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2015-16 Warriors season review: Ian Clark, Golden State's feel good story

After most of the Warriors' free agents had to move on to make room for the signing of Kevin Durant, reserve guard and former summer league hero Ian Clark is sticking around.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Almost exactly two years ago, Ian Clark told me during an interview at summer league that his goal was to try to show that he could be more than just a shooter.

An uber efficient 6-foot-3 guard at Belmont University, he was just another undersized player who was promising but evidently not worth the risk of a draft pick to NBA teams.

You figure there has to be enormous weight in that, chasing a dream when literally 30 NBA teams declined to put real faith in you, somehow staying true to yourself while feeling forced to be something else. But all Clark wanted was a shot to make an impression.

"I did a lot more this past year, my senior year, more than I did all over the course of my career," Clark told me after a summer league game back then. "And that's one thing that I wanted to come in here and work on knowing that I would be a little undersized at this level as a 2-guard. So I had to make sure I come in (and) bring something else to the table: I want to be able to handle the ball, become a combo guard, get the team into the offense and make plays."

And indeed Clark did bring something to the table.

Playing alongside players like Kent Bazemore and Draymond Green, Clark not only made an impression but ended up capturing 2013 Las Vegas Summer League MVP with a summer league showing that pretty much assured him a roster spot somewhere.

Yet with the Warriors already having just used a first round pick on Nemanja Nedovic, who neither played in summer league that year nor significant minutes in his NBA career, and Bazemore already developing on the bench, there just wasn't an obvious spot on the roster for Clark. But his path forward hasn't exactly been easy.

Clark spent the first two seasons of his career with the Utah Jazz and then Denver Nuggets with stints in the D-League here and there. And to be totally honest, it was becoming reasonable to wonder whether Clark would ever get over the hump and find a place for himself as a pro.

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Perhaps because I had the opportunity to talk to Clark in person, I bring all that with me whenever I watch him take the floor. Clark has by no means my favorite player, but as we look ahead to summer league, his story is clearly representative of why we bother to watch our team compete in bad basketball for about a week every summer: we're looking to identify a roster-caliber talent that everyone else over looked in addition to getting that first taste of the stars of tomorrow.

The last few years have produced a few of those summer league roster players for the Warriors, from Clark to Bazemore to James Michael McAdoo. But Clark stands out as the guy who had a particularly difficult uphill battle: whereas guys like Bazemore or McAdoo have physical attributes that make them attractive to just about any team, Clark had the challenge of trying to overcome his stature and measurements.

And, at least to me, that ongoing struggle sort of defined his season with the Warriors.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr clearly wanted Clark to be a guy who could initiate the offense, but whenever he was in that role he seemed painfully uncomfortable against NBA defenders. And it was getting to the point where we could legitimately wonder how long he'd even stick around in the league.

Then, after a sort of uneventful season for Clark, the first round of the NBA playoffs came around with a matchup against the Houston Rockets.

Were it not for a clutch shot by James Harden, Game 3 of the first round would've been remembered as Ian Clark's coming out party. And I think GSOM's own Jared Stearne captured the moment well by writing, "...where Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and others failed: Ian Clark succeeded. The much-maligned backup point guard drove on a broken play and nailed a floater to make it 94-93 Warriors -- their first lead since 2-0. A 17-point comeback, in the playoffs, on the road, without the best player alive."

With the odds almost completely against him succeeding and given a chance to make an impression, Ian Clark managed to make an impression.


You could probably sum up Ian Clark's value to the Warriors by noting that when Steve Kerr was forced to make someone inactive in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, it was Clark who got the short end of the stick. After Stephen Curry returned from injury in the second round, meaningful minutes were few and far between for Clark, who got the majority of his time in the final two rounds during garbage time that came far more often than expected for the Warriors in the latter rounds. His best moments -- Game 3 in Houston, 15 points in a 50-point blowout of Memphis at home, a season-high 21 points during a 23-point loss in Dallas with multiple players out -- weren't exactly validated by the outcomes.

On the other hand, you could look at this glass as half-full: after making an impression as a MVP in generally forgettable summer league games, everything came full circle for Clark and he ended up logging minutes as a member of a historically successful team in the NBA Finals. And, for whatever it's worth to you, he posted career-high numbers almost across the board this year -- there are certainly signs of improvement even as his shortcomings are difficult to ignore.

Just in terms of what every undrafted dude at summer league is hoping for, Clark's story really is inspiring. If there's a poster child of hope at summer league, why not Ian Clark, who proved his doubters wrong and then had a playoff moment?

Ivan mentioned on the podcast the other day that he just wanted someone on the team who could be a feel-good story, the underdog on a team that is increasingly feeling like a group of mercenaries out to obliterate all challengers. With so many other of our favorite quirky reserves moving on to make way for Durant, all signs point to that feel-good guy being Clark. That Ian Clark has even had the opportunity to make an impression is a testament to his resilience, work ethic, and determination.

As Warriors fans, we've actually seem numerous stories of undrafted successes. The question is whether Clark will be the one who blows up in a Warriors uniform instead of elsewhere.

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