USC recruit getting better by the minute

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Ayanna Clark will be a sophomore in the fall and already has committed to USC. The scary thing is, she still has a lot to learn.

When Ayanna "Yani" Clark was 10, she was a 6-foot catcher who could throw out baserunners from her knees.

"Parents from opposing teams would make comments that Yani looked like she was 17," said Clark's mother, Tonya Hines. "So I started carrying around her birth certificate to our softball games."

Clark is now 15, and she still has a terrific arm -- she just uses it in a different way.

Last season, as a 6-2 freshman center, Clark helped Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.) win California's Open Division state basketball title.

Poly (27-3) finished No. 3 in the espnW HoopGurlz Power 25 national rankings.

Now a rising sophomore, Clark is one of the elite prospects in the 2017 class. Last week, she committed to play at Southern Cal.

Not bad for a girl who didn't start playing travel basketball until seventh grade.

"After that, I lost interest in softball," said Clark, who has a 3.0 GPA and is interested in studying sports medicine in college. "Basketball was my thing.

"I was scared when I went to my first [basketball] tryout. I wasn't very good at first. But the people around me made it fun. I liked the atmosphere."

And while softball is gone from her life, all that training did not go to waste, Long Beach Poly basketball coach Carl Buggs says.

"The fact that she played softball," Buggs said, "explains why she can toss a basketball from baseline to baseline on a rope."

The Triple A's

Clark is the last of the three children of Hines, a single mother and a unit coordinator at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

The oldest child is Clark's sister Ashli, 29, followed by Austin, 21, a football player for Long Beach City College.

Although they play different sports, Austin also is a 6-foot-2 center. The major contrast is that he is massive at 378 pounds.

Ashli, meanwhile, likes to say that she is in charge of both of her siblings' budding careers, calling it "Triple A Management" because all of their names start with that same letter.

Clark hasn't had her biological father in her life since age 2, but she said she has had positive male role models.

"My brother takes that position," she said. "I consider him as a father figure."

Besides advice and guidance, Austin serves as a valuable resource for Clark in another way.

In the past year, Clark has grown three shoe sizes to a women's 15, and she often borrows basketball footwear from Austin, who works at a Nike store.

Coach takes interest

Clark credits Matt Thalley, now an associate head coach for her Cal Sparks AAU team, for teaching her the basketball basics.

But there was no question she was raw at first.

"We tried to get her dribbling on a fast break," Thalley said, "but she was so big and uncoordinated at the time that she would run a player over or two and then throw a layup hard off the backboard.

"I knew it would take a little bit of time. But I also knew she was a very good athlete."

Hines said Thalley saw something in her daughter.

"He told me, 'I've been doing this a long time, and I know she is going to be very good'," Hines said. "He said, 'Whatever we need to do, but we need to have her.' "

When Clark showed up for the first practice, she was painfully shy.

One of the girls asked her if she wanted to come onto the court and play, and Clark meekly responded, "I guess so."

Hines said Clark was all arms and legs at first. But that is no longer the case.

"Every time I watch her, she gets better," Hines said. "I see her play and say, 'Wait a minute -- when did she learn to do that?' "

Tournament time

Clark respects all her coaches, including Buggs, Thalley and Elbert Kinnebrew, who runs the Cal Sparks program.

She also listens when Thalley says it's "tournament time" and she needs to focus on eating healthier.

Chris Coduto/Icon SMI

Ayanna Clark impressed pretty much everybody with her performance at the Nike Tournament of Champions in December.

"We have a McDonald's right by our house," Hines said. "And when it's tournament time, she has to look away."

Her playoff focus obviously worked last season.

Clark was a reserve on a team that featured eight seniors -- including six who earned Division I scholarships to schools such as UCLA, Michigan, Utah and Louisville, among others.

But in the state final -- a 70-52 win over Richmond Salesian -- Clark had game-highs in points (19) and rebounds (15). Salesian led by three points early in the third quarter, but Poly pulled away thanks to Clark's 14 second-half points.

"She had a fantastic season," Buggs said. "She is very skilled for her age. She can handle the ball, she can shoot the jumper and she's a beast inside.

"I don't think she has a full grasp of what her potential is, but she can be a McDonald's All-American. She is quiet, but she doesn't play quiet."

Despite only playing an average of 18 minutes per game last season, Clark led her team in rebounds (8.8), field goal percentage (59) and blocks (1.8) and tied for the scoring lead (11.2). Her 3.9 offensive rebounds per game also led the team.

It's no wonder she had scholarship offers from Connecticut and UCLA before choosing Southern Cal.

"She's a strong kid," Kinnebrew said. "She didn't have early basketball skills, but it didn't take her long to become a force in the paint.

"Yani plays taller than 6-2 because she has long arms. And even girls taller than her have trouble because she is so powerful."

Kinnebrew said Clark is a big-game player who needs to work on giving more consistent effort in practice.

The coach also said that in an age when every player with the size of a center seemingly wants to play on the perimeter, Clark is a rarity in that she actually enjoys the paint.

But that doesn't mean she can't shoot.

At a recent Southern Cal camp, Clark said she beat Trojans coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke in a 3-point contest.

Cooper-Dyke, 51, is a Hall of Famer who won two NCAA titles, one Olympic gold medal and four WNBA championships as a guard, but that didn't stop Clark from doing a little trash-talking, which is uncharacteristic of the teenager but also shows how comfortable she is with her future coach.

"She was kind of upset," Clark said of Cooper-Dyke. "But I told her, 'Hey, that's what it's going to be like for the next several years.' "

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