Janiya Clemmons’ basketball career perfectly matches the word “commencement.” On the one hand, she will leave her college life, along with the Lions—who she played with for four years—behind. On the other hand, Clemmons is also starting a new chapter in her basketball career as she looks to play professionally.
“I never really thought I’d end up at an Ivy League school, but Columbia was actually the first school, Ivy League school, that started recruiting me,” Clemmons said.
Four years ago, when she was a high school senior, Clemmons was good, but not so strikingly impressive that her talent would guarantee her a spot on an Ivy League roster. She led her Amateur Athletic Union team, the Fairfax Stars, to a Blue Star National Championship in 2016, and ESPN ranked her as the 30th best player at her position in July 2015, with a one-sentence evaluation on her athleticism and mid-range prowess. That summer, ESPN reported that she was 5-foot-7, two inches shorter than her current height.
Although head coach Megan Griffith recruited Clemmons to play for the Princeton Tigers, both of them ended up at Columbia for the 2016-2017 season. Clemmons was not given a significant role on the team. She averaged 10 minutes per game in 23 games, five of which she started, and contributed an average of 2.4 points per game.
Clemmons struggled to transition to the college playstyle at first. After scoring four points in the first game of her collegiate career, she immediately hit a wall and went scoreless in the next four games, playing a mere 18 minutes over the entire stretch, more than 10 minutes less than her senior season average.
Griffith was tough on Clemmons throughout her first season.
“We had a lot of moments her freshman year that weren’t always roses for her,” Griffith said.
Griffith has been a strict coach, perhaps because she too played the point guard position with the Lions and saw great potential in Clemmons. She has also been a valuable mentor, likening Clemmons to a daughter.
In fact, Griffith continued her mentorship with Clemmons well into the final games of the 2019-20 season. When the Lions played the Big Green on Feb. 14, Clemmons had a sloppy start, committing two turnovers in the first two and a half minutes, and was immediately subbed out. Griffith approached her with the clipboard as she walked off, and after a few words, patted her on the back to encourage her to move forward. That game, Clemmons came back, scored seven of nine field goals, achieved her conference play season-high of 19 points, and led the Lions to the beginning of their six-game run to secure a tournament spot.
After Josie Little, CC ’19, sat out the rest of the 2017-18 season after injuring herself in the game against UMBC on Dec. 3, 2017, Clemmons claimed a spot in the starting lineup and remained there, when healthy, for the next three years. Her second season was not perfect, but it was a significant growth from her first, as she averaged more than twice as many minutes, points, and assists. She ranked third in rebounds per game as a guard, behind Camille Zimmerman, CC ’18, and Little, who played just five games that season.
Clemmons said that during her first season, she tried hard to adapt to the plays and scouts, but she was too overwhelmed to easily find her position on the team. Once she regained herself in her second year and found a trainer back home, however, Clemmons performed just like her scouting report, physical and smooth. Griffith showed by example how important off-court training was, and Janiya followed to become the strong, cool figure hustling on the court that many fans love.
Yet Clemmons still had her Achilles’ heel—three-point shooting. Over her first two seasons, she shot just seven threes, only making two. In her junior season, she attempted to increase her range but shot just 21.7 percent from downtown. As the 2019-20 season concluded, Clemmons noted that she herself was the demon blocking her shots from three. Although she practiced a lot and made quite a few shots, she still feared the line in-game. At the end of the year, she gave up on the fear.
“If I’m open, I’m shooting it,” Clemmons remarked on her thought process, something she said she would carry through her basketball career after Columbia.
To her own surprise, she became the only senior on the team during her last season, but she was prepared. As a junior, she was voted a captain and quickly stepped into the big role. Clemmons reflected that during her sophomore season, despite her improvement on the court, she still relied on the Lions’ seniors and did not think about leadership. Zimmerman was dominant on the team because of her individual talent, and even Griffith recognized that many players could have done better had the team been less one-sided.
So, the summer before her junior season, Clemmons suddenly had to lead. She soon found her own type of leadership strategy by which she interacts with each player differently. Sometimes, she is there to comfort; other times, she is there to beat them in one-on-one games as she did with first-year star scorer Abbey Hsu this season.
She views shaping her own emotions to be a huge part of leadership.
“I think I bring the energy every day that people expect at this point. … In big moments, if I’m frantic or low energy, people can see that, and it affects people,” Clemmons said. “That’s more … my role—just making sure that everybody stays focused, stays confident, and we keep attacking.”
As the other captain, junior guard Riley Casey, has not played the majority of the season due to injury, Clemmons’ leadership in games relied on trust. She helped create a culture that discourages teammates from playing hero ball in tough times—rather, she encourages them to pass the ball around to find an open teammate to shoot. The players looked to her not because they wanted her to score 10 points in one possession, but because they wanted to see the spark in her eyes.
Clemmons said her biggest goal as a leader was to get the team into the Ivy League Tournament, which she finally accomplished this past season. She was so focused on this goal that on Senior Night—when it was supposed to be her own moment—she left her own emotions behind and focused on beating Penn in the seeding match. Only after the game did she start letting the feelings sink in, and she said it was a “weird night.”
“I’m happy about what I got to do over the four years, and I’m also happy to see my family, but I’m also like, ‘It’s near the end,’” Clemmons said.
Now that it is the end, and Clemmons is concluding her undergraduate academic career, she can reflect on the last four years. In building this program—and herself—over her time with the Lions, she learned that to live is to work for the things you love.
“If something’s worth doing, you give it your all,” Clemmons said.