CSKA Moscow star Will Clyburn hasn’t enjoyed an easy route to success. The all-action forward remembers his high school years as one of the most challenging periods of his life, with a lack of playing time making him confront the reality that nothing worthwhile comes without a struggle.
“I was in love with the game,” Clyburn remembers. “In my junior year at high school, I didn’t play much so I took it as a motivation, I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong and I locked myself in the gym to get better. I made a huge transformation.
“It was definitely challenging, but at some point in time everyone has to go through that, and I’m happy that mine came when I was at high school because it was a good early lesson. You can either cave in and take the back seat, or you can try to change something and do something about it. That’s how I was brought up and how I want to carry myself forever.”
That attitude helped Clyburn respond well to his next major hurdle, turning pro in Europe by accepting an offer to join German team ratiopharm Ulm.
“I’d never been anywhere outside the United States until I got on the plane to go and sign for Ulm!” he explains. “I don’t know how I even had a passport, because I’d never been anywhere! I was nervous, but at the same time I’d been away from home for four years at college, so being away was normal.”
Clyburn found that Germany was a good cultural transition for his move to Europe: “Coming to Europe for the first time, you want to be comfortable, and my agent thought that Germany was a place I could get used to. It was a good step for being away from home, because it’s probably more Americanized than most other parts of Europe.”
After a couple of years, Clyburn was on the move again to join Israeli club Hapoel Holon, where his performances in the 2015-16 season – averaging 20.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game – attracted the attention of former EuroLeague champion coach David Blatt, who kept Clyburn in mind when he returned to Europe with Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul. However, Clyburn says that his move to Turkey was a surprise even to him.
“It happened so randomly, I still don’t really know how it did,” he says. “Darussafaka had a player they signed but he ended up going to the NBA. I was in the market, and I had kept in good touch with Dan Shamir, my coach at Holon. He made a phone call and the next thing you know, David Blatt was calling me! Apparently Dan realized they’d lost a player, and Blatt had been to a couple of Holon games and seen me.
“In the end it all fell into my lap. It was a great opportunity, but I really didn’t know how the season was going to go. I was a last-minute signing, they had all these guys who had been in Euroleague before, I was just a rookie at that level and I wasn’t sure how much I’d even play. I was confident in myself but I knew I was a last-minute choice.
“But coach Blatt gave me an opportunity, and that was the biggest thing. He gave me the freedom to play my game, he didn’t put me on a leash. I’m grateful for that. It was great. The competition in Turkey is unbelievable, and the fans are pretty intense! You can’t help but like it.”
The move to Darussafaka gave him the chance to step up and perform in the continent’s premier tournament for the very first time. In case Clyburn wasn’t fully aware of the intensity of EuroLeague basketball, his debut provided the perfect introduction.
“My very first EuroLeague game was at Belgrade against Crvena Zvezda!” he laughs. “So that set the bar pretty high! It was the craziest atmosphere I’d ever seen. It was unbelievable! They have so much passion. You can only laugh and be excited. As soon as I played there, I couldn’t wait to go back!”
Clyburn continued his ascent with a highly impressive campaign at Darussafaka, helping the Turkish team into the playoffs by averaging 13 points and 5.1 rebounds, which at the end of the season earned him another promising phone call, from CSKA Moscow coach Dimitris Itoudis.
“It was an honor when I first got the news that CSKA was interested in me,” he recalls. “He gave it to me straight, told me what he expected, and you have to respect that. He told me he’ll be hard sometimes, he’ll be on me, but I’m fine with that. I just want to help build on the legacy they have here.”
Clyburn certainly has done that thus far, playing more total minutes than any other CSKA player, averaging 11.7 points, leading the team in rebounding (5.8 per game) and amassing an impressive average performance index rating of 14.3 while appearing in every game this season. He believes he has changed as a player this season, with a slightly different emphasis to his game due to appearing alongside an array of richly talented teammates.
“We have a lot of scorers here, a lot of guys who can put the ball in the basket, so I don’t need to score every game,” he says. “I can do other things and still contribute to the team, especially on defense.
“My agent always told me I can be a great defender, he’s been on me about that more than anybody! If you can defend and rebound, and do things to help the team, you’ll be successful.”
Nonetheless, he’s always happy to catch the eye with a spectacular dunk that allows him to live up to his nickname: Will the Thrill.
“I do like to dunk!” he beams. “It brings energy, it lifts everyone – the crowd, the team. It’s a great feeling! They started calling me Will the Thrill in college and it followed me. I’m not going to lie, I like it! It’s cool.”
And for a player who just seems to be getting better and better every season, the biggest thrills could be yet to come…