August 3, 2023 

How Layshia Clarendon’s gritty, tough game fits the Sparks

'That's my style, just to go after people and attack them'

Heading into their tenth season in the WNBA, Layshia Clarendon didn’t expect that they were going to learn a completely new position. But when Stephanie Talbot suffered an ACL injury while playing overseas and Katie Lou Samuelson out while expecting her first child, the Sparks suddenly found themselves without a true small forward.

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When the Sparks took the court for a preseason game back on May 14 against the Seattle Storm, Clarendon, who uses he/him, she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably, was the starting small forward. It was a drastic change for the tenth-year veteran who had only ever been a point guard.

It wasn’t just out of necessity though that thrust Clarendon into that position. A gritty, tough defensive player, they were probably the Sparks’ best option at guarding bigger, more mobile small forwards. Not only that, for a player that was on a non-guaranteed training camp contract in a league that’s become incredibly difficult to secure a roster spot, being able to adapt was something Clarendon knew was going to keep him in the league.

“Knowing that a coach can put on the floor and ask you to do multiple things, it makes your value higher and your stock higher. So the fact that ten years in, it’s like alright play the three and I know you’ll be tough enough to battle Satou Sabally or switch on to [Victoria] Vivians and not worry about how tough I’ll be,” Clarendon told The Next. “That’s one of the reasons why they can play me at the three because I’m playing it for the defensive side of the ball and then still be able to switch back to the one at any given point. . .so I think that makes me extremely valuable.”

Having that tough, gritty mentality on the defensive end is something the Sparks have needed. On multiple occasions this season, Sparks head coach Curt Miller has raved about the physicality and the toughness Clarendon brings defensively.

It’s just knowing where to be and how to make things difficult for opposing players no matter who is opposite them on any given night. Clarendon approaches the defensive end the same way no matter if they’re asked to guard point guards, shooting guards or small forwards. That interchangeability and toughness was something the Sparks missed when she was out for about a month with a foot injury.

While Clarendon’s defensive approach includes the usual scouting reports and knowing the opponent’s tendencies, most of it just comes from her willingness to ‘bite them on the ankles,’ as they like to say.

“That’s my style, just to go after people and attack them. Part of it is skill, part of it is mentality, to not back down,” Clarendon said. “You know people’s tendencies, you know how to scout them, but really the toughness and ability to bump people and be physical and not be afraid of the contact, especially at this level in our league it makes you very valuable. I take a lot of pride, especially with my size, I’m only 5’9.”

It’s been a bit of a resurgent year for Clarendon. Back during the 2021 season, he had one of the best seasons of their career with the Minnesota Lynx. In 21 games including 21 starts, Clarendon averaged 10.4 points per game, 3.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists. The following season though, the Lynx decided to cut Clarendon during training camp due to injury concerns.

Clarendon ended up sitting out the 2022 season. They didn’t get back on the court in regular games until they joined Athletes Unlimited for their 2023 season. She came into Athletes Unlimited not quite in game shape. They knew they wanted to get back in the WNBA and they saw AU as being the pathway to get there.

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Although they had to shake off some initial rust, they gradually got back to the level they wanted to be and turned into another opportunity in the WNBA.

“To not be on the court for that year, it’s hard to get into basketball shape. AU helped me play three games a week for five weeks straight, it gets you in basketball shape ready to play 30-plus minutes a night, that was one of the number things. And then the ability to play with confidence, make reads, I was really rusty the first couple of weeks,” Clarendon said. “You could see as I progressed the last couple of weeks, everything really started to come together. Just to have that space to play, I went into it just knowing I wanted to play professional sports again and hopefully, it was leading to a W contract. It all worked out.”

In a league that features only 12 teams with 12 roster spots each, the WNBA has become the most difficult professional sports league to break into. It seems like every season there’s increasing chatter about how few roster spots there are and how few opportunities top college players have at chasing their WNBA dreams.

Being able to play this long in the WNBA is something Clarendon does not take for granted. A lot of players don’t make it this far in their careers. While talent plays a role in being able to have a lasting career, there’s a little bit more to it. For Clarendon, it’s about showing up every day, being willing to do whatever is asked of you, understanding your role and playing it well.

“I would say consistency is one of the things. Show up every day and be consistent which is extremely hard to do over the course of a season and the course of your career,” Clarendon said. “I think it’s my toughness, my ability to adapt to different roles, how smart and heady I am and my IQ.”

Overall, he has had a solid season for the Sparks. Despite the time they missed with the foot injury, they’ve been one of the most consistent players on the team. Their numbers might not be flashy, they might not jump off the stat sheet, but their contributions do not go unnoticed.

That consistency every day is evident. Clarendon is averaging 7.8 points per game, 2.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals with shooting splits of 42.5 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from the three-point line and 85.7 percent from the free-throw line. They’re playing 26.9 minutes per game which is the third-highest mark in her career.

While Clarendon hasn’t quite put a number on how many years she wants to continue playing in the WNBA, she’s very realistic about how much time she may have left in her career.

“I’ve thought about it a lot so I’m just trying to stay in the moment. I’ve approached every day like it’s my last because I think when you’re at this age, injuries happen. So I really just try and stay in the moment and enjoy and make sure I can find the right situation,” Clarendon said. “I think a lot of factors go into it like your family, where you’re going to play, I’ve really wanted to be in LA so I could be close to home and have a good opportunity here. So I’m staying in the moment with it. I know there are less years ahead of me than behind me for sure. That just offers a lot of perspective.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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