Point guard Brandon Clark ’15 wants to lead Santa Clara to a conference title. He wants to get to the NCAA tournament. And if the Broncos play this season the way they ended the last, they just might get there.
He remembers the end of the training session, sweat streaming in the steam of a Las Vegas gym in late July. The comfort a hardwood floor can provide after so much exertion.
Then, there was movement. Jarrett Jack, the nine-year NBA vet, sprang back up.
Oh, y’all done? I still got more to do.
Jack rolled right into his personal strain of 21, which consisted of a medley of threes, mid-range pull-up jumpers, and layups, with Jack sprinting to half court and back after every shot.
When he’d finished, Jack did more sprints. “It was like he was on an energy drink or something,” says Brandon Clark ’15, who can’t help but chuckle as he remembers, “He was the oldest in the group, and that was his second workout of the day!”
It made an impression upon Clark, a 6-0 guard who’s entering his senior season at Santa Clara University. “Here’s a guy who’s financially set, and he still wants to do more out of love for the game,” he says. “To see that strength, you can’t exchange that with anything. It was one of the highlights of my life, so far.”
That workout with Jack was one of a number Clark participated in during a six-day stint in Vegas this past summer. Usually, he was accompanied by C. J. Watson, the Indiana Pacers point guard. Clark had been introduced to Watson the previous summer by Broncos head coach Kerry Keating. When Keating was an assistant at Tennessee in the early 2000s, he’d recruited Watson, and the two have stayed in touch. Keating knew that Clark could learn from Watson, who has carved out an impressive NBA career. Undrafted in 2006, Watson headed to Europe, then the NBA Development League. He caught on with the Golden State Warriors in 2008, and has been in the league ever since. Anthony Morrow was another workout partner of Clark’s.
Now, Clark says, he’s thinking like a pro. Always hungry, never satisfied as he heads into his final college season.
It was exactly what Keating wanted for Clark, who will be one of those guys on the cusp of a 15-man roster next fall. Watson and Morrow weren’t guys who’ve had security handed to them on the first-round platter of draft night. They poured every ounce of sweat they had into a roster spot. They’ve carved out careers and become integral components of organizations.
“It was really beneficial for me to see people at the next level,” says Clark. “I got to see the stuff that I was good at, as well as the stuff I needed to work on. It’s all about taking that next step.”
This summer, Clark got in a certain type of mode. He woke up with one thing on his mind. He watched and he worked. He was fascinated with the way these NBA players communicated throughout their workouts. The level of professionalism and dedication they exuded. Never a moment wasted. Now, Clark says, he’s thinking like a pro. Always hungry, never satisfied as he heads into his final college season.
“[Watson] kept telling me to keep up what I’m doing, get more wins for my team,” says Clark. “He told me that’ll help with whatever I want to do after college.”
Nothing seizes America’s collective consciousness quite like a winner. Clark understands that. So, as Jack once did with Georgia Tech, and Watson with Tennessee, he’d like to wax ambitious in his final year of college. He knows some critics will say it isn’t possible. Others will scoff at the absurdity of a West Coast Conference team dethroning Gonzaga.
But why not prove them wrong. Never underestimate the power of a baller with some serious inspiration and talent on his side.
Clark wants to lead Santa Clara to a conference title. He wants to get to the NCAA tournament. And if the Broncos play this season the way they ended the last, they just might get there.
ONE MORE YEAR
For Clark, the upcoming season began minutes after the last one ended.
If you’re unfamiliar with WCC basketball, here’s a foray into heartbreak. Santa Clara’s 2013–14 campaign, difficult, dashed, and daunting, finished in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, thanks to a last-second runner from Gonzaga redshirt-senior point guard David Stockton (the son of Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton).
A month before, another Zags fifth-year senior, forward Sam Dower, had knocked down a last-second three to beat the Broncos at home. That was part of a seven-game losing streak in conference play.
But those two losses sandwiched a Santa Clara revival. By the time Vegas had rolled around, Keating had tinkered with his lineup and playing style. The Broncos were playing some of their best basketball, and they pushed Gonzaga to the brink.
But no dice. The Broncos ended a disappointing season 14-19, 7-9 in conference.
Clark recounted these episodes in the Santa Clara media offices, a few steps away from his home court. He’s kept the mohawk he rocked last season, one of the most distinguishable ’dos in Division I basketball.
He was months removed, but he could return in an instant to that moment, in Vegas. There’s the way you usually feel after a loss, he explains. The frustration, the angst, and the bitterness welling up like a storm. But after that final loss to Gonzaga, Clark just felt numb. Not that he was indifferent—he’d just felt so strongly that they had that one.
The Broncos cycled back to the locker room. For almost two minutes, there was silence. Then, the returning players got up and thanked the three seniors for their work.
“After Stockton hit that layup, it just took your heart away from you, like it snapped,” Clark says. “Nobody thought we’d be in that game as long as we were. But we kept playing for each other. We blocked out the noise. That was a high-status game, but we were in our zone, playing together.”
Eventually, Keating entered the locker room. He looked around at his players, then told them how proud he was of the way they’d battled through that tumultuous season. He stressed the fact that each and every day of practice, each and every game, is important. That’s the next step for a team. Clark emerged energized, and he flew back to California spurred by a single thought.
“I knew I had one more year,” he says.
SOMETHING TO PROVE
Clark signed for Santa Clara in April of his senior year of high school—late, by many standards.
He featured prominently for Merrillville High, in Indiana—San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is an alumnus—for a team that, Keating recalls, was ranked No. 1 in the state that season. At the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) level, Clark ran with the travel team SYF Players, a high-profile side that has featured the likes of current NBA players E’Twaun Moore (coincidentally, Clark’s god-brother) and Robbie Hummel.
A scholarship had opened up for Keating that spring after guard Beau Gamble ’14 transferred. Keating needed a replacement, and Clark was still available.
“There’s no doubt that he steps out onto the court wanting to show that everybody missed him. That chip, that’s part of what makes him so good.”
Due to the timing, Keating wasn’t able to get a live look at his newest recruit, but his assistants did their due diligence. Sam Scholl, now the Broncos’ associate coach, remembers meeting a kid with a chip on his shoulder. Valparaiso University had sniffed around, but there was no serious interest. And this was in the heart of Big Ten country. “He wasn’t heavily recruited,” said Scholl. “We didn’t have to win some huge recruiting battle to get him. There’s no doubt that he steps out onto the court wanting to show that everybody missed him. That chip, that’s part of what makes him so good.”
Looking back on it now, Keating marvels at the career Clark has carved. Last season, he passed 1,000 points for his career. “I hated the way he shot the ball when I saw it on film,” Keating says, “but he’s not as much of a shooter as he is a shot-maker. I’ve coached guys like that before, and you learn pretty quick you’ve just got to let them go at it.”
That fearlessness manifested itself during a tour of Canada in the 2011–12 preseason, when Clark, an incoming freshman, led Santa Clara in scoring. “He kind of sneaks up on you,” says Keating. “With his length and his speed, he can get the ball past bigger guys.” Said Scholl, “He’s fearless. He’s never been afraid to take risks. His mentality has always been, ‘What do I have to do for our team to have a chance to win?’”
That took on greater import during Clark’s freshman season, which followed Santa Clara’s victorious turn in the 2011 CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. Marc Trasolini ’12, poised to star as a senior, tore his left anterior cruciate ligament during the Canadian tour. Then Kevin Foster ’13, the MVP of the tournament, was suspended for the final 12 games of the season. “I was going to those guys for advice,” he says. “It made me step up as a leader, earlier, rather than be fostered in that role.”
As a sophomore, Clark played major minutes for a veteran Broncos team that captured the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) championship. In 2013–14, he led the Broncos in assists. His assist-to-turnover ratio was a shade shy of 2:1. “He’s still really wide-eyed and open to learning,” says Keating. “Since he’s a senior, now, the next challenge is making sacrifices for a team that’s looking to hold itself to a certain standard.”
WHY NOT US?
At the start of last season, Clark felt overwhelmed. There was a burden of responsibility placed firmly upon his shoulders similar to what he’d felt as a freshman. Foster, Trasolini, Raymond Cowels ’13, and Niyi Harrison ’13 were gone, taking some 6,000 career points and that CBI title along with them. Then, Evan Roquemore ’14, the de facto returning point guard, and a senior, got hurt.
During preseason practice, Clark struggled to rein in his mistakes. He was so accustomed to his departed teammates’ consummate sense of spacing. Now, there were multiple freshmen to factor into the fold. It took awhile to gel, and during that span, Clark pressed.
Keating remembers a game when Clark’s shooting became so erratic, his shot selection so poor, it threatened to put Santa Clara under. “He was trying to do too much, and trying to take on the burden too much,” says Keating. “Then he settled down, and he had a good year for himself.”
Slowly, Clark began to understand the pace and the rhythm. He found the balance between scoring and setting up teammates.
Even when the games began slipping away in conference, Clark remained steady. “I’d seen how it was, I know the point where we broke off,” says Clark. “That’ll be big for me this year. Knowing when to bring the team together in a huddle, or during a dead ball, and saying we need to dig in—right here.”
Each season, the Santa Clara players pick a word that defines their approach. Clark picked focus ahead of 2013–14 and kept it for the campaign. “In the games when my focus was high, I felt like it was a direct correlation to the team and the type of energy we had,” he says. “It’s a long season, but focusing every day, and taking it a day at a time, respecting the process and living for the process…that could do wonders for us.” The day-to-day grind might be the most important insight. Last season, Santa Clara showed it could get up for the big games. There were those two games against Gonzaga. The team took down rival Saint Mary’s on the road.
But Keating let the team know in that Vegas locker room that the game nobody knows about in November matters just as much in the grand scheme. Every game, every win, adds up to the tournament, and that’s where Clark wants to go.
“I look around the country, at other schools, I talk to friends from my AAU team, and I talk to them about how they go about their business,” says Clark. “And I feel like, why not us? We have nice facilities, we have good players, we have great coaches. It’s a chip on our shoulder.”
A DIFFERENT BRAND OF SCU BASKETBALL
The morning after games, SCU players head to film session, where they are presented a 10-clip series, all of which concern errant moments from the night before. But instead of admonishment, the emphasis is on finding the ways in which those mistakes can be fixed.
The approach extends to individual relationships. Clark was in constant contact with the coaching staff this summer. Sometimes, he’d send Scholl, who coaches the Santa Clara guards, clips of YouTube videos he found particularly inspiring. There was one of Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard putting in work, to which Scholl replied with a question.
See anything you want to work on?
“That’s one thing I took from this summer,” says Clark. “To focus on one thing in a 30-minute span. I remember [Scholl] sent me a Kobe clip once, and it talked about how Kobe devotes an entire day toward working on one thing—it might be one of his crazy turn-around one-footers. People think that’s a lucky shot, but it’s rep after rep after rep after…”
Scholl applauds Clark’s inquisitive approach. “In the early part of his career, Brandon came to practice, but he didn’t really understand the purpose of being at each and every practice. Now he’s seeing how each practice builds into something more. He took ownership. He realized it wasn’t just about playing well in games, but in being consistent with his practice habits and looking to improve.” Every day after practice for the past year and a half, Clark has stayed behind and put up extra shots. He won’t leave until he’s gone 8-of-10 from five spots on the floor. Sometimes, he challenges himself with making five threes and five free throws in a row. You get the sense he might soon begin taking a page out of Jack’s book and adding some sprints in at the end.
“This is the first team I’ve been on where everybody connects,” Clark says. “The chemistry is at an all-time high.”
Keating isn’t big on the word culture, but he is excited about the direction this program is taking and the way it has been bolstered by the work these kids have put in. When he meets people curious about the upcoming season, he informs them that they’ll see a different brand of Santa Clara basketball. “I know exactly where we’re going,” Keating says. Clark sees it as well. “This is the first team I’ve been on where everybody connects,” he says. “The chemistry is at an all-time high. That might be a cliché, but I trust these guys. It’s the same with the coaches. They listen to your opinions and insights, and vice versa. That’s one thing I really like.”
You couldn’t quite call it a deficiency, but outside of 6-9 senior Yannick Atanga ’15, the Broncos lack size and experience in the frontcourt. That means they’ll play up-tempo, looking to harry teams the way they did Gonzaga in the WCC tournament. Before the Zags fell to Arizona in the NCAA tournament round of 32, no team turned them over more than did the Broncos in Vegas.
Santa Clara will do major damage by way of its backcourt, which is loaded. In addition to Clark and super-soph Jared Brownridge ’17 (17.2 points last season), Keating raves about youngsters Jalen Richard ’17 and Jarvis Pugh ’17. True freshmen Stephen Edwards ’18 and Kai Healy ’18 pack even more scoring punch.
“We can mix and match at guard,” says Scholl. “None of our guys have the ego of needing the ball in their hands. They recognize each other’s strengths. Instead of set positions, we have playmakers, and Brandon leads the charge in that.” Never one to fan flames, Keating will reserve judgment on this young team until they’ve come through a relative wringer of a non-conference slate. A road swing through Utah State, Michigan State, and Tennessee over the course of eight days in mid-November beckons. That’s followed by the ever-potent field at the Orlando (formerly Old Spice) Classic over Thanksgiving.
But Keating is sure of one thing. Should the Broncos acquit themselves well in these games, there’s a bit of long-awaited renown that could come Clark’s way.
“For people who haven’t really paid attention,” says Keating, “Brandon’s got a chance to come out of nowhere.”
AS FAR AS YOU WANT IT TO GO
It’s difficult to fathom, given that he finished fourth in the WCC in scoring (16.9 points) last season, but yes, Clark is a player few in America know about.
Take Santa Clara’s final press conference of this past season, after that conference tournament loss to Gonzaga. As Keating, Brownridge, and Clark trudged toward the press conference table in the media room, Assistant Athletic Director Michelle Young informed the assembled media that Clark had scored in double figures for the 23rd consecutive game.
But that’s the thing about steady, as opposed to flash, or pomp, or circumstance. It gets passed over.
Barely a ripple among the crowd, for a pretty doggone good feat. But that’s the thing about steady, as opposed to flash, or pomp, or circumstance. It gets passed over.
Clark realized long ago it wasn’t worth worrying about notoriety. It’s ephemeral. Surround yourself instead with people who believe in you. His coach, his team, and his family know his worth, and that’s enough. This summer, Clark could often be found in the weight room. With nine freshmen and sophomores—and no juniors—on this season’s team, he knows he needs to be a leader, and he wants to be at his absolute peak.
Keating took the seniors out to lunch in early October, and told them straight up: “This thing can go as far as you want it to go.” He knows the Broncos will likely be picked to finish in the bottom half of the league standings this season. (They were picked to finish seventh.) Should Clark help the Broncos nab a fair number of wins, his stock will rise in the eyes of future employers, whether NBA or overseas. “He’ll be the perfect guy to have in a pre-draft workout,” says Keating. “Some of those guys are gonna watch him and say, ‘He can put the ball in the basket. He’s fast. He’s deceptive. He can guard the ball and shoot it.’”
Adds Scholl, “Brandon has goals and aspirations to play for money one day. We talked a lot this summer about developing habits to get him ready for that. Us winning is a very important part of it. He took mental notes of what he saw this offseason, the level of professionalism and self-discipline. That’s the sort of character and value system that’s required for someone to invest money in.”
As he enters his final season, Clark can still remember his recruitment vividly, all those schools that overlooked him. Maybe it was his style of play; maybe it was the fact that he didn’t hit his current height of 6 feet until he was a senior in high school.
He remembers how Purdue wasn’t interested in his services. So, as a sophomore, when Clark helped Santa Clara beat the Boilermakers, on the road, in that CBI tournament: “To win at a Big Ten school that didn’t recruit me…”
Dude doesn’t even need to finish that sentence.
They may have slept on him ’til now, but as many teams have learned, you look past this kid at your own risk.