Clark settling into comfort zone with Hornets

Shenandoah University senior guard Malcolm Clark drives toward the basket during the championship game of the Body Renew Tip-Off Classic against Hood College in Winchester on Saturday. Courtesy photo by Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Basketball has long been a part of Malcolm Clark’s life, a passion that he credits for helping him get through a childhood growing up Washington, D.C.’s Southeast quadrant.

But shortly after his second year at Hagerstown Community College in Maryland, when he celebrated the birth of his son, Mahari, in early 2013, Clark decided to take a year off from the sport and didn’t plan on returning. That was until he was encouraged to attend an open gym workout at Shenandoah University by friend and former Hagerstown teammate and then-Hornet Antwan Pittman the following year.

Clark, sitting inside the office of Shenandoah head men’s basketball coach Rob Pryor last Thursday, recalled having a conversation with the Hornets’ head coach following that open gym workout over two years ago, a chat that ended with Pryor extending an invite for Clark to join the Hornets for the 2014-15 season. Clark accepted the offer.

Clark, as Pryor described it, arrived on SU’s Winchester campus “a little shy and a little anxious” about the change in scenery, the change in academics and the novelty of on-campus housing, something Clark didn’t experience at Hagerstown Community College.

“I think there was some shock value there,” Pryor said. “And I think in his mind he probably wondered how am I gonna do this?”

On the court, Clark acclimated quickly to Shenandoah’s Princeton-style offense after playing in a run-and-gun system at Hagerstown that he said more properly fit his fast-paced play style. As a sophomore in 2014-15, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard led the Hornets in scoring, a feat Clark repeated last year as a junior when he averaged 18.5 points per game, the second-best mark in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.

But Pryor said Clark was not as disciplined, both on the court and in the classroom, as SU’s coaching staff would’ve liked him to be those first two years, and Clark struggled to embrace some of the non-basketball responsibilities that came with his new school.

“I know when I first got here I wasn’t really feeling the community service and all the team meetings because we didn’t have that at Hagerstown,” Clark, now a senior, said. “That was something I had to get used to.”

Those first two years were filled with multiple conversations between Clark and SU’s coaching staff, many of which centered around the need for Clark to fully appreciate the opportunity he’s been afforded by emerging as a college basketball player from a childhood spent in a Southeast D.C. neighborhood that Clark said was littered with frequent robberies and police chases.

“Malcolm is from Southeast D.C., so what we try to stress with him is that not a lot of young men (are) doing what he’s doing where he’s from, and the importance of him being successful, and how going forward, he’s an example,” Pryor said. “He’s a hero by what he’s doing.”

The Hornets’ saving grace this winter may just rest in the fact that Clark no longer feels the need to serve as that heroic figure for SU’s basketball team.

As a balanced guard who can score from anywhere on the court, rebound like a forward (he led the Hornets with 7.4 boards per game) and play solid help-side and on-ball defense, Clark’s greatest assets on the court have also bred perhaps his greatest flaw.

“The problem with Malcolm is he gives so much into it, it wears him out quickly,” Pryor said. “He’ll get tired because he tries to do everything.”

Clark is finally ready to fully embrace Pryor’s insistence that the guard learn to trust his teammates. After an influx of new players that marked Shenandoah’s latest offseason, Clark said he now feels he’s surrounded by a level of talent that didn’t exist during his first two seasons with the Hornets, which amounted to just 10 combined wins.

In SU’s season opener against Washington College on Nov. 15, Clark was one of three Hornets – along with juniors Kaimonne Douglas and Derrick Perry – to score 16 points in a 68-61 win. Clark’s 16 points in a win over Wilson in the first game of Shenandoah’s Body Renew Tip-Off Classic last Friday were eclipsed by Douglas’ 23, and Douglas was again SU’s leading scorer in the championship loss to Hood on Saturday (Clark had 12 points).

Pryor’s hope is that the young talent around Clark will help ease some of the pressure the senior felt over the last two seasons – pressure that Clark himself denied existed but pressure that teammate E.J. Baltimore said was definitely visible.

“He may not say that but he felt that pressure on him. It made him frustrated a lot of times to the point where it was hard to talk to him like in-game situations because, you know, he felt like if he did something wrong it was because he had to do it,” Baltimore said. “So this year coming in, like he said, we have a lot of new pieces on the team so he doesn’t have to rebound every time. He doesn’t’ have to score every time. He doesn’t have to assist, push the ball every time because we’ve got people that can always come in and do that, even if it’s off the bench or starting. In that aspect of him so far, his attitude’s been great. He’s easier to talk to. He knows he has a huge role but he knows a lot of that is lifted from his shoulders.”

That’s not to say Clark’s role has somehow diminished in his final collegiate season.

“Without Malcolm I don’t think the vision that we have this year will go, and that’s just because of how big an impact he is,” Baltimore said. “In order for us to win he has to have eight rebounds. He has to score 15 to 20 points. And that’s easy for him, you know. Like (in the win over Washington) he had 16 (points) and 11 rebounds, and most of the game it was him just playing his role. He wasn’t going out of his reach to do certain things. So just him playing his game and being effective on offense and defense is gonna take us to where we need to go.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com