Tennessee native Ian Clark went from under-recruited to high-scoring NCAA star to NBA guard

Prior to making his official NBA debut on Nov. 1, 2013, as a member of the Utah Jazz, brand-new New Orleans Pelicans free-agent signee Ian Clark traveled an unconventional path to the league. As described by Mike Organ – a sports reporter for the Tennessean newspaper – Clark went largely unnoticed by big-name colleges before he committed to tiny Belmont University. A Memphis native, Clark enjoyed a stellar college career for in-state Belmont (which is located in Nashville), but then went undrafted by the NBA in ‘13.

To learn more about Clark’s uncommon background, as the only player in Belmont history to ever appear in an NBA game, we caught up with Organ, who covered the 6-foot-3 guard during his steady rise to prominence. Clark eventually won an NBA championship with Golden State this spring, playing a total of 93 games (regular season plus playoffs) for the title-winning Warriors.

Pelicans.com: Let’s start with an obvious one. How does a basketball player go from relatively obscure Belmont University (enrollment 7,771) to carving out an NBA career that is now entering Year 5?

Organ: You have to go back to the fact that so many bigger schools missed out on Clark in the recruiting process. Belmont coach Rick Byrd said it from the day he signed Clark that he was talented enough to play pretty much anywhere. Clark’s only other offers came from Middle Tennessee State, Murray State, Davidson and Lipscomb. Clark quickly proved Byrd right by playing immediately and being named the Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year. Clark remained a centerpiece of the offense throughout his career and benefited from the fact that Belmont consistently plays marquee schools in the offseason and plays in the NCAA Tournament. 

Pelicans.com: Clark’s shooting numbers in college jump off the page, including him connecting on over 40 percent of his three-point attempts in all four years of his career. As a senior, he combined a scoring average of 18.2 points with extreme efficiency, at 54.3 percent from the field, which is fairly unheard-of from a guard. How was he able to do that, considering opponents must have focused their game plans on trying to stop him?

Organ: By the time Clark was a senior Byrd had pretty much built the offense around his two guards – Clark and Kerron Johnson. Clark especially had the green light to shoot anytime he had the ball in his hands and Byrd’s teams have always depended heavily on the 3-point shot.

Pelicans.com: By all indications, Clark was a popular teammate in Golden State and seemed to be very well-liked with the Warriors. There was an anecdote, for example, that Steve Kerr enjoyed calling him “Yan,” a joking reference to the way Washington reserve Ian Mahinmi pronounces his first name differently, despite having the same spelling. What kind of personality does Clark bring to the Pelicans?

Organ: This is not surprising. Ian is an extremely likeable guy. He is a bit shy and reserved when you first meet him, but it doesn’t take long for his personality to emerge. He quickly established himself as a leader at Belmont because his teammates not only looked up to him, but they also liked him. He is still very close to the guys he played with at Belmont.

Pelicans.com: How surprising was it that Clark was still available in NBA free agency into August? Given the need around the NBA for shooting in particular, it seemed reasonable to think he might be signed more quickly.

Organ: I’m unsure of all the details, but I do know he was determined to find the best fit and was willing to wait until he was comfortable with his next team.

Pelicans.com: How do you view his NBA career in general so far? Has it just been a matter of him getting more opportunity and a larger role for him to make progress and improve? He averaged about 15 minutes a game last season with Golden State, but potentially could clear that with the Pelicans.

Organ: Going to Golden State was perfect for Clark. Being surrounded by so much talent afforded him the opportunity to grow and develop his game. I believe if he would have returned to Golden State his role would have increased so naturally being with the Pelicans means that he should become a more visible player.

Pelicans.com: Based on what he showed on the court in college, what has surprised you most about Clark’s NBA career? Conversely, what has he done in the league that you could’ve most easily predicted?

Organ: Clark’s ability to adapt to not knowing when he would be on the floor and who he would be matched up against has really made him an asset. Since he was always in the spotlight at Belmont, there was no way to expect him to excel under those circumstances. If he is placed in a more stable and structured role with the Pelicans, I believe he will become an even better player.

Pelicans.com: What’s one thing even longtime fans and followers of Clark’s career might be surprised to know about him?

Organ: Before Clark became a lethal weapon on offense at Belmont, he was a defensive star. Belmont has always been known for being a high-scoring team because it relies so heavily on the 3-point shot, but Clark made his greatest impact early on defense.

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