Rod Clark was fresh off an NAIA college basketball career, working at a Nike factory store in Dallas and trying to break into the AAU coaching scene.
His first AAU gig came with Dallas-based club RM5 Elite and the next summer he started coaching another EYBL team in the area, Nike Pro Skills.
That’s where Clark encountered a goofy 15-year-old with big feet and a surprising set of post moves. The player was unrefined but showed potential. Looking to invest in his son’s future, the player’s father sought out Clark’s help for individual training.
Seven years later, the partnership has produced some impressive results – both for the mentor and mentee.
Drew Timme is one of two front-runners to win national player of the year honors – a two-time All-American who has a chance to break Gonzaga’s career scoring record in his fourth college season. At 29 years old, Clark is thought to be the youngest assistant coach at the high-major level and prepares to enter his second season under Rick Barnes at Tennessee. The Volunteers won the SEC Tournament last spring and checked in at No. 11 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.
An exhibition between the Bulldogs and Volunteers had been in the works since the late stages of summer, so when the college basketball powerhouses finalized Friday’s game at Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas, Clark dialed up Timme to break the news.
The Legends of Basketball Charity Classic will tip off at 6 p.m. Fans can pay $9.99 to watch the game on pay-per-view, with event proceeds benefiting the McLendon Foundation.
“We always talk, man, so it was great just for the simple fact that we’ve always had a relationship. We’ve grown tight, obviously, because we’ve done a lot together and I’ve obviously been able to see him grow to the national player of the year in college basketball, and he’s seen me grow to a high-major Division I coach,” Clark said via phone earlier this week. “Obviously, when I started training him, he was big and goofy, so to see us now years later be where we are and being able to be at the highest level of college basketball, I think it’s kind of a moment where we look at each other in awe.
“Like, look where we came from and look where we are.”
There’s only so much time for nostalgia, though. As Tennessee began to gear up for Friday’s exhibition, Barnes, who’s been at the helm of the Volunteers’ program for eight seasons and won Naismith Coach of the Year honors in 2019, dropped a daunting assignment on Clark’s desk.
“It’s funny, man, because lo and behold the scout is mine for this game,” Clark said. “So I’m going to be in there talking to our team about how to stop a dude that I’ve had a lot of influence over and helped develop throughout some years. Granted, he’s took off since those times, but it’s going to be fun. I’m probably going to tell them about the little tricks. I’m going to tell them how he loves his spin move.”
The Volunteers may have success if Clark is able to deconstruct a machine he helped create. Timme’s averaged 18.7 points since becoming a full-time starter at Gonzaga and he’s one of college basketball’s most efficient inside scorers, making 63.7% of his career shots inside the 3-point line.
“When he turns it on, there’s nobody in the country that can guard him,” Clark said. “Nobody.”
Clark won’t claim to have all the answers, but he has a better feel for Timme’s tendencies than the vast majority of coaches who will try and plan for the Zags this season – an exercise that usually begins and ends with stopping the skilled senior.
“My biggest thing with Drew is I always tell people when they ask me, ‘How do you guard Drew Timme?’ I tell them, ‘If he can feel you, he’s probably going to kill you.’ I always say that,” Clark said. “So if he leans on you, don’t let him lean on you. Back up. Because if you lean on him, he’s very smart, his feel is so elite he’s going to find that angle he needs to go and get a bucket real quick.”
Through the years, Clark’s remained one of Timme’s biggest advocates. He FaceTimed the Gonzaga star before the 2021 national championship game, traveled to Chicago this summer to watch Timme participate in the NBA draft combine and talked through the pros and cons of turning professional versus returning to college.
Clark’s notorious “Breakfast Club” workout sessions – 5 a.m. gatherings designed for Dallas-area hoopers focused on reaching the next level – were a critical aspect of Timme’s development. Other participants included the Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey, Texas Tech star De’Vion Harmon and former NBA player Shaquille Harrison.
“It was a time when Drew was just kind of getting into it and I think really deciding he wanted to focus on that, and really get better and kind of developing his work ethic as it related to his game getting better,” Timme’s mother Megan said. “… They all kind of pushed each other to get better and the fact Drew got up in the a.m. was pretty amazing, just kind of showed how motivated they were to elevate their games.”
There’s been some dialogue between Clark and Timme since the Tennessee assistant revealed Friday’s matchup on the phone a few months ago.
“He was like, ‘What? No, we’re not.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah we are,’ ” Clark said. “First thing he said was, ‘Man, I love you, but I kind of wish we were playing some D3 school so I can chill a little bit. I guess so. I do get to see my boy, so it’s cool.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I’ve seen you guys play. I want to beat somebody by 40.’ ”
It’s probably for the best the matchup is happening in late October as opposed to late March, “because I don’t want him to end my season and I don’t want to end his,” Clark said.
Things will be cordial between the two prior to Friday’s game, but Clark’s watched Timme enough to know how the senior forward flips a switch when the ball is tipped.
“I’m going to see him before the game. We’re going to hug, we’re going to embrace, that’s my man,” Clark said. “But when that game starts, he’s going to look at our bench – I’m just telling you right now – he’s going to score, he’s going to look at our bench, he’s going to start yapping, I’m going to yap back at him and we’re probably going to hate each other for 40 minutes. Then when it’s over, we’re going to hug and laugh and joke with each other, and I’m going to see his mom and give her a hug, see his dad.
“But that 40 minutes, he’s not my friend.”
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