Alysha Clark admits she was a bossy kid. The 2005 Mt. Juliet High graduate had no problem with it then and has none with it now. And in reality, the Washington Mystics are grateful for it.
The free agent signing of the two-time WNBA champion was the biggest offseason acquisition for the organization, setting up a new look for the Mystics. The two-time all-defense selection and 2020 defensive player of the year candidate was poised to team up with Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud to give opposing backcourts fits with their defensive versatility. Then a pop in her foot while playing in France ended Clark’s first season in Washington before it ever got started.
That, however, hasn’t stopped the nine-year veteran from being a valued contributor.
“My leadership is definitely something that comes naturally,” said Clark, who led the Lady Bears to the ’05 state championship and was named Miss Basketball. “My parents can talk about how when I was a kid, the things that I would do. You know, when you’re a kid, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you’re bossy.’ But it’s like, ‘No, I’m helping you guys understand what should be done and I’m not afraid to tell you.’ ”
Clark sees plenty that needs to be done from her bench seat inside the Entertainment and Sports Arena. The Mystics have struggled out the gate with a roster that was missing Clark, Elena Delle Donne (back), Myisha Hines-Allen (overseas) and Emma Meesseman (overseas). Hines-Allen returned two weeks ago and the team is 2-5 and still growing into its identity on both ends of the floor.
Clark can be found standing next to Delle Donne on the baseline before every home game as the team goes through warm-ups. She’s already talking to teammates and ramps it up even more during games. The team is second-to-last in opponent’s field goal percentage (44.8) and opponent’s three-point percentage (41.5). The Mystics have played some of the best teams in the league during this early stretch of season, but the defense needs to improve and Clark is doing all she can from the sideline.
“She thinks with a defensive mind,” Coach Mike Thibault said. “She sees things that you can do to disrupt other teams or even individual personnel. How you could break somebody’s rhythm. I think that’s been really, really helpful to our team.
“That’s what we had hoped for. She was going to have that role if she was playing. And certainly when this came about, she’s going to have that kind of a presence. Just her being around every day is a good influence on a lot of our players.”
Atkins, a three-time all-defense selection herself, knew all about Clark and couldn’t wait to pick her brain. She wanted to sit down and go through video together in search of tips. Tips are one thing, but Clark brings a whole other dimension to the table. She not only knows an opposing player’s strengths and weaknesses, but what they like to do on a certain side of the floor. Or what percentage they shoot from different areas of the floor. Or who doesn’t likes to be pressured and who gets affected by being bumped.
“She’s a person who takes her craft seriously and those are the type of people you want to play with,” Atkins said. “Those are the types of people you appreciate. I’m definitely not at the point to where I can remember what everybody on the court likes to do. But that’s something she’s worked at doing.
“That’s not normal, by the way. 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 taking your craft to another level.”
That skill was truly developed when Clark spent the 2013-14 season on the staff of her alma mater, Middle Tennessee State. There she learned how to break down film quicker, more efficiently and with greater detail. She learned to identify tendencies, schemes and possessions. Clark warned Mystics video and analytics coordinator Daniel Villarreal that they were going to be best friends.
“So, low-key, like the way that I know scouts and players is borderline obsessive and not everybody can handle that kind of thing ,” Clark said. “Not everybody can have handle that amount of information. But for me, I’m a type of player that can.”
Erica McCall added, “Man, she’s brought a lot of wisdom. . . . And so for me, I really try to lean in on her, specifically when I’m coming off the court. . . . But she’s an absolute genius when it comes to defense.”
That’s the easy part for Clark these days. Everything else is more difficult for an obsessive basketball player who can’t hoop. The Lisfranc injury was suffered late in a game, just trying to plant when Clark heard a pop and instantly knew the excruciating pain was no minor issue. This is the most significant injury of her career — the first to end a season and just her second surgery. Rehab has included strengthening the rest of her lower body — hip and core strength — before focusing on the foot. She is still wearing a boot, but is now able to put her full weight on that side of the body. Clark hasn’t worn a pair of shoes since mid-March, so she’s looking forward to the boot coming off in the upcoming weeks.
To keep busy, Clark has zeroed in on the little things. She makes a to-do list for each day and has started to get into things she typically doesn’t have time for. Clark is reading more and is working through “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do” by Jennifer Eberhardt. She’s getting back into the kitchen to update some old recipes and create a few new ones.
Clark knows the process will be long and arduous, so that’s why she keeps the focus small and immediate.
“There’s been a lot of change for me just in these last few months,” Clark said. “So it’s definitely challenging mentally, just being able to find and have a space where (I) give myself grace to be able to feel all the feelings that I’m feeling. I’m not trying to mask those, but then remaining in a head space of gratitude. And that’s something that I really like lead my life by, is always find the positive.
“Just being able to lend my knowledge and the things that I do to my teammates, to my younger teammates. Pour into them this year has kind of been just my mind-set coming into the season, so that way I stay in the space of feeling useful and staying in a positive space while I’m here.”