July 12, 2022
‘She’s everywhere’: Inside the elite defense of Alysha Clark
On a Mystics team with several all-WNBA defenders, Clark is ‘head of our snake’
During the Washington Mystics’ practice on June 18, the day before a game against the Connecticut Sun, wing Alysha Clark took charge as her team practiced defending Connecticut’s pick-and-roll offense. Clark was the on-ball defender against a horns set, which involves two ball screens near the top of the key. She stopped the drill and instructed teammates Elena Delle Donne and Elizabeth Williams, who were guarding the screeners, exactly how to position themselves so she could maneuver around them and the screens and stay with her matchup.
Minutes later, Clark weighed in again, pointing out where on the court a particular Sun forward is most and least comfortable passing out of double teams and telling her teammates to wait to double that player until she gets to certain spots.
Clark, a two-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selection, knew those details not only because she pays attention in team film sessions, but also because she watches hours of video on her own to prepare for opponents. Defense is what helped Clark earn a WNBA roster spot as an undersized forward out of Middle Tennessee, and now, in her 10th season, it continues to backstop her career.
“Defense isn’t just about blocks and steals,” Clark told The Next. “… Defense is about — like, okay, the other team’s best player, [limiting] their shooting percentage, deflecting passes, taking people out of what they want to do … It’s such an in-depth piece of the game that I think has been overlooked.”
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Though Clark stands just 5’11, she entered the WNBA with a reputation as a dominant low-post scorer. She led the NCAA in scoring in consecutive seasons at Middle Tennessee, averaging 27.5 and 28.3 points per game despite making just 29 3-pointers in that span.
“I didn’t score outside the paint,” Clark told The Seattle Times in 2019. “I just didn’t.”
The San Antonio Silver Stars drafted Clark 17th overall in 2010, but she was cut twice before sticking with the Seattle Storm in 2012. She wasn’t tall enough to play the post, so she had to transition to the wing.
“[Changing positions is] really hard to do in this league, especially as you’re trying to make teams,” current Atlanta Dream head coach and former Storm player Tanisha Wright told The Next. “Most people will tell you, when you’re trying to make a team, do what you do well and stick to that. But I think she did a terrific job of understanding how she was going to be effective.”
While many people understandably focus on Clark’s offensive transformation — from a player who only operated in the paint to one who led the WNBA in 3-point shooting percentage in 2019 and 2020 — changing positions was also challenging defensively. “I had no clue,” Clark said. “I didn’t know how to guard a ball screen.”
“It’s so different guarding on the perimeter because it’s so much open space,” she added. “… The players are completely different in terms of just the skill level with the ball. And so, in the beginning, I felt very uncomfortable because I’m like, ‘Wow, they have a lot of space to be able to attack.’”
Defense was never the first thing on Clark’s mind in high school and college, she said, but in the WNBA, she made it her niche. Clark leaned on veterans Wright and Katie Smith, who helped her learn perimeter defense, and assistant coach Jenny Boucek, who introduced her to the detailed film study that she still does now. Coaching at Middle Tennessee for one season in 2013-14 also helped Clark learn to scout players and break down film more efficiently.
“[Alysha] worked extremely hard, was very open to listening and wanting to learn,” Wright said. Wright emphasized to Clark that, at the professional level, top offensive players can score even against great defense, so good defense is often defined by how hard those players have to work for their points rather than how many they score. Neither Wright nor Smith expected Clark to become the defensive presence she is today, but they saw her potential and work ethic and gladly mentored her.
In part, Clark’s work ethic was a strategy to conquer self-doubt, as she was so uncertain about her WNBA future that she didn’t unpack her bags during her first two seasons in Seattle. But in her third season in 2014, she became a starter, and two years later, the Storm signed her to a multi-year contract. In 2018, she set a new goal for herself: Make a WNBA All-Defensive Team. Clark would play for the Storm through the 2020 season, win championships in 2018 and 2020, and earn back-to-back All-Defensive Team honors in 2019 and 2020.
In February 2021, Clark surprised nearly everyone when she decided to leave Seattle for Washington, D.C. She told reporters that the Storm “did everything right,” but that she saw an opportunity to grow her game under Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault. It looked like a perfect fit on both ends: Defensively, Clark would team up with fellow All-Defensive Team guards Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins to wreak havoc on the perimeter, and she would join an offense that led the WNBA in 3-pointers made and attempted in 2019.
However, in March 2021, Clark suffered a Lisfranc injury to her foot that cost her the entire WNBA season. She still offered insights during practices and games and took Atkins under her wing defensively, but without her on the court, the Mystics recorded the third-worst defensive rating in the league.
Clark’s injury could have been career-ending, especially at 33 years old, but instead, she is rounding into form this season. “I’m getting there,” she said. “I feel confident. Early on, I wasn’t confident in being able to do anything remotely close to what I was before, but now, my confidence is there and it’ll come.”
“Her last few games have been very much Alysha-like,” Wright said on June 28.
Even at less than full strength, Clark has been a defensive menace this season. Her individual defensive rating and defensive win shares per 40 minutes both rank in the 89th percentile leaguewide. With her on the court, the Mystics allow 3.6 points fewer per 100 possessions than they do when she sits, which is the third-best differential on the team.
The idea of Clark playing alongside Cloud and Atkins has also come to fruition: Overall, the Mystics are allowing just 95.1 points per 100 possessions this season, second-best in the league, and that number dips to 93.4 points per 100 possessions with that trio on the court.
Game-planning against those three players “gives me nightmares,” Connecticut head coach Curt Miller said on June 19. Opponents have felt it, too: Atlanta’s Rhyne Howard shot 0-for-9 and had no points on May 24; Minnesota’s Kayla McBride shot 1-for-5 for two points on June 10; New York’s Sabrina Ionescu shot 3-for-16 on June 16; and Las Vegas’ Chelsea Gray shot 5-for-17 with five turnovers on June 25.
Clark has been instrumental in shutting down each of those All-Star-level players. Last season, Atkins and Cloud sometimes both lobbied to defend the opponent’s top perimeter player, but this season, it’s seemed clear that Clark will take most of those assignments.
“Hats off to AC,” Atkins said on June 28, after Clark and the Mystics held Howard to five points on 2-of-14 shooting. “… AC’s kind of our head of our snake on the defensive end … so she started out on Rhyne. She did a phenomenal job, and we [did] the best we could to follow her lead.”
So what separates Clark from other elite defenders in the WNBA — and even from the competition on her own team? Coaches and players around the league identified several factors, but it starts with her versatility as a post-player-turned-guard.
“Defensively, she’s everywhere,” Smith, now the associate head coach for the Minnesota Lynx, told The Next. “Her [and Connecticut’s] Alyssa Thomas, those guys are just, it’s like they can guard every single person on your team.”
That starts with opposing guards. Diana Taurasi, a 6’ guard and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, said on a 2020 in-game broadcast, “She’s probably the best defender in this league. She’s strong, she’s physical. It’s like having a little bodyguard wherever I go.”
But Clark’s one-on-one abilities stretch much further, as she can use her experience as a post player to contain much taller players. For example, in a game at Connecticut on July 3, Clark got switched on to 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, a 6’6 center, in the paint. She was physical with Jones, pushing her out of the paint and toward Atkins, whose proximity helped dissuade an entry pass. Clark then rebounded guard Natisha Hiedeman’s airball and quickly transitioned up the court.
“She’s not just fighting down there; she knows what she’s doing,” ESPN analyst Andraya Carter said on the broadcast.
Delle Donne, a two-time WNBA MVP who played against Clark 16 times before they became teammates in 2021, can attest to that as well. Despite being six inches taller than Clark, Delle Donne told reporters on June 14 how “annoying” it was when Clark would switch on to her. “I’m just glad Alysha’s now on our team. She was miserable to play against,” Delle Donne said.
Asked for more specifics a few days later, Delle Donne told The Next, “AC is a defender that is really good at taking your space away from you and getting up under you without fouling. So that is something that AC does really, really well, and not many players can do it.”
Clark boiled down her success against players of all sizes to being able to counter their tendencies. “Each player has their things that they like to do, right, and it’s just doing the opposite of that,” she said. “Some players are finesse players, some players [want to] bang down low and want to use body and contact. So you have to know those things to be able to defend them well.”
Beyond her one-on-one matchups, Clark also excels as a help defender who can switch with teammates, take charges and get in passing lanes. “She kind of sniffs out plays,” Smith said. “She anticipates … and blow[s] up stuff, get[s] deflections.”
“You have to pay a great attention to … skip passing, reversing the basketball around on her side,” Los Angeles Sparks interim head coach Fred Williams said before a game against the Mystics on June 21. “That’s very important because she’s very good at getting a tip or deflection and going the other way.”
Whenever the Lynx play the Mystics, Smith warns her players about how physical Clark is and how hard she plays. There’s also the fact that Clark often ends opponents’ possessions with a rebound and initiates the offense, just as she did against Jones. This season, Clark is averaging a career-high 3.7 defensive rebounds per game, and her defensive rebounding rate of 15.0% (another career high) ranks second in the league among players who are 6’ or shorter.
Clark couples her versatility and relentlessness with singularly detailed preparation. “She is as good a film studier as anybody I’ve been around in the league,” Thibault, now in his 20th WNBA season, told The Next. “She breaks down everybody she could guard in a game. … She knows scouting reports inside and out. She watches everybody in the league play all the time. Some people are home watching something else on TV. She’s watching every game.”
Before games, Clark tells Mystics video and analytics assistant Andrew Wade and intern Caleb West which opposing players she wants to watch and what she specifically wants to see, and they send her video clips. She then spends a couple of hours watching that film ahead of each game, which is a routine she enjoys. In the offseason, she studies even more, reviewing clips dating back multiple seasons.
“She’s a person who takes her craft seriously,” Atkins told The Washington Post in 2021. “… That’s not normal at all for her to know which side of the floor people like to shoot the best on. And then on top of that, knowing what their percentage actually is on what side of the floor. That’s absolutely not normal. But that’s taking your craft to another level.”
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“Not everybody can handle that wealth of information, but for me, I can,” Clark said. “And so that’s what I think has been the difference between me being an average defender and me being a really great defender.”
The result is that Clark can anticipate, and even dictate, the on-court action rather than react to it because she knows teams’ schemes and players’ tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. In the second quarter against Atlanta on July 6, for example, Clark picked up former All-WNBA guard Tiffany Hayes near halfcourt. She positioned her body to Hayes’ left, nearly perpendicular to the basket, to force Hayes to her non-dominant right hand. Hayes dribbled to her right, then tried a between-the-legs crossover to get to her left hand. She mishandled the ball, and Clark poked it free for a steal and an easy transition layup.
“Alysha Clark is [an] elite X’s and O’s mind,” Miller said. “You can see her being so proactive and not reactive. A lot of these players in this league are good defenders, but they’re still a little reactive and at times can be a half a second late … She sees things before they happen, and I think that separates her. It makes her an elite defender. Her physicality, her toughness, but her knowledge of the game really is a separator.”
Best of all for the Mystics, Clark is a willing mentor to her teammates, paying forward the investments that Wright, Smith and Boucek made in her. In her very first Mystics press conference, Clark said she was eager to talk shop with Cloud and Atkins, and Atkins said this season that Clark has helped her become more aware of opponents’ tendencies. Reserve guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, worried that opponents would target her as the weakest perimeter defender, also sought out Clark for help. Clark showed Walker-Kimbrough how she studies film and routinely shares the clips that Wade and West provide with her.
“Whenever they ask, whatever they need, I can put it in whatever format that suits them best to help make them better,” Clark said.
Couple that meticulous preparation with Clark’s experience in the league, and you get a player who has seen everything on the court. “She’s been in these situations,” Mystics assistant coach Shelley Patterson told The Next. “She feels these plays before they’re even starting.”
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For all the havoc Clark creates defensively, she has never won a WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award, which tends to favor players with more steals and blocks. But her defensive prowess is far from a secret in the WNBA. She said that people have told her privately that it’s ridiculous that she hasn’t won the award or made more All-Defensive teams.
“The stuff I do doesn’t necessarily glaringly stand out on the stat sheet,” Clark said. “But teams in this league know, players know, coaches know … and for me, I’m like, that’s enough.”
The respect she has from her teammates and coaches is also obvious publicly. Storm players and coaches campaigned for her to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, and guard Jewell Loyd told reporters this season that Clark is “obviously one of the best defenders in the league.” Likewise, Delle Donne told The Next that Clark “probably should have won Defensive Player of the Year a few times.”
After Clark signed with the Mystics in 2021, the coaching staff designed defensive schemes geared around her — another sign of how much she is valued. Those schemes had to wait a year, but in 2022, Clark has seamlessly taken the reins for a team that already had strong individual defenders before she arrived.
As a result, the Mystics defense is one of the best in the WNBA, and there’s reason to think it will be even better in the second half of the season. If so, maybe Clark will cap off her transformation from a player who didn’t know how to defend ball screens to become, officially, the best defender in the WNBA.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.