From a D-League bench to the Celtics: How Coty Clarke is making his NBA dream come true

Photo: Coty Clarke | YouTube
Photo: Coty Clarke | YouTube /
Photo: Coty Clarke | YouTube
Photo: Coty Clarke | YouTube /

For many players, simply making it to the NBA — whatever capacity that may be — is a dream come true. The D-League has become the perfect platform to make that happen in recent years, too, with a total of 107 players receiving call-ups since 2013. While many of those players only stuck around for the duration of one or two 10-day contracts, the opportunity to be around the best basketball teams in the world made it all worthwhile.

Then, there’s the players who are never satisfied. Take Coty Clarke as an example. After going undrafted in 2014, Clarke spent his first year of professional basketball in Israel, only to return stateside for training camp with the Celtics. Once they cut him, Clarke joined the Maine Red Claws in the D-League with goals of not only getting a call-up this season but also sticking.

Tough odds? Sure. But he’s already halfway there.

On Monday, the Boston Celtics announced that Clarke has been signed to a 10-day contract after his unbelievable play of late. The 6-7 forward has been vital to the Red Claws’ resurgence following their slow start that had the team boasting just a record of 14-13. Head coach Scott Morrison pulled the right strings, however, by inserting Clarke into the starting lineup and giving him a defined role. Now, the Claws are 11-2 over their last 13 games and have the best record in the Atlantic Division.

In the NBA, we often hear that teams will have the dreaded players only meeting when they are faltering, but Clarke went right to the head of the operation during the team’s rough patch and had a sit down with Morrison to hash things out. They talked for over an hour and it obviously paid dividends for everyone involved.

“I had to get on the same page with coach, find my role,” Clarke told U&M. “We sat down one-on-one and talked about it. I’m a straight forward guy and I wanted him to know he needed me and he let me know I had to start leading and be consistent every night.”

Morrison spoke highly of Clarke, too, and acknowledged how beneficial that meeting was.

“Coty and our other affiliate guys have been working non-stop since August,” Morrison said. “His skills are improving but we started slow and we had a talk where I let him know he needed to be a leader for us. Since that conversation he’s been great, and it’s paying off for him on and off the court.”

Maine plays an uptempo, in-your-face style of basketball with floor spacing being paramount to their success. Clarke fits that mold perfectly as a big man who can post up, stretch the floor with the 3-ball, and blow by a defender by putting the ball on the floor once they get comfortable. He’s been playing both power forward and center for Morrison’s run-and-gun offense, and it’s benefited him greatly — many times his defenders simply cannot keep up, and once they are on their heels, he knows down a couple from distance.

Month by month progression for Clarke in 2015/16
Month by month progression for Clarke in 2015-16 /

The month-by-month improvements have put Clarke firmly on NBA radars and no team know him better than the Celtics, so they snatched him up as quickly as they could. That’s not to say Clarke is a lock to stay on the roster for the remainder of the season, but based on what I have seen this year, he’s better right now than some of the players on that team.

We also know Clarke’s going to make the most of the opportunity in the hopes of getting a guaranteed contract. He told us that himself, sure, but his road to the NBA — both the D-League and even the University of Arkansas — was anything but easy. Not every player is ready right away. Some need fine tuning, some need improved skills and some just need to grow up. Clarke ticks all three boxes, and now he’s earned his opportunity.

Watching the Maine Red Claws play is a joy. They share the ball, pick each other up and it’s evident that they see the greater good in having team success, which will lead to personal success for each and every player. Many times in the D-League there’s an overarching “me-first” attitude where players think putting up huge numbers will get them where they want to be, but Morrison has everyone bought in to playing the right way. Ask Clarke and he’ll tell you that’s been instrumental in his development.

“We share and move the ball, and we enjoy doing it,” Clarke said. “It speaks highly for our team, man. I want to make plays that will help us win and that doesn’t mean I’m always scoring. Most teams have two or three guys averaging double digits — we have six. Frankly, we see a lot of team that just don’t like each other. This team isn’t like that. Our movement out there creates havoc and everybody eats, so we’re all happy in the end.”

This speaks to how Morrison and Red Claws organization are preaching the same exact things that have the Celtics third in the East at 38-26. When I interviewed Clarke last week, he didn’t know he was being called up and yet, he still managed to have a message for fans wanting to know who he is and what he brings to the table.

“I’ll be ready when I get my shot,” he said. “I came from nothing so I’m ready to work, man.”