team that also had Stanford University's Jayne Appel fall into their laps with the 5th pick overall, it will be an uphill battle for Clark. Nevertheless, Hughes suggested that just continuing to play to her strengths is all she needs to demonstrate in camp.
"She can just make a mark being herself," said Hughes. "Let us see signs that growth is possible in the future, but she can play now as herself."
If she does make a team, she'll find herself in the strange position of the role model she never had -- and maybe never even desired -- while playing with Barbies.
But it might be that very experience of being a self-professed "girly-girl" who wasn't all-consumed with basketball alone that will make her a model of what it means to be a female athlete.
"I think it's huge," said Clark, who has already worked with girls around Murfreesburo, Tennessee. "For girls to have that to look up to now and especially to girls that might have been in the same situation that I was - they're undersized and they're playing in a position that they're forced to play, but you gotta make the best out of your situation. And I think girls can see that and hear my story and see what I've been able to accomplish and maybe that will help them and motivate them too."
From its inception, the WNBA has played up the role model theme and what Clark sees as significant about herself as a role model is her ability to adapt and overcome obstacles on the court, while also being a good student and hard worker when nobody's watching.
So the bottom line about Alysha Clark is this: at each step of the way, basketball has presented her with unexpected opportunities and she not only manages to capitalize on these opportunities, but thrive in ways that manage to turn heads and ask, "How does she do that?"
We can sit around and pontificate about what Clark can and cannot do or what she is not, but her remarkable ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and seemingly remain unfazed while outperforming her peers is something special. Whether we believe a 5'10" post player "should" make it in the WNBA probably isn't the point -- by the time we try to put her in that box or specific category, she might surprise us again. If she does, it seems unlikely that she'll show any measure of surprise.
"I don't really think it's that big of a deal," said Clark when asked about whether she thinks her height will be a barrier to success. "Everybody kind of makes a big deal about it, but I think if you're good at something, you're good at it, you know what I mean?"
WNBA.com: Prospect: Alysha Clark
Sun Belt Player of the Year (2009, 2010)…All-Sun Belt First Team (2009, 2010)…CBSSports.com All-America Second Team (2009)…Associated Press All-America Third Team (2009)…WBCA All-America Honorable Mention (2009)…Tennessee Sports Writers Association Player of the Year (2009)…Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year (2009)...Sun Belt Tournament Most Outstanding Player (2009)…Sun Belt All-Tournament Team (2009)…Atlantic Sun Player of the Year (2006, 2007)…Atlantic Sun Tournament MVP (2007)…Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year (2006)…Atlantic Sun All-Freshman Team (2006)…Atlantic Sun All-Tournament Team (2006, 2007)…All-Atlantic Sun First Team (2006, 2007).