Warriors apprentice Ian Clark excels in role with NBA’s best

OAKLAND — Joy emanates throughout Oracle Arena when Ian Clark takes the court.

Known for his quirky pregame warmups with back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry, the 25-year-old reserve guard has been asked to play a larger role this season than he ever had — and he’s been answering the call.

Clark is averaging career-highs in minutes and every meaningful stat — both of the standard (points, assists, rebounds, etc.) and advanced (effective field goal percentage, value over replacement player, win shares per 48 minutes) variety.

“I’m in a good groove right now, playing well,” he said after practice on Monday. “I’m confident with my teammates’ confidence in me, and that helps me grow as a player myself. I’m just playing well.”

Clark said confidence is a word that comes up for him a lot, and that he’s had to overcome some issues in that department in the past. It started with defeating the stigma of being an undrafted free agent and making his name in the summer league. Then, it was earning a spot on the first NBA team to give him a chance, the Utah Jazz, who he’ll face Tuesday night.

Now, Clark works to increase his comfort levels so he can properly handle minutes as a regular on the most scrutinized team in the league.

“First couple years, it’s about survival when you’re in that spot,” head coach Steve Kerr said of Clark. “I think surviving teaches you an awful lot.”

Clark has done well with his opportunities so far, peaking against Portland on Saturday when he scored 23 points on 11 shots with four assists.

“I love watching Ian play,” Kerr said. “I always feel a kinship to the guys who started out on the bench without playing much and earned their way. … He’s learning how to not just survive in the league, but thrive in the league.”

Clark prides himself on being a student of the game. And he couldn’t find much better teachers.

Last year, it was Andre Iguodala who would implore Clark to play the game under control and to let it come to him.

Clark said the mentorship helped him learn how to play the point guard position, which was new to him after playing primarily off the ball in college. He continues to take daily lessons from Shaun Livingston this year.

“I sit right by him during the games,” Clark said of Livingston. “We talk all the time. If the starters are out there, and they make a play, he points this out — ‘Yo, this is what you’re supposed to do here. This is what we can do when we get in the game’ — because we have to play different than those guys. They run freely and play a lot. When we get in, we want to control the game more, be more patient and be under control.”

Not everyone can play like a unit built around Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But when Clark gets to mix with one or more of those superstars, it makes his job easier.

“We have so many guys that make plays,” he explained in his drawl. “It’s not dependent on you to make plays. So you’ve got another guy who can do it, it takes the pressure off you.”

Clark’s role grew significantly when Leandro Barbosa signed with the Phoenix Suns during the offseason. All of a sudden, Clark wasn’t the plucky young guy who would get one-off opportunities to make plays off the bench. He was looked at as a regular contributor.

He’s done well so far with those minutes, leading Kerr to say he’s been “thrilled” with what he’s seen out of the third-year guard from Belmont.

In one way, it makes sense that’s how Kerr feels when Clark’s whole demeanor could be some synonym of “thrilled.” It’s infectious — how else could you explain why Durant pretended to go for a swim after Clark crossed over a Portland defender? And on a team full of big names and even bigger expectations, you can’t overlook the guys who keep it light and manageable.

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