May 14, 2022 

Inside Alysha Clark’s long-awaited Mystics debut

‘I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was,’ Clark said she learned while recovering from injury

WASHINGTON – As Washington Mystics forward Alysha Clark finished her individual shooting routine before Friday’s game against the Dallas Wings, she exchanged three playful hip checks with assistant coach LaToya Sanders before heading back to the locker room. Hours later, the Mystics got their first gut check of the season in a 94-86 loss, committing 21 turnovers to spoil Clark’s season debut.

The 34-year-old Clark is coming back from the first surgery of her professional career, for a foot injury that occurred while playing in France in March 2021. She felt the middle of her right foot pop on a simple but explosive drive to the basket, and it took more than a year for her to move again with that same power and instinctiveness. She missed the entire 2021 WNBA season but led the team from the sidelines, offering pointers based on her exacting film study and her experience as a defensive stopper in nine WNBA seasons.

“She was signed a year ago to be an X-factor for us. So I think that still holds true,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on Friday as Clark was beginning her pregame shooting. But he downplayed his expectations for her debut, likening it to a preseason game for her and keeping the offensive playbook for her simple to start.

“I’m looking forward to just her getting her feet wet and getting in here and feeling the game at full speed,” assistant coach Shelley Patterson told The Next before the game. “… She hasn’t played in a long time. We know what she brings to this team, especially when she’s 1,000%.”

Clark told reporters on Thursday that a successful debut for her would be playing even a single minute, given that she had played zero minutes in the previous 429 days, and she wasn’t concerned about her points or number of shot attempts. Her recovery has been challenging physically and emotionally; she told The Next in 2021 that she had struggled with relying on others to drive her places and care for her and that it was challenging for her to see her calf muscles atrophy and her body unable to do basic movements.

“The biggest thing I learned about myself is that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was,” she said after Friday’s game. “There were days I didn’t think I was going to make it through this. And I’m just really, really proud of myself for staying resilient throughout it.”

Washington Mystics forward Alysha Clark (left) and guard Ariel Atkins (second from left) high-five point guard Rui Machida as the Mystics’ starting lineup is introduced for a game against the Dallas Wings at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Friday was an emotional day for Clark, too. She had slept fitfully all week leading up to the game and woke up 45 minutes early from her pregame nap. “I looked and I was like, ‘How do you still have 45 minutes?’ And then it was a wrap,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep after that because I just was like, ‘You’re about to play a basketball game!’”

Clark was one of the last players to shoot pregame, but she was first on the court for the Mystics’ layup line. She was mostly businesslike, working up enough of a sweat that she frequently had to wipe her forehead with her sleeve. But she paused briefly during the layup line to fist bump teammate Elena Delle Donne’s wife Amanda and friend Kathy Fitzpatrick, who were seated courtside.

When the team exited the court for the national anthem, a new wave of emotions crested for Clark during what has always been her time for prayer.

“Nope, we’re not doing it,” she told herself, feeling tears welling in her eyes. “We’re here.”

Clark also felt grateful for being able to return to play and for all the people who made it possible, and there was an element of joy and playfulness present pregame, too. When Clark was introduced as a starter, her choreographed “handshake” with rookie forward Shakira Austin involved Clark twirling around like a ballerina and curtsying. (She said postgame that the choreography was a nod to her foot and being back in action.)

Entering the game on a minutes limit, Clark made the most of her 19:41 on the court, finishing with nine points on 4-of-8 shooting, four rebounds, an assist and a block. She started the game strong defensively, denying Allisha Gray the ball persistently enough on the Wings’ second possession that Dallas got out of sync. Soon after Gray finally got the ball near the half-court logo, she threw a bad pass that Mystics guard Ariel Atkins intercepted.

Clark’s first points as a Mystic came less than two minutes later, in transition off a made basket by the Wings. She caught a long pass from point guard Rui Machida and finished at the rim despite a defender trying to disrupt her.

Going forward, Thibault hopes to capitalize on Clark’s versatility by featuring her more prominently in the offense. She said she felt rustier on offense than on defense on Friday, but she showed flashes of offensive flow. In one sequence, she posted up Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale — who gives up three inches to the 5’11 Clark — in the midrange, backed her down, spun to her right shoulder, and drew the shooting foul. Later, she curled off of a screen from Delle Donne and hit a 19-foot jump shot, showing off the improvements she said she had made in ball-handling, midrange shooting and pick and roll situations during her recovery.

Clark did miss all three of her 3-point attempts, which is unusual for a player who led the league in 3-point percentage in both 2019 and 2020. But Thibault was pleased with her performance nonetheless.

“That’s a great start,” he said.

Her teammates, too, were thrilled to have her back in the lineup. Players such as Tianna Hawkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough gushed earlier in the week about Clark’s defensive acumen and vocal leadership, and her shooting ability opens up the court for other players.

“I love having her out there,” Delle Donne said postgame. “She just changes the defensive intensity. She knows what we need offensively. Even she knows what to say at certain points of the game … So to have a vet like her with the knowledge she has and then her ability to defend so great and then also score the ball, it’s massive. So it’s great to have her back.”

Washington Mystics forward/guard Elena Delle Donne (left) and forward Alysha Clark wait to enter a game against the Dallas Wings at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Friday’s game also felt like the possible end of an arduous chapter for the Mystics, as Delle Donne and Clark were both healthy for the first time since 2019. Delle Donne, who has recovered from two back surgeries and played in a Mystics season opener for the first time in four years on May 6, had a team-high 20 points, five rebounds and four assists in 32 minutes on Friday. She and Clark have spent countless hours rehabbing at the Mystics’ facility and have been able to lean on each other emotionally over the past year-plus.

“I know all the work [Alysha has] put in and all the days we’ve been in here together, so to see her out there is super special,” Delle Donne said. “And it’s also testament to our organization being able to help find us what we need in order to get our health back. So it’s huge.”

However, even the new on-court duo of Clark and Delle Donne couldn’t prevent the Mystics’ first loss of the season on Friday. A strong first quarter in which they scored 29 points and had just two turnovers and three fouls gave way to three quarters of sloppier play. Thibault’s pregame assessment of how his team had looked in its 3-0 start proved prescient:

“It’s not exactly like we’ve had a smooth rhythm all the way through,” he said. “I mean, we’ve had great quarters, and we’ve had … a couple clunker quarters, too. So we’ve all taken turns on this team in being part of the good and part of the bad.”

The Mystics have been missing players all season, including Elizabeth Williams (missed all 4 games due to overseas obligations), Clark (3, foot), Natasha Cloud (2, COVID-19), Hawkins (1, personal) and Delle Donne (1, rest). Kennedy Burke was claimed off of waivers on May 6 but, due to overseas commitments, has not arrived in Washington yet. Just five players have appeared in all four games, forcing Thibault to mix and match lineups to see what’s working on a given night. Even on Friday, Clark was limited, telling reporters postgame that playing 20 minutes was “about right” for what she could handle at this point.

Asked what he learned from Friday’s brand of mixing and matching — which included an ultra-big lineup featuring the 6’3 Hawkins, 6’5 Delle Donne and 6’5 Austin in the second quarter — Thibault said, “I learned I can’t wait for everybody to be here, so we don’t have to look down the bench and see — after an ejection and after AC’s minute limit was up — that we got basically seven players … This was a [type of] game that Natasha excels in. Her defensive length would really help … [But] if you turn the ball over and you foul, you’re in trouble.”

The missing players and an inability to put four good quarters together finally caught up with the Mystics on Friday. After Clark checked out for the final time with 7:12 remaining, she watched any comeback hopes evaporate from the same sideline where she’d watched so many Mystics games in 2021, and she clapped for and exhorted her teammates with her usual fervor.

Only this time, there was a white Gatorade-branded towel draped over her left shoulder, and her right foot felt a little sore from the exertion. And this time, she sat there with the pride of knowing she had done all she could on the court to push the scoreboard in the right direction, after days and months of wondering how she would ever do that again.

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.

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