By Ben Everett | Sports Writer
Chances are you don’t know who Tristan Clark is, but you will soon enough.
The only freshman listed on Baylor basketball’s roster is not a big-name recruit such as Isaiah Austin or Perry Jones III. The power forward from San Antonio was pegged to stay a little longer than those two did, but if he pans out, Clark could be next in the line of Baylor big men to come out of nowhere and produce at a high level.
Players like Austin and Jones, top-ten level recruits, don’t come around very often for Baylor. Head basketball coach Scott Drew’s Bears are often built around mid-to low-level recruits who bide their time and develop their game before even seeing action on the Ferrell Center floor.
Drew’s Baylor program has a knack for turning undervalued players entering college into NBA prospects when they leave. Quincy Acy was ranked the 149 power forward coming out of high school. In two weeks he will begin his sixth season in the NBA. Taurean Prince was a three-star recruit coming out of the San Antonio area who originally committed to Long Island University-Brooklyn. Last year he was picked 14th overall in the NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks.
The most recent example of creating NBA talent is current Dallas Maverick and 2016-2017 Karl Malone award winner Johnathan Motley. Motley came in as the 30th best power forward in the recruiting class, but weighing only 195 pounds cost him when battling on the low block. Three years later, Motley became the first consensus All-American in Baylor basketball history.
Recruits like Clark take notice of the trend. He said it’s part of the reason he chose Baylor.
“The development they have with players,” Clark said. “They can get undervalued players and turn them into potential pros, so I was intrigued by that.”
Clark also said the proximity to home was a reason for picking Baylor. He played high school basketball at Karen Wagner High School in San Antonio, but didn’t grow up there. His easy-going nature reminds some of former Spurs star Tim Duncan, and his gentle, quiet attitude is eerily similar to that of current Spurs lead man Kawhi Leonard.
Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Leonard are all likely Hall-of-Famers that the Spurs seemingly pulled out of nowhere. However, these players took a few years to develop in the system, similar to Acy, Prince and Motley in Baylor’s. This is why Tristan Clark is an oddity in the Baylor basketball realm.
Drew said Clark has the opportunity and expectation to play early on in his career due to Motley’s departure and his size, at 6 feet 9 inches tall and 240 pounds.
“Normally freshmen come in at 225 or 220 or 215 and it takes time,” Drew said. “It’s kind of like football with the offensive and defensive line, you just need a couple years to put on strength. We’re blessed with Tristan that he already has a great frame. Because of that, he’s got a chance to be successful early on.”
The last true freshmen big man to play over 20 minutes a game for the Bears was Austin during the 2012-2013 season, in which he played almost 30 minutes per contest. Motley, as a redshirt freshman in 2014-2015, averaged 21.5 minutes per game. Clark has a chance to produce better numbers as a true freshman and said he isn’t afraid of the team’s expectations for him.
“They push me a lot in practice,” Clark said. “They have high expectations for me. They expect me to play a lot and produce right away. I’m just going to take this challenge and develop from there and get better every day. I know I’m expected to contribute offensively, defensively, with rebounding and just pick up where J-Mot left off.”
A true freshman getting big minutes isn’t the only thing out of the ordinary for Baylor basketball this year. The Bears are consistently ranked in the top 25 rankings to start the season. CBS Sports has Baylor at No. 18 while Bleacher Report has the Bears at No. 17 in their preseason rankings. Baylor hasn’t been in the preseason Top 20 since the 2012-2013 season.
Clark said the expectations don’t matter to him.
“At the end of the day the rankings don’t really matter you just go out and play,” Clark said. “I don’t really focus on rankings and people’s opinions.”
He can rebound, score inside, hit the midrange jumper and most importantly, make the right play.
“I value my IQ a lot when I’m on the floor,” Clark said. “I make the right plays and the right passes and I’m a team player.”
Clark may have been a 3-star recruit, but the Texas High School 6A Player of the Year is already showing flashes of a high-level player in practice, according to Drew.
“He was 6A player of the year for a reason,” Drew said. “He’s someone that is very talented and he’s done well in practices thus far.”
To some he may be a low-level recruit, but to Baylor, he’s the right guy.