From undersized post to defensive stopper, Alysha Clark remakes her game

Alysha Clark, one of three mid-major players in the WNBA Finals, had to go from being an undersized post in college to a wing with guard skills. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

SEATTLE -- Alysha Clark's little dog, Sly, made his way around the court after the Storm's practice Saturday, greeting and sniffing everyone. He got his name, Clark said, because even as a puppy, he could get out of places where he was supposed to be contained. That said, he's a very good boy.

"He goes everywhere with me," Clark said. "He's been to Israel, Turkey, Poland. He'll be going to France this year. He's a great travel dog."

The chance to play overseas was pretty much a given for Clark coming out of Middle Tennessee in 2010 because she was such a talented scorer, leading NCAA Division I at 27.5 points per game as a senior.

But making it in the WNBA was a more challenging prospect. She was a "tweener": a 5-foot-11, back-to-the basket, post player in college trying to adjust to being a wing facing the basket and needing to develop guard skills. Drafted in the second round at No. 17 overall by San Antonio in 2010, Clark didn't get on a WNBA roster that year nor in 2011.

She did with Seattle in 2012, and by 2014, she became a starter, in part because she made herself so valuable on defense. This season, she averaged 7.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists while being one of the league's best defenders. In the playoffs, she's averaging 7.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 2.7 APG, and her 13 points and 13 rebounds in Game 5 of the semifinals against Phoenix were critical.

With a chance to help the Storm try to win their third WNBA championship -- which would be her first -- Clark is focused on what's next: Game 2 of the WNBA Finals versus Washington on Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). But when she stops and thinks about it, her evolution as a WNBA player is remarkable.

"I felt like I was back in middle school again learning how to play basketball," Clark said of changing positions as a pro. "I'd never been an outside shooter, so I had to work with shooting coaches on that, learn how to set up my defender and get by them.

"I had confidence as a post player. I knew I could score on anybody, it didn't matter who or how tall. To be at the guard and not know, I lost my confidence. I had to work to rebuild that."

She has done that while also retaining skills that served her well as an undersized post in college. Seattle point guard Sue Bird likens Clark to Swin Cash, another former teammate who had to make a transition from true post to guard/wing. Figuring out how to run the court, where to be, how to defend in transition and on screens -- they're all different.

"It is hard, because there are so many subtleties to being at a position that end up being imbedded; they just become habits," Bird said. "But what Swin and AC were great at as post players, they kept. That's a huge advantage for them at the guard spot. You don't want to lose who you are completely."

Mystics coach Mike Thibault agreed that Clark makes the most of her size and post skills. He said that of the tweeners who've come from college to the WNBA, Clark has been one of the best at making the adjustment.

"Part of that is because she has a defensive identity," Thibault said. "I think when you accept you can find a way to play in the league by being good at that end of the court, then you make a place for yourself.

"Her size allows her to guard a lot of different people. They can use her to switch, and she's embraced that role that she can be a disruptor. Her size also allows her to be a really good rebounder, which she was in college. Now she's doing it against smaller people, so that helps at this level. She can make open 3s and post up against small people."

"I had confidence as a post player [in college]. I knew I could score on anybody, it didn't matter who or how tall. To be at the guard and not know, I lost my confidence. I had to work to rebuild that." Alysha Clark, on changing positions as a pro

Thibault appreciates that Clark came from a mid-major college program, because he has had success drafting players outside the power conferences. Admittedly, that tends to be another hurdle to make it in the WNBA, but players such as Clark and Mystics starting guard Natasha Cloud of St. Joseph's are great examples.

The Mystics' Elena Delle Donne played at a mid-major school, too -- Delaware -- although she was such a high-profile recruit (originally signing with UConn) that she didn't have the same struggle for recognition. Still, Delle Donne is proud of her college background and the other mid-major players who make it to the WNBA.

"I think it's really cool in these Finals to see three of us from the mid-majors," Delle Donne said. "It's really about how hard you work. If you're talented and you work super-hard, it doesn't matter what school you came from."

Cloud played her freshman season at Maryland in 2010-11, then transferred to St. Joseph's in Philadelphia to be closer to her home for family reasons. Like Clark, the 6-foot Cloud was drafted in the second round (No. 15 overall in 2015), but she didn't have to make a position change. Cloud has had the best of her four WNBA seasons this year, averaging 8.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in the regular season (9.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 5.0 APG in the playoffs).

"When I left Maryland, there were people who told me that my dream of playing in the WNBA was over because I was a mid-major kid," Cloud said. "I was lucky enough to have a WNBA coach who looked past that and just wanted someone who could fit into the puzzle of what he was trying to do in D.C. It was a blessing for me, because he took a chance on me."

Thibault, though, said he was confident about Cloud because he watched enough of what she did not just in games, but in practice, and saw her commitment there. Similarly, Seattle's Dan Hughes, who was general manager in San Antonio when Clark was drafted in 2010 (he didn't coach that year), said he always believed she'd succeed if she got the opportunity.

Hughes thought Clark deserved to be on the WNBA's all-defensive teams this season, which were voted on by the coaches.

"She needs to be recognized as one of the best defensive players in our league," Hughes said. "She had to remodel herself for the pro game. As much as any player I've seen, she did that. She took all the things you say to players who are 4s in college trying to be 3s in the pros and applied them. And very, very few really can do that. She's also part of that toughness that we wanted for our culture here."

Clark said she's proud of all she had to learn and how she had to adjust her mindset from being a scoring sensation in college to a defensive stopper in the pros.

"I went from, 'I have to take the shot' to switching it to 'I have to be the one to get the stop.' It's still that your team is depending on you, but in a different way," Clark said. "I'm not one to back down from challenges. So I took that on myself to say, 'You're going to be that defender.' It made me a better all-around player. And I'm grateful I'm with a franchise that appreciated that and believed in me."