Head coach Cheryl Reeve broke down the first Lynx huddle of the season with a question: “Do I have joy in my heart?”
It’s a question that resonates with starting point guard Layshia Clarendon. Entering their 10th season in the WNBA, and second in Minnesota, Clarendon has been through five teams, two season-ending injuries and the spotlight of being the first openly non-binary player in the league.
“Layshia has been a breath of fresh air for me, just for what she brings to the team.”
Clarendon signed with the Lynx on a hardship contract last May after the team sputtered to a 0-4 start and played on the day they signed, with no time to learn the playbook. With Reeve feeding the plays from the sideline as Clarendon dribbled the ball up the floor, the point guard still managed 12 points, three assists and five rebounds off the bench. The effort lifted Minnesota to its first win of the year and sparked a run to the three seed in the playoffs with a 22-10 final record.
“I’m just trying to stay in the moment and enjoy it, because you give too much to this game and this sport for it to not be fun,” Clarendon said at Lynx media day Wednesday. “It’s too grueling and it’s too hard and they get too much of my time away from my family, too much of my life and my sweat.
“For me, it has to just have some joy and some fun and some lightheartedness that we get to play basketball every day.”
After being signed and released seven times by the Lynx last season to keep them on the roster, Clarendon signed a permanent deal in Minnesota this February. They led the team with 5.7 assists per game last year while averaging 10.4 points.
“It was leadership,” Reeve said of the biggest difference Clarendon brought to the team. “It was a voice. There was such a massive void there, and we felt it in training camp. We tried to get through it, but it ended up looming pretty large for us as we started the season, and that’s why I think Lay was able to have such success was because it was so welcomed.”
That joy and leadership Clarendon brought to Minnesota quickly reverberated through the roster. On and off the court, it felt like someone flipped a light switch on the Lynx.
Veteran center Sylvia Fowles could feel it. On the floor, Fowles and Clarendon developed a deadly pick-and-roll game as part of an offense that averaged over 82 points per game. Off it, they brought a one-two punch of leadership styles between the quiet Fowles and the vocal Clarendon.
“Layshia has been a breath of fresh air for me, just for what she brings to the team,” Fowles said. “She’s a natural leader from the guard position, and she knows how to relate with people. That’s something that I appreciate most about Layshia. She’s very caring, loves to teach, and I think I admire her so much because those are some things that I shy away from.”
While Clarendon brought new energy to the Lynx for most of the roster, it was the same energy forward Natalie Achonwa has known Clarendon to bring for years. The two played together in Indiana during Achonwa’s rookie year with the Fever in 2015, and now get to reconnect in Minnesota.
“Layshia is more than a teammate for me,” Achonwa said. “He has a certain and special part in my heart, and I think you see that in the connection that we play together with. It felt very full circle when they joined our team back last year, and excited to see how we can continue to take that chemistry off the court and then apply it even more this year.”
When the Lynx take the court for their first game on May 17, Clarendon won’t have to learn play calls on the fly. The team follows their lead now, a lead founded in joy.