Jaylen Clark: The Ed Reed of College Basketball
Jaylen Clark has been a wildly impactful defender for the UCLA Bruins this season. Tap in and see why his skill set may remind you of the legendary Ed Reed.
Being a co-host of The DraftDaq NBA podcast may lead you to believe I know some things about the stock market. The truth is, I don’t know a damn thing. As I’ve mentioned before, I got my bachelor’s degree from a school known for its business program, but I graduated with a degree in English Literature. My parents were wildly disappointed, but they’ve learned to love me and my failures. This was a weird start to my piece.
Although I may not know much about the stock market, I think I’m pretty decent at spotting budding basketball talent. That’s why I’m still here and haven’t been fired from No Ceilings yet, the best basketball website on Earth and beyond. With that said, I had to write some words on Jaylen Clark. I’ve had the awesome opportunity to cover him a couple of times this season in Westwood, and I have to say I was not expecting to be as impressed as I have been by Clark’s game. I generally compare a prospect to something or someone in these solo pieces, and this week is no different. I’ll compare Jaylen Clark to the legendary New York Jets safety Ed Reed.
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I’m sure all the Baltimore Ravens fans are furiously tweeting hate tweets about my joke above, but I forgot until recently that Ed Reed being on the New York Jets was an actual thing that happened. For all the people who didn’t get my joke, Ed Reed is a legendary safety who played most of his career for the Baltimore Ravens. He had a short stint with my beloved Jets at the twilight of his career but will forever be remembered as a Baltimore Raven. By comparing Jaylen Clark to Reed, some may question if I’m saying Clark will have that level of a career when all is said and done. My short answer is probably not. I wanted to bring up Ed Reed to highlight the impact Clark has on the defensive side of the ball and how he may surprise people with some juice on offense as well.
I realized recently that I don’t always give players the best intros before diving into the breakdown, so here we go. Jaylen Clark is a 6’5” junior guard for the UCLA Bruins. He’s from Riverside, CA; good for him for staying pretty local and playing for the Bruins. He’s currently averaging 15.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 2.6 steals per game. So far, his shooting splits have been 61.5/38.5/65.0 through 11 games this season. He’s started all 11 games and is also playing 28 minutes per game. The numbers above show that Jaylen Clark has made a big jump in his junior season. Playing behind Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. for the last couple of seasons made it difficult for him to shine. With Juzang gone to the NBA, Clark has grabbed the opportunity by the horns and is shining right next to Jaquez Jr. this season.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I want to say that I’m projecting Clark to be an excellent role player. I think it’s doubtful that Clark ever becomes a number one or two option on a team offensively; I even think a third option is a stretch for him and his skill set. He’ll probably be a 4th or 5th option for a team, but defensively, I think he’ll almost always be the best or second-best defender on whatever team he ends up on. That said, let’s start on the defensive side of the ball.
Watching a ton of highlight videos of Ed Reed before writing this piece put me in an incredible mood. I’m not going to pretend to be a football or NFL expert. I’ve watched football for 20 years, but I’d never pretend to be an expert. With that being said, you don’t have to be an expert to know that Ed Reed was an absolute monster. Going back and watching his highlights reminded me of the gravity that he had as a defender. Every opposing offensive coordinator and quarterback knew they had to be on high alert whenever they went up against Ed Reed. Of course, Ed Reed had the blessing of playing on some incredible Ravens defenses, but no one would say that he was a product of the situation that he was in. Ed Reed would have been a transcendent defensive player for almost any team in the league.
Watching Ed Reed play, you could feel his influence on the field. Receivers would be afraid of catching the ball in the middle of the field because they knew that Reed would either intercept the ball or light them up with a huge hit. Reed was blessed with the hands of a wide receiver, elite anticipation, incredible range, and an unmatched desire to win. He was a complete safety. Seeing the fear and admiration teams had for Reed is always incredible.
The types of plays Reed could make on the defensive side of the feel reminded me so much of what Jaylen Clark is currently doing in college basketball. Through 11 games in the college basketball season, Clark is averaging 2.6 steals per game. That’s a good number, but it also doesn’t fully characterize Clark’s influence on defense. Clark has shown incredible anticipation, timing, and explosion in the passing lanes. He also has great length to go with all of that, which has led to some electric steals and deflections. He also does a great job of contesting shots and making it difficult for his opponent to get clean looks at the basket. He’s also been good off the ball, though I will go into more detail as to why I think that’s the one area of his game on defense that needs some work.
Not only is Clark a disruptor in the passing lanes, but he has great lateral mobility and length to keep his defender in front of him and does a great job helping as an off-ball defender. He may not average a ton of blocks per game, but we must remember that we’re talking about a 6’5” guard, not a center. He may not have a ton of blocks, but Clark does more than enough as a help defender for you to feel his presence down low. Although Clark is a multi-faceted defender, I can’t help but go back to his work in the passing lanes. The timing, anticipation, and explosion he shows on these steals are incredible. The man seems to almost always be in the correct spot, and you can see him reading the eyes of the ball-handler, anticipating where he’s going to go with the ball, and then he just explodes for the steal. How consistently he reads and reacts to the ball carrier is why offenses pay way more attention to Clark. Like a young Ed Reed in his prime, Clark is starting to get into people’s heads, leading them to bad decisions.
I recently went to UCLA’s game at home against Pepperdine. I was extremely excited to see how this UCLA team would handle the dynamic scoring of Maxwell Lewis, Houston Mallette, Mike Mitchell Jr., and Jevon Porter. Lewis looked incredible in warmups, his handle, fluidity, and crispy jump shot amazed me. Heading into the game, I thought Lewis was going to go off and show the nation that he deserves to be in the lottery conversation when the draft comes around next year. To my surprise, Lewis probably had his worst game of the season, and I think part of it could be credited to Jaylen Clark. Clark didn’t guard Lewis the whole night, but whenever he did, Clark made Lewis’s life very difficult. Due to his length, ability, desire to stay in front of him, and active hands, Lewis struggled to get up clean looks. As someone who wanted to see Lewis explode, I walked away more impressed with Clark’s defense than anything else.
Now I’m not going to let one bad game affect my evaluation of Lewis, but I did want to keep that performance in mind when breaking down Clark’s abilities on defense. That is precisely what I think Clark’s value will be in the NBA from day one. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that I think he can guard fours or even bigger threes, but I do think he can cause a lot of trouble from ones to threes. He will be a guy you can send to guard the best perimeter player on the opposing team pretty consistently.
Bill Belichick praises Ed Reed
Before I wrap up his defense, I wanted to highlight that Clark is not just a talented defender but an intelligent and hungry one. The man does not quit. When you watch some of the highlights I posted, you can see the desire in how he’s willing to give that extra 5% of effort that not all guys are willing to give. Ed Reed was the same way. As gifted as Reed was as an athlete, the thing that set him apart was his desire and intellect. Reed put in the hours to watch the tape and learn his opposition; he worked to achieve the desired result. As he explains in the video above to the panel of hosts, Reed knew what Peyton Manning would do in their matchup. He knew Manning’s tendencies and was ready to pounce on what he learned from putting in the work off the field. Clark looks to be the same way. Watching him read the opponent’s mind, you can feel the desire, see the intellect, and see why he will be a high-level NBA defender. Clark can’t read the minds of ball handlers because he’s a mutant; he can do it because he does his homework.
The only critiques for Clark’s defense are that I think he can gamble a little when playing the passing lanes. It’s not like he’s been terrible with it, but I think he could be a little more careful. I also think he gets caught losing his man sometimes from ball-watching. I think there are moments when he’s so engaged with what’s happening on the other end of the floor that he gets caught ball-watching a little bit. It’s not a significant issue; if anything, it speaks to his willingness to be in the right spots to help his teammates. Let’s get to his offense, where there’s more to talk about than you might think.
Because I didn’t start this piece with Clark’s offense, I’m sure you know that offense is not his marquee skill. As I mentioned, much of his offense comes from his stellar defense and easy buckets in transition. According to Barttorvik, he’s shooting 74.2% at the rim and 51.5% on all other two-point attempts. Where Clark does deserve some love on this side of the ball is his off-ball movement, touch around the rim, and improving jump shot.
Another reason why I wanted to compare Clark to Ed Reed was because of Reed’s ability to score touchdowns off of his incredible defensive play. Over the course of his illustrious career, Reed returned seven interceptions for touchdowns; he holds the NFL record for most career interception yards. When Reed caught a pick, the opposing team had to be ready to make a tackle, or Reed would run for a long time. It was that type of ability that put Baltimore’s offense in good positions to score. Clark is similar in that he may not be looked upon as a major contributor on the offensive end he does offer a surprising amount of juice and does a lot to help the offense as a whole.
Clark is an actual demon when it comes to cutting off the ball. Clark is good about staying active, reading what the defense is doing, and finding the soft spots. Playing next to Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, and Amari Bailey means he’s not the main focus of the opposing defense. Because of the offensive gravity of his aforementioned teammates, all Clark has to do is finish plays. As a play-finisher, Clark has done a great job spotting up in the corners and cutting toward the basket for easier looks. To their credit, his teammates have done an excellent job of finding him on these cuts. For someone who isn’t doing a ton of creating with the ball in his hands, it’s been a delight to see him staying active, setting screens, and moving the ball and himself to keep the offense flowing and dangerous.
Clark will only become more dangerous as a play-finisher as his shooting improves. The percentages have been much better this season, but there is still a long way to go before he can be considered a big-time threat as an outside shooter. The overall mechanics of his shot look cleaner and more compact. One of the major issues I saw with his shot on his misses is a pronounced hip turn. If you watch many of his misses, his hips will turn after the release, but the hip turn isn’t there when the shot goes in.
With the ball in his hands, Clark has a decent handle and can drive to the basket, but he’s a limited creator for himself and his teammates. Most of the work he’s doing with the ball in his hands is taking smaller guards into the post on either block and spinning to his preferred left shoulder to finish with a baby hook or floater. I’m not trying to kill the guy as an offensive threat, but I want to be realistic about his outlook on that end, that he will most likely be finishing plays and supporting more ball-dominant players.
Jaylen Clark deserves to be in the first round discussion for me. I think he’s that good of a defender and has shown that he can play a complementary role next to more gifted scorers. I do think teams will fall in love with him by the season is over. Although I know nothing about real stocks, you should buy a ton of Jaylen Clark NOW!
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I would love to see him on a team with a good passer that would excusante his good attributes and allow him to thrive defensively.