The Minnesota Lynx began this season in a bit of a rut, opening on a four game losing streak and struggling to make the talent on their roster gel after adding some new pieces in free agency. On both ends of the floor, offense and defense, Minnesota looked disjointed and lacking cohesion, playing more like five individuals rather than a team. To complicate matters further, Aerial Powers, one of the Lynx’s new players, had strained her left hamstring during practice late last month. Disjointed after a disappointing season start, and having been down their starting point guard, Minnesota looked to be teetering on the edge of a cliff. They needed a jolt, something, or someone, to energize them and help unite them as a team. Enter: Layshia Clarendon.
Clarendon (who uses they/them, she/her and he/him pronouns) joined the Lynx in late May, brought in by head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve on a replacement contract following Powers’ injury, but his role has been much larger than her temporary contract status would imply. They’ve started three out of the four games they’ve played in a Minnesota uniform and are averaging above twenty-five minutes per game. His presence has provided a significant lift for the Lynx in their time on the court; with a plus-minus of +6.2, she leads the team in that category among players who have played significant minutes this season.
“It’s been really great having her here,” said Napheesa Collier, who recently rejoined the Lynx after winning a championship in France. “The manner she brings to the court, her veteran status. She’s calm under pressure. She really gets us into what we want to get into. She’s our floor general.” Collier says it all here: Clarendon’s leadership has made a big impact on their new team, both in terms of the structure he brings on the court as a playmaker and the guidance and level-headed perspective she provides off of it.
Veteran leadership is one of those intangibles that gets mentioned a lot in basketball discussions, but Clarendon brings a very concrete example of the value of having someone who has been there before. After their fourth consecutive loss of the season, the Lynx needed an injection of sureness and confidence. They needed another collected, calm veteran who, alongside Sylvia Fowles, could help correct the team’s shortcomings while keeping everyone positive and focused on the next win: “That’s what I bring, I try to be that poised veteran presence on the floor,” Clarendon said after Minnesota’s win over the Connecticut Sun, both Clarendon’s first game as a Lynx and the team’s first win of the season. His brand of self-assured, collected leadership was an instrumental force in motivating the Lynx’s potentially momentum-shifting three-game winning streak. “To this point, Layshia’s leadership has been an intangible value which is really helpful to the larger group,” remarked Cheryl Reeve, “I know Lay can give us that every night.”
But nowhere is it easier to see the impact Clarendon’s leadership has had on this team than on the court. In the five games they’ve played as a Lynx, Layshia has done a little bit of everything, averaging 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and just under one steal. They’re also shooting above their career marks across the board, with their shooting splits at an incredible 50.0/40.0/90.9 mark through five games. Admittedly, this is a bit of small sample size theater, and I’m not certain he’ll maintain those exact marks for the season. But the point is, Layshia’s efficient scoring has given the Lynx a much needed extra offensive weapon and a ton of energy on that end of the floor.
Clarendon has also, of course, done well to use the threat of his scoring to create for others, playmaking and initiating being one of the prime reasons Cheryl Reeve brought Clarendon in. In particular, he’s doing a really good job with finding open shooters off of penetration. This kind of dynamic playmaking has really shaken the rust off Minnesota’s offense and brought it to life. Take this play from the Lynx’s recent loss to the Washington Mystics. Clarendon drives hard to the paint, spinning off of Ariel Atkins and drawing the help from Natasha Cloud. They find Kayla McBride, left open by Cloud in the corner, who hits a three to tie the game.
Clarendon’s 4.4 assists per game don’t even tell the full story of the impact that his playmaking has had in turning this Minnesota offense around. The Lynx got off to a stagnant start offensively with little ball movement and, as such, few good, in-rhythm shot attempts within the flow of the offense. Over that four game losing streak that opened the season for Minnesota, they ranked towards the bottom of the league in offensive rating (10th), effective field goal percentage (11th) and true shooting percentage (also 11th). Struggling to find a cohesive offensive identity, the Lynx needed a stabilizing force, someone who could initiate their offense, organize it and get the ball moving around. Layshia Clarendon has been that floor general for Minnesota, providing structure for this team with her shooting, passing and high-caliber decision making.
|Lynx Advanced Offensive Stats and League Rank Before and After Signing Clarendon|
|Before (through May 28)||After (May 30-June 12)|
|Offensive Rating||90.9, 10th||104.9, 3rd|
|Effective Field Goal %||43.2%, 11th||52.7%, 2nd|
|True Shooting %||47.9%, 11th||58.4%, 2nd|
While obviously the Lynx’s progress towards gelling offensively has been a full team effort, it’s just as clear that Layshia’s play has had a huge impact toward that end, both directly and through the example she’s set for her teammates. “We’re moving the ball a lot better,” Cheryl Reeve said before the Lynx’s second game against the Dream, “I thought Layshia was a big part of showing in that last game the value of penetration [and ball movement].”
The Roster Situation: Schrodinger’s Contract
You might have been a bit confused this past week when Layshia Clarendon was briefly, technically removed from the Lynx’s roster, only to be re-signed the next day ahead of the game against the Sparks. Let me explain what happened there:
The Lynx announced Friday via a press release that Aerial Powers was returning from injury and was now active on the roster. Due to Clarendon being with the team on a replacement contract signed using the hardship exception granted to the team after Powers’ injury, that contract was automatically terminated the moment that Powers was activated by the team. That’s just how the CBA rules around hardship exceptions and replacement contracts work; there was no way around that termination.
A subsequent release from Lynx PR, which came out immediately after the Powers release, gave updates on injuries to Rennia Davis and—more relevant to this discussion—Jessica Shepard, who will be out indefinitely with an adductor strain. Shepard’s injury keeps the Lynx below 10 active players even with Powers coming back, meaning that, once again, the Lynx could apply for the hardship exception. While usually a 10-day waiting period would apply to a team looking to re-sign a player who had been terminated, this rule “does not apply when you’re signing them to a hardship player,” per Richard Cohen of Her Hoop Stats. This rule not applying means the Lynx were free to sign Layshia the very next day after “releasing” her. Ultimately, this contract termination and re-signing were just technicalities. The gap between the Powers hardship exception and the Shepard hardship exception was slightly less than 24 hours, and in that time, Clarendon couldn’t technically be on the team. But, at the end of the day, it might as well never have happened.
Looking ahead, though, the Lynx and Clarendon will eventually find themselves in a similar place with roster theatrics. Once Shepard returns from injury (no timetable currently on when that could be), Minnesota will (again) lose their new hardship exception and have to terminate Clarendon’s contract (again). Barring another injury, the Lynx would then have to sign him to a standard rest-of-season contract. The issue then becomes the salary cap. The Lynx entered the year right up against the cap, and as such, they wouldn’t have the room to re-sign him to even the veteran’s minimum. Because of the salary cap constraints, the Lynx will be faced with a difficult decision when Shepard returns: Do they let Clarendon go, or do they waive one of their non-guaranteed contracts to create the room they need to re-sign her?
But none of these roster concerns are on the forefront of the minds of Cheryl Reeve, Layshia Clarendon or any member of the Minnesota Lynx organization. Coming off their game on Tuesday against the Mystics, then their fifth loss of the season to three wins, the focus was again on correcting course and trying to win the next game. The Lynx had shown some signs of the disorganization that plagued them earlier in the season on Tuesday against Washington.
“We have to follow it up when shit gets hard,” Clarendon told me before the matchup against Washington, oddly prescient: “We’re not going to win every game the rest of the season … How do we react and respond when it’s not all feeling good? When we do lose one, how do we bounce back?” After the Washington game, she answered her own question summarily:
“We just gotta get prepared, and move on. Let [the loss]hurt today. But then we have to get mentally, and physically, prepared for the next one.”
His role in this?
“Being really steady. Just staying poised, not getting panicked,” he said. “Obviously Cheryl will get us fired up, so I can be that more steady person who says: ‘We’re good.’ I can be the glue.”Now, having secured another home win against their rival Sparks and improved to a 4-5 record on the year, Layshia Clarendon and the Minnesota Lynx will look to host the resurgent Chicago Sky this Tuesday. Both the Lynx and Sky have a lot riding on this game as the two teams are looking to establish some momentum to leave surprise losing streaks behind and live up to the expectations that were placed on them heading into the season. It’ll truly be a battle of wills between these two teams, and it could all come down to who’s able to keep composure and execute their gameplan. Luckily for the Lynx, they have one of the steadiest floor generals in the game.