The Minnesota Lynx started the season 0-4. Since then, they’ve gone 16-5.
What changed for Minnesota?
It is not only that the team added Layshia Clarendon. Yet, it is hard to deny the clear role that Clarendon has had on the Lynx’s turnaround and subsequent triumphs.
The nine-year vet is putting together the most impactful season of their career, something that is even more impressive considering its unceremonious start.
It is worth appreciating Clarendon’s 2021 journey, from the lows to the highs to what comes next.
LC in NYC
On May 20, in the early days of the 2021 WNBA season, the New York Liberty surprisingly waived Clarendon. Through New York’s first three games, all of which were wins, Clarendon saw only three total minutes of action, apparently relegated to the depths of the rotation as head coach Walt Hopkins organized the team’s attack around new additions Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb, as well as the presumed emergence of Sabrina Ionescu.
Little more than a year prior, Clarendon had been at the center of the Liberty’s plans. During the 2020 offseason, New York made Clarendon their big free agent signing ($120,000 per year for two years), bringing them in as the leader, both on and off the court, for a squad that would have seven rookies on the roster.
Clarendon admirably filled this role. During the difficult wubble season, they played an average of 26 minutes per game in 19 of 22 games for Liberty, without complaint. Not naturally a scoring point guard, they nonetheless operated as the No. 1 option, scoring a career-high 11.5 points per game on a career-high usage percentage of 21.8 percent.
Clarendon shined even more as an off-the-court leader. Long unafraid to speak out about issues of justice, they were one of the faces of the players’ activism and advocacy efforts as a member of the WNBPA’s executive board and social justice council.
Over the offseason, Clarendon came out publicly as the WNBA’s first openly trans and nonbinary athlete. They also shared their decision to have top surgery. Since then, they have embraced being a representative of a community that is fighting for full inclusion in sports, as well as society.
Player. Parent. Activist. Pioneer.— ESPN (@espn) June 24, 2021
The @WNBA’s first openly nonbinary and transgender player @LayshiaC spoke with @Katie_Barnes3 and explains how she has embraced her own sexuality and identity.
Full Cover Story: https://t.co/R35x0ZUCn7 pic.twitter.com/WY6B2NzBMN
With the Liberty, like all WNBA teams, working to follow the lead of players and promote racial justice, gender equality and sexual inclusion, among other causes, Clarendon’s comfort publicly addressing these issues made them an extra valuable asset for the organization.
This context made the Liberty’s decision to waive Clarendon seem shortsighted. Yes, roster spots are extremely limited in the WNBA. However, the WNBA and its teams also are to be about things that are “bigger than basketball.” Clarendon embodied this ethos.
In announcing the decision to part ways with Clarendon, the Liberty released the following statement:
The NY Liberty would like to thank Layshia for their incredible contributions to our organization both on & off the court. Layshia’s courage & activism inspires all of us. We wish you the best & look forward to witnessing your continued impact on this league, and in this world.
On their social media platforms, Clarendon later shared, “I’m still pretty shocked and heartbroken to be in this moment. But don’t worry people have tried to bury me before they just keep forgetting I’m a seed. I’ll be back.”
The sunshine of the Minnesota summer has provided the perfect conditions for Clarendon to grow and blossom. Likewise, Clarendon has enriched and enlivened the Lynx.
Clarendon announced their arrival in Minnesota in almost perfect fashion.
On May 30, they willed the Lynx to their first victory of the season, scoring five points in overtime against the Connecticut Sun.
Fortunately for the Lynx, Clarendon’s debut has not proven to be an anomaly. While their subsequent performances have not provided as much drama, their instant impact has sustained.
In 20 games with Minnesota, Clarendon has averaged 10.5 points, 5.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds and shot a career-best percentage from the field. They also have a totaled a career-high and team-high plus-minus of plus-5.7.
But more important than their statistics has been their presence.
After Clarendon’s first game in a Lynx uniform, head coach Cheryl Reeve complimented their “control and command of the game.” Clarendon has proven to be the conductor that the Lynx needed, reliably and authoritatively orchestrating Minnesota’s offensive attack.
Assistant coach Katie Smith offered a similar assessment, asserting, ”They’re very much of a competitor, a professional, knows the scout, understands the game. And a team player. They really filled a lot of boxes we needed to help us get going.’’
As would be expected of any great leader, Clarendon has shared credit with their teammates, noting that “it’s hard if you don’t have really talented pieces around you when you’re a point guard, because you’re supposed to pull the puppet strings. If you don’t have good puppets around you, it’s hard to make the show look good.”
Clarendon’s aggressive mindset and physical style also has added a needed element to the Lynx offense. Their brand of bully ball — when they use their strength to barrel into the paint and toward the basket — tests and collapses opposing defenses. They are scoring a career-high 6.9 points per game in the paint, a number that is top-five in the league among guards and wings.
On Clarendon’s aggression and physicality, Reeve has said, “That’s Clarendon, not one of those players that will blow you away with athleticism or quickness. But every inch of talent, Layshia, they squeeze out of themselves. It’s hard to find that.’’
Lynx legend and current MVP candidate Sylvia Fowles has echoed Reeve, emphasizing, “Layshia is phenomenal. ... [They get] everything we need to get done, whether that’s to shoot, drive to the hole, get steals, put her body on the line night in and night out.”
What’s next for Clarendon and the Lynx?
With Clarendon at the helm, the Lynx have begun to squeeze championship potential out of this roster, emerging as a legitimate title threat as they have climbed into the fourth seed.
Initially signed to multiple hardship contracts, Minnesota inked Clarendon to a rest of season contract in early July, meaning they will serve as the Lynx’s tried and trusted commander through a hoped-for run to a record fifth WNBA championship.
Regardless of how this season ends, it is clear that Clarendon should have earned their long-term keep in Minnesota. While re-signing Fowles likely will be the No. 1 priority for Reeve and the Lynx this offseason, locking up Clarendon on a multi-year deal should be a close second.