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VOL. 42 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 10, 2018

Belmont’s Clark finds his krewe in The Big Easy

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After winning a championship with Golden State, Belmont’s Ian Clark found more personal success last season with the New Orleans Pelicans and is looking forward to an even bigger role this season. He is the only Belmont alumnus in the NBA.

-- Ap Photo/Doug Parker

In 2017, former Belmont University star Ian Clark experienced the ultimate high for an NBA player, capturing the league championship as part of a star-studded Golden State Warriors team.

One season later, Clark watched first-hand as those same Warriors rolled past his New Orleans Pelicans in the playoffs.

But 2018 still proved to be a season of personal growth for Clark, a Memphis native and the only Belmont player in the NBA. Playing a more prominent role in New Orleans, Clark responded with the most productive of his five NBA seasons, setting career marks in minutes played, points, rebounds and assists.

It’s all part of the evolution process for Clark, whose progress was rewarded last month when the Pelicans re-signed him to a one-year contract worth a reported $1.76 million.

His success on the court – Warriors coach Steve Kerr once called Clark “a dream to coach” – hasn’t diminished his desire to help youngsters learning the sport either. A regular assistant at Belmont coach Rick Byrd’s summer basketball camps, Clark last month added what he hopes will become an annual tradition when he held a two-day skills and development camp for Memphis Boys & Girls Club members.

“I love being around kids and I love trying to help them in any way possible,” says Clark, a Germantown High graduate. “I use basketball as my tool to interact with them, but just having an NBA player or any kind of role model come speak to them, or just be around them and interact with them, is a good thing.

“A lot of them may not even want to play basketball, but it’s just about being around their peers, having fun and showing them that anything you want to do, especially out of the city of Memphis, you can make it out.

“Whatever you want to be – if it’s a basketball player, a doctor, a teacher, anything like that – work hard and anything can happen.”

Finding his groove

The 27-year-old Clark illustrated his own hard-work message just to earn an opportunity as a guard in the NBA.

Undrafted out of Belmont in 2013 – despite the fact he’d set the school’s NCAA record for points (1,920), three-pointers (340) and guided the Bruins to three straight NCAA appearances – the 6-3, 175-pound Clark excelled during summer-league performances that year to earn his first NBA contract with Utah.

Clark persevered through small roles for three teams in three years before finding a meaningful niche in Golden State during the 2016-17 season. He averaged almost seven points per game for a Warriors team that captured the NBA title by beating LeBron James and Cleveland.

During one seven-game stretch that year, Clark averaged almost 13 points per game, prompting Kerr to single him out for high praise.

“I’ve said this all year, but Ian is just a coach’s dream because you don’t have to play him but you know he stays ready,” Kerr said during Clark’s final season with the Warriors. “You throw him out there and he produces. And that’s an incredible asset to have for our team. We’re thrilled with Ian.”

Clark signed his first free-agent contract with New Orleans last summer, but the 2017-18 season started relatively slowly for him and the team. The Pelicans were just 21-20 at the midpoint of the schedule, with Clark having hit double-figures in just five contests.

But a season-ending injury to Pelicans star DeMarcus Cousins, and a subsequent trade days later, opened up more minutes for Clark. He took full advantage, averaging 11 points, two rebounds and two assists in almost 25 minutes per game following the NBA All-Star game in February, helping the Pelicans earn a playoff berth with a 48-34 record.

Ian Clark should be in for even more playing time this season with the departure of guard  Rajon Rondo. He took advantage of a similar opportunity last season and averaged 11 points, two rebounds and two assists per game following the All-Star break.

-- Ap Photo/Veronica Dominach

“I felt like the second half of the season is kind of when I found my groove with the (Pelicans),” acknowledges Clark, who averaged 7.4 points overall last season.

“Obviously, with a lot of new guys on the team, it kind of took us a while to figure each other out, especially with injuries and the trade and everything like that. So, I think I finally got comfortable in our offense and in what my role was, and I finally got a chance to expand on that.”

New Orleans swept Portland in the first round of the postseason before falling in five games to Clark’s former team, Golden State, which would go on to capture its second straight NBA championship.

“We were playing good basketball at the end of the season, and we felt like we were going to have a good chance against any team,” Clark adds. “It just happened to be Portland, and we played a really good series.

“Playing against (the Warriors) in Oakland was weird. I can’t lie. It felt funny being on the other side of that after winning the championship the year before. It was always good playing with those guys in Golden State.

“But with a new team, my role expanded, and I got to show what I can do – handling the ball, being able to score and shoot, defend, everything like that with more opportunities and minutes.”

Handling success

Clark stays in close contact with Byrd, keeping tabs on Belmont’s team despite the fact all of his former teammates are now gone. He also returns to his alma mater more frequently now since he’s based in New Orleans instead of Oakland.

Byrd welcomes the appearances from Clark, an honorable mention AP All-American in 2013, because he says Clark has kept such a level head despite his NBA success.

“He was always a mature, unselfish guy,” Byrd points out. “So, I think what he’s avoided in the times that I see him and talk to him is the thing that jumps in and gets a lot of kids – which is they’re treated special and they start acting special, and they think they’re special, and they expect deference from everybody because they happen to be a good basketball player.

“I don’t see any of that. I think he’s handled his personal success of being an NBA player for as long as he has been. I think he’s handled that great. I’m really proud of him. I think that’s part of the reason he sticks (in the NBA) is because he’s a team-first, good locker-room, good teammate kind of guy.”

Byrd appreciates the fact Clark shows up every summer for Belmont’s basketball camp, not just to make an appearance, but to make a real difference for participating kids.

“One of the funny things I tell our camp workers every year is that Ian was the player of the year at our level and had a great career for us, but he also is as good a camp worker as we’ve ever had at our basketball camps,” Byrd says. “He loves kids and he has tons of enthusiasm.

“Camps are long and hard. Not everybody is cut out to stay energetic and always do what’s best for the kids. They just get tired of it. But Ian has always been great.”

Adds Clark: “I have some family here, and I love coming back and being able to help with the camps and work out with guys on the team. It’s good for both sides.

“It’s also about just being comfortable. I lived here for so long that it’s kind of like a second home for me.”

Increased opportunity ahead

Heading into the 2018-19 season, New Orleans is looking to improve upon last year’s 48-34 record, which was the third-highest win total in franchise history and its best since the 2008-09 season.

The Pelicans will have to adapt to the departure of Cousins, who signed a free-agent deal with the Warriors. But New Orleans made two big free-agent signings, adding forward Julius Randle and guard Elfrid Payton to a roster that already includes forward Anthony Davis and guard Jrue Holiday.

New Orleans also parted ways with guard Rajon Rondo, which could mean even more opportunity for Clark to improve upon his most successful season.

“There’s going to be a lot of opportunity at the one spot,” Clark explains. “I played a little bit of that last year when the team needed me to, and that’s a big thing for me this summer – getting more comfortable handling the ball and running the team, but still staying in attack mode and not just being a point guard.

“Hopefully, this year I can hit the ground running from the start of the season. I want to kind of piggyback off last year, what we did as a team as well as I did individually, to have a great start.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.