When the Suns drafted Earl Clark with the 14th pick this summer they down-played how much impact he would have on the team this season. They talked about his potential and his size and skill set but set the bar pretty low in the all important expectations game.
So far this season Earl has earned a "Meets Lowered Expectations" rating on his interim performance review. His bosses boss Steve Kerr put it this way, "He's doing fine...I don't expect him to crack our rotation this year because we are a deep team."
Opportunity means a lot when it comes to evaluating rookies. Ty Lawson went into the Denver Nuggets as the designated backup point guard and he's performing in that role. Clark is much deeper in the Suns rotation and his numbers reflect that.
Clark has played in 10 of a possible 14 games and is averaging 10 minutes per game; but even that average is deceptive. On three occasions he played between 17 and 22 minutes; four times he played less than 5 minutes; and three times he played between 7 and 10 minutes. And of course in four games he didn't play at all. That's the picture of inconsistent usage for the young rookie.
In those appearances he's only shooting 39% and is 1-4 from the free throw line. The good news is that with more minutes his efficiency appears to increase. He's a combined 9-15 shooting in the big minutes he was able to log in the Suns blow out losses to the Lakers and Magic.
Defensively, he's done some nice things including a few memorable blocks and his adjusted rebounding rate of 8 per 36 minutes is respectable.
Despite being deep in a team's rotation some rookies are able to create their own opportunity. In the NBA if you are better than the other guy you will play so it is somewhat misleading to only blame Clark's inconsistent playing time on the Suns depth chart.
Look at Rodrigue Beaubois who has started 6 games for the Mavericks compared to no starts for JJ Barea. That's what happens when you are shooting 60% and making it impossible for the coach to keep you on the bench.
This is where Clark's need to develop his overall game comes in.
Suns Assistant Coach Igor Kokoskov often works with Clark after practice and said this about the 21 year old, "Sometimes it looks as when he's executing offensively, defensively he's going through the motions and he's kind of slow and basically he told us, 'I'm trying to first know where I'm going'."
Igor feels Clark is thinking too much and not reacting to the play. This is an indication of his need to work even harder to learn the game and Earl knows it, "I'm making a lot of mistakes but I'm not getting frustrated. I'm just trying to work through them and work hard. Just try and get better for next year."
He says that most of his mistakes are on the offensive end where he's still learning plays and where to be on the floor. It's a natural adjustment to the speed of the game and Earl seems to be accepting that he's got a ways to go.
At the same time he wants to play and is frustrated by his lack of court time, "As a rookie, it's no mistakes. Other guys they'd be able to make mistakes and they can be able to stay out there but rookies, one mistake or two you're out of the game."
Coach Gentry understands that frustration of not playing and is happy to see it, "I would be disappointed if they weren't upset." NBA players are competitive by nature and want to play but at the same time Gentry expects them to be "a good solider" see the big picture of what's best for the team.
The biggest knock on Earl in the pre-draft reviews was his work ethic and desire. Steve Kerr touched on this when I asked him about Clark's progress to date, "The biggest thing with Earl is we're just trying to teach him what it takes to be successful on a daily basis. That means the commitment, the work ethic, the intensity of the work outs."
In the long run, it is probably best that Clark is forced to earn his playing time. He's a very talented kid who can play either the small or power forward positions. Physically he's a five-tool guy with the ability to pass the ball, dribble and create, defend, shoot his high-release jumper, and finish well above the rim.
The key will be his desire to put in the work needed for him to learn the game at this level and over-come what appears to be a mediocre basketball IQ.
"Unless you learn how to apply all those skills then nothing's going to come of it. So, that's what we're trying to teach him is how he can apply his skills and how hard he has to work in order for that talent to take hold," said Kerr who is the guy responsible for drafting him to Phoenix.
For more about Earl Clark listen to this exclusive interview with him along with Gentry, Kerr and Kokoskov talking about the young man's development into an NBA-level player.