SALT LAKE CITY — Some basketball players are very good from the time they are small. They are always the best player on their team as they go through junior high and high school, before getting recruited by top colleges and ending up as the star player.
Then there's Utah's Will Clyburn.
The 6-foot-6 Ute basketball player has always been a good basketball player with good basketball genes, but he's the quintessential "late bloomer" whose best days still may be ahead of him.
Clyburn came to Utah this year from Marshalltown Community College in Iowa, after not being recruited out of high school and has quickly established himself as the top player on the Ute team. He leads the team in most categories, including points, rebounds, steals, 3-point shooting and minutes played. He may be the best JC player to come to Utah since Jerry Chambers back in 1964.
"In recruiting you hope the guys are better than you thought, that they develop faster than usual," said Utah coach Jim Boylen. "That's the case with Will. He's a great combination of athleticism, talent and ability to play the game. He's a young, developing guy with a big upside."
Coming off a 24-point, 12-rebound performance in a win at Wyoming, Clyburn ranks second in the Mountain West Conference in scoring at 19.3 points per game and is 37th in the nation. He's also second in the MWC in rebounding at 8.3 per game and in the top 90 in the country. He also ranks third in the league in free throw percentage (78.6), fifth in field goal percentage (46.3), ninth in steals (1.4) and fifth in 3-point percentage (43.6).
Heading into Wednesday night's game against New Mexico (6 p.m. Huntsman Center) Clyburn also leads the league in minutes played at 36.6 per game and is the first Utah player in 20 years to average more than 36 minutes a game. He's just too valuable to take out of the game.
"He's broken the myth that it takes a JC guy a year to produce," Boylen said. "He's making strides every day."
Clyburn grew up in Detroit and moved to the suburb of Romulus, where he played high school ball at Romulus High School.
His parents were both high school players and his father went on to play NAIA ball, while his mother had several Division I scholarship offers. Will actually met his future coach when Boylen was an assistant at Michigan State, but not to be recruited.
That's because back them, Clyburn wasn't the best player on his team, or even the second-best.
"We had a pretty good team," Clyburn said. "I had a teammate who averaged 16 points and went to Iowa State. We also had a center who averaged 12 points a game. We were pretty good. We made it to final four (in the state) and lost at the buzzer."
Clyburn averaged just 10 points a game as a senior, and wasn't recruited by any Division I schools. With no major-college suitors, Clyburn headed west and took his talents to Iowa where he played for Marshalltown CC.
"I had to work to get better," he said. "I stayed in the gym and became a gym rat. I kept working and good things paid off."
At Marshalltown, he led the team in scoring and rebounding as a freshman when he was an honorable mention all-conference selection and earned first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore when he averaged 19 points and eight rebounds a game, coincidentally the same numbers he's putting up this year against much-tougher competition.
"I had no clue that I could come in and put up the same numbers that I did in juco," he said.
Before his sophomore season, Clyburn got an idea that he could at least play major college ball after going to a "showcase" of 150 top juco players and playing well. He started getting letters and was recruited by schools such as Iowa State and Wichita State and other Missouri Valley schools.
Utah started recruiting him early, backed off a little, then came on strong late in the season. Clyburn said he chose Utah because of its playing style and because he thought coach Boylen could help him improve as a player. He has enjoyed it so far and calls Utah "the right place for me."
Clyburn was one of nine new players on a rebuilding Utah team this year and it didn't take long for him to establish himself as the team's best player.
Everyone talks about his "smoothness" on the hardwood and his versatility in being able to score around the hoop, with mid-range jumpers or from 3-point range.
"He rebounds, he steals the ball, he's a good shooter — he's the best overall player we've had since we've been here," says Boylen.
As smooth as Clyburn looks with his outside shooting and ability to glide down the lane for layups, one of the most impressive parts of his game has been his toughness on the boards. The only Ute players with better rebound averages over the past two decades are Luke Nevill, Andrew Bogut, Keith Van Horn and Josh Grant, who all played center or power forward.
When asked what makes Clyburn such a good rebounder as a 6-6, 200-pound small forward, Boylen says, "He goes. We tell guys when you go, good things happen and he consistently goes. He also has a great feel and values (rebounding) and has been very coachable about rebounding."
Clyburn says there are no secrets to rebounding. It helps having a 7-foot wingspan, jumping ability and good timing, but it's mostly effort.
"You never know where the ball is going to land," he says and then parrots his coach. "If you just go, good things happen. You never know if you don't go."
For Clyburn it's that effort he shows on the glass and in working hard in the gym that may allow him to play professionally, perhaps even in the NBA someday. Boylen, a longtime NBA assistant, believes Clyburn has a chance if he can put on more weight, increase his core strength and keep improving his defense.
"That's the dream," Clyburn says of making it to the next level. "I'm just going to keep working and take it day by day. I would love to get the opportunity."
If he keeps improving as much as he has the past couple of years, Clyburn just may accomplish his dream someday.
Will Clyburn by the numbers
Stat. . .Avg.. . .MWC rank
Points 19.3 2nd
Rebounds 8.3 2nd
Steals 1.4 9th
FG pct. 46.3 5th6 comments on this story
3-Pt pct. 43.6 5th
FT pct. 78.6 3rd
Minutes 36.6 1st