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The future (and past) of one Earl Clark

 

Eclark1_350_090813_medium

via www.nba.com


My father and I were talking on Sunday after the Suns season ended, musing on the past season and the future ahead of our favorite team. While neither of us regretted anything from this past season, we both concurred that it would be interesting to see the makeup of the team next year. Would we still have Amar'e? Would we be able to make it any farther with essentially the same team? Accounting for growth and the development of our bench, we said that yes, we would be able to make it farther. Dragic is amazing and will continue to be (more) astounding each season. Lopez can certainly keep developing his consistency and touch, and hopefully be healthy and rolling at the end of the season. The rest of the bench will do their thing. But then we got onto the subject of Earl Clark. We want to see Clark make a massive jump like Dragic and Lopez did in their second season, especially if Amar'e ends up leaving for ‘greener' pastures. But what do we know, need and want out of Earl Clark? 

 

Earl Clark pre-Suns: (this is real long, so if you want to skip this and the recap of last season and go straight to my opinion of the future, feel free)

                Earl Clark had your prototypical top prospect high school career. A four year starter, Clark managed to rack up 1,245 career points at Rahway High School in Rahway New Jersey, averaging 25.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 5 assists his senior year. Under his leadership the school was able to achieve its first championship in 10 years and it's first ever Mountain Valley Conference Title - the team was an impressive 47-19 while Clark started. The accolades naturally poured in for Clark, first a 2006 McDonald's All-American selection, Star-Ledger Senior of the Year in New Jersey, an all-state selection, and the honor of being the top ranked New Jersey recruit as well as no. 15 in the nation. Eventually, the hot prospect with the world at his fingertips chose to attend the University of Louisville and learn from legendary coach Rick Pitino, passing up Villanova among others.

                Coming out of high school, scouts and coaches were drooling about Earl Clark's skill set and his size. He was touted as being an incredible ball handler, passer, and defender for a player of his size, only lacking the ability to bring all of his considerable talents and athletic ability to bear at the same time. Add to this the fact that Clark was and is built perfectly for his foreseen role as a potential versatile 3 position player - 6'9, maybe 6'10, long arms, sturdy frame, room to and muscle but still the agility to play with guards and defend multiple positions. Even Clark began to buy into his seemingly irrefutable versatilityDespite the optimistic love being thrown his way, Clark did not answer his fans with strong play immediately. In an interview with Draft Express, Clark talked about what his role might be in college: 

DraftExpress: At 6'9, 6'10 and with the skill package that you have, you will have the opportunity to play three or four positions in college. What position do you think they'll stick you at next year at Louisville?


Clark: Mostly the two and the three. Coach P runs three guards, so I'll be running the break. I'm going to be energized out there.

DraftExpress: Is there any one position in particular that you'd prefer to play?

Clark: Nah, I like floating around. I like playing every position, running down the court playing this position and that position. It's fun for me, so it really don't matter.

DraftExpress: Being your height, most coaches would immediately put you under the basket as a post player. How did you develop such guard skills while being the size of a post player?

Clark: I always liked to dribble. There were some days when I would go to the park and I wouldn't even shoot. I would just dribble around and try to cross people up in the park. It was just something that I always did.

 

Despite the seeming irrefutable nature of his versatility and skill and potential, Clark did not show immediate returns on his tremendous future. In games such as the McDonald's All-Americans, the Roundball classic, and eventually the first half of his freshman season, Clark did not have a good showing - flashes of his advertised guard-like skills and versatility were seen, but he never seemed to put it together. Eventually, however Clark seemed to understand that his role was not to be the reincarnation of Magic Johnson, but instead it was to use his be consistent with his game and utilize his incredible athleticism to contribute on the break, the boards, and on defense. While in the beginning an uncomfortable Clark would attempt to make something happen every time he touched the ball, at the end of the season, especially the last 4 games when he moved into the starting lineup, Clark seemed to be able to use his gifts to better fit into a team system. The length allowed him to reach near double digit boards consistently, and he learned to score his baskets around the rim, taking only the rare open 3, leading to a general increase in his efficiency. This new incarnation of Clark still needed polish - ball handling, decision making, shooting mechanics - everything that he is still developing. In the tournament, he began well, providing energy and the spark that led to a blowout of Stanford, though he would follow it up with a 1 of 5 performance in the next game.  Clark ended the year as a prospect mostly made of potential - he could shoot as long as he was set and unpressured, otherwise he would tend to fade away and lose consistency, he had no post game to speak of, he boarded well, needed more control when dribbling, and though his defense was good and aggressive it needed more attentiveness and intelligence with regards to fakes, he still showed he ability to be a monster on the defensive end.

                Clark's sophomore season began much smoother, as Clark carried his newfound confidence and role into a starting role his sophomore year.  He showed a marked improvement in post play on both ends of the ball, a newfound strength that allowed him to rebound and defend with new tenacity, as well as be more effective on the offensive boards and his little turnaround jumper. He showcased a physique ready for the NBA, and Coach Pitino had definitely helped him understand how to use his athleticism to improve in all assets of the game. Although Clark's game slumped through most of March, he was still able to average an improved 11.1 ppg, and an impressive 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, good for 7th and 4th in Big East ranks. The holes in Clark's game seemed to be patching themselves up, as Clark increased in experience on the defensive end, and his proficiency at finishing in the open court and off of the drives that Clark was able to generate off his tremendous first step.

                Clark's Junior year saw a mixed bag of improvement. On one hand, his 3 point shooting saw a marginal increase (although they were not outstanding by any measure) and assists rose, but every other statistic and measure decreased in efficiency. Clark's athleticism and ball handling remained, although he still suffered from some Barbosa-eque lack of control on drives. This was the year that issues and doubts arose regarding Clark's motivation, focus, and toughness. Some scouts believed and still believe that Clark is lacking in the necessary focus and drive to truly live up to his massive potential. A great deal of this doubt comes from the fact that he was unable to offset his lack of offensive efficiency with an ability to get fouled - Clark shot 5.3 jump shots a game, but was only fouled 9.3% of possessions, and was far below the average FG% in almost every type of shot.  Clark consistently elevated his play however in each NCAA tournament, as can be seen here:

Clark's basic statistics for the season are as follows: 

Season Averages

SEASON

TEAM

MIN

PTS

REB

AST

TO

A/T

STL

BLK

PF

FG%

FT%

3P%

PPS

2006-2007

LOU

16.0

5.9

3.8

.4

.8

.50

.7

.4

1.2

.480

.597

.370

1.28

2007-2008

LOU

28.5

11.1

8.1

1.4

2.3

.60

1.0

1.7

1.8

.476

.654

.227

1.27

2008-2009

LOU

34.3

14.2

8.7

3.2

3.2

1.00

1.0

1.4

1.9

.457

.647

.326

1.19

 

Two things stand out to me. First is the fact that Clark is going to need to lower the turnover levels when he gets legitimate time in the NBA, as his assist to TO ratio was extremely poor in college. Clark also had good totals across the board, but one can see that as his usage increased (not only his minutes, but his role in the Louisville offense), his FG% and 3pt% dropped significantly. Clark is obviously not ready to be the focal point of an offense yet, as his game is still developing and we do not want to force him into a situation ala Trevor Ariza in which his role outweighs his ability.

                When the Phoenix Suns decided to draft Earl Clark with the 14th pick of the 2009 draft, reaction was mixed. Some wanted the Suns to draft a point guard (We know how that worked out, thankfully). Other players, ones that received more playing time this year were also in contention, such as DeJuan Blair or James Johnson. However, the Suns coveted Earl’s incredible athleticism and potential to be a defensive monster and offensively versatile player, Marion 2.0 or our version of Lamar Odom (hopefully more consistent however). Indeed, if Clark could reach Odom level it would have to be considered a success, although I believe defensively he has a larger upside. From here we have to move on to Earl Clark’s fledgling career with the Phoenix Suns.

 

Rookie Year

Basic averages:

Season

Team

G

GS

 FG  

 FGA

FG%

 3PM

 3PA

3P%

  FTM  

  FTA

FT%

OFF

DEF

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

TO

PF

PPG

09-10

PHX

51

0

 5.3

  14.2

0.371

   .2

   .5

0.400

  2.4

  3.4

0.722

1.7

4.1

5.8

2.0

.7

1.2

2.2

2.3

13.2

 

 

 

Per 36 min:

Season

Team

G

GS

MPG

 FG  

 FGA

FG%

 3PA

 3PM

3P%

  FTM  

  FTA

FT%

OFF

DEF

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

TO

PF

PPG

09-10

PHX

51

0

7.5

 1.1

  3.0

0.371

  .0

   .1

0.400

  .5

  .7

0.722

0.4

0.9

1.2

0.4

0.1

0.2

0.4

0.5

2.7

 

 

 

 

Some assorted advanced stats:

True shooting: 42%, eFG%: 37.7%, ORB%: 5.6, DRB%: 12.3, TOV%: 12.1, USG%: 21.9, ORtg: 89, DRtg: 111 (for comparison, Louis Amundson, who is one of the players that Clark will be competing for time against and is a one of our better rebounders has an TS% of .562, eFG% of .551, ORB% and DRB% of 13.1 and 19.9, respectively, and a ORtg and DRtg of 113 and 107)

Statistically, Earl was not good. .4 assists to .4 turnovers is terrible. 3 points on 3 shots is equally bad. The shooting percentages, both normal and advanced were very very low. He did have marginal rebounding and fairly good steal/block/defense numbers, but overall Clark had a tough season. We could all probably have guessed these numbers based on just what we saw and felt about Clark during the regular season – inefficient offensively and only flashes of the oh-so-valuable defense. However, the fact of the matter is that he only got seven and a half minutes a game, and they were very inconsistent minutes at that. Spotty minutes and use primarily in garbage time hampered his use and probably contributed to the fact that he never really got going. The thing that struck me about his time on the court with the Suns that it was rarely meaningful, and when Clark got on the court he seemed to revert to the mode that he was in during his freshman year at Louisville – forcing things to try to make things happen and impress coaches enough to get playing time. He has said it himself - Clark in one November interview:

 

But, you know, with rookies its one or two mistakes and you’re out of the game

 

In one sense, he was the anti-Dragic, when pressured and uncomfortable Clark would try to take over a game, as opposed to taking himself out of it. Neither approach is effective, but I am optimistic due to the fact that our coaching staff is adept at getting the best out of players such as Lopez and Dragic and hopefully Clark, and considering that Clark has already been through this process and worked himself out of it in Louisville. There were moments in Clark's campaign that showed us what he could do - a 6-6 FG game against Minnesota, good defense in a 4th quarter against Dirk Nowitzki, etc. However, I think that we cannot really look at Clark's rookie year playing time with the Suns for true meaning. Instead we must look to his Coaches, practice, and work ethic, and for the most part all of these things have been positive.

From every report that I have been able to find, Clark has been working extremely hard in practice, putting in extra work and working at improving his game and competing with his more established counterparts. He seems to realize that he needs to work and get better, and even that any playing time that he might earn will be earned on the back of hardnosed hustle, defense, and rebounding: In an interview with reporters asking him about his progress through the season and in practice: 

Q. What is going to get you on the court? 

Clark: Defense and Rebounding

Q. Do you feel that you will be able to pride yourself on defense and playing as a hybrid forward?

Clark: If that’s what I need to do to get out there, that’s what I’ll do.

 

Clark obviously is hungry to play and frustrated that he is not playing, however he is turning that frustration into hard work and motivation to do better and get better (also from the interview quoted above). All of his coaches are encouraged with his progress to date. Gentry is happy to see a young player practicing hard, wanting more time but still able to learn from his all-star and more experienced teammates. To use another of SP's quotes, Gentry has stated that: 

He's just got to get a feel for the pro game. He's still a young kid. He works really hard and he's doing a good job. We've got to decide where we can play him. Is he going to be a three (small forward) or is he going to try and be a four (power forward). And there's just playing time. Everybody looks at Goran (Dragic) now but last year Goran struggled when he got to get out there some. We've got to try and find minutes for Earl to stick him out there some and I think he'll be fine.

 Even Igor Kokoskov (who as I understand it is one of the coaches with more responsibility to work with youngsters such as Dragic and Clark) was optimistic about Clark’s role on the team and in practice, saying that he was focused and putting in the extra work, but just learning to adjust to the new burden of an NBA season and the pressure, fame, and responsibility that comes with it. The impact of practice and being part of an NBA team, working with them all day cannot be underestimated, and by all accounts Clark is contributing and working hard so that when the coach call his name he will be ready. As our own Phx Stan said about Clark and practice:  

The key guys I think for Earl are going to be Lou and Jared. He will playing with and against those guys a lot in practice. Each brings a lot more effort and heart than Clark might be used to but neither has his talent or potential. He certainly stands to learn a lot from being around those guys.

 

Finally, there were also two other times in which we could have witnessed Clark playing - summer league and his 3 game stint in the D League. In the Summer League, Clark dominated the first game, before having a relatively mediocre showing in all areas, though his rebounding was strong. Mike Lisboa had a good take on the inconclusive summer league: 

For me, the jury is way out on Clark... Aside from his first game, when Clark posted a double-double, he didn't do much to distinguish himself.  To be honest, I don't read too much into this... He did however demonstrate why the Suns took him in the first round.  He's capable of: hitting from outside, driving to the basket, bringing the ball up, getting his fair share of rebounds, defending multiple positions.  He has a lot going for him.

 

Midseason, Clark was also sent to the D League in order to expose him to some more consistent playing time, as the main option. While in Iowa, Earl shot fifty percent and managed 20.7 points, 9 rebounds, and 1 block in about 34 minutes, include 2 double-doubles. All of the Suns staff was optimistic about the showing and made it known that it was by no means a knock upon Clark that he was ‘sent down', merely that this was a chance to get Earl some more minutes of competitive ball. Both Summer League and D League have mostly shown us what we already know about Clark - he rebounds and can defend well, but needs more polish in him composure and on the offensive end.

The future Earl Clark:

I know that all Suns fans worth their salt of course want Clark to make a sophomore jump akin to the ones that Robin and Goran had, however, I think that we can look at a few certain things that he needs to improve. The first and most glaring thing for him to improve is his mental approach to the game. We do not need Earl to leave the bench attempting to beat the world, we need a consistent, athletic defensive and rebounding presence from the 3/4 spot. To this end, I think that he needs to stabilize his shooting and shot selection, and focus on using his athleticism, quick second and third jumps to rebound, and his size, speed, and lateral quickness in order to defend. On offense, I feel that he should focus on his drives and making consistent use of his agility, body control, and size to go to the rim. This should earn him consistent minutes with the second team, as the added defense, especially on switches and the pick and roll should help the already burgeoning Bench D, while another penetrator to go with all of the shooters could not got amiss.

                The key to his play in the future, I think lies in him getting consistent minutes. This will allow him to relax and play his game, contributing to the team agenda and goal, while keeping him engaged if any lingering motivational issues remain. However, this need for playing time begs the question of who on the bench is the odd man out to give Earl his minutes? Earl is not ready to start, in any scenario. Additionally, in my thinking, Dragic and Dudley's minutes are off-limits as far as stealing forms them for Clark. This leaves Amundson, Frye, and Barbosa. If Frye is opts out and does not resign with the Suns, (I believe that his salary at the moment is more or less suitable for his level of pay, perhaps plus a few million - I do not know the exactitudes of our salary and what is fair). However, if he resigns, then the Suns are faced with a dilemma - all three of the players in question are good enough players to deserve minutes, but the future of the suns lies with Clark. How much do you give him? I personally think that there are two choices. Choice A, Barbosa's minutes are completely cut out, Dudley slides over to the 2, and Earl is inserted into the bench as a 3. I prefer this plan, because, as much as I love Barbosa, he still remains a player with which the ball stops, and his pseudo-pointguard role is no longer as needed with the emergence of Dragic. The other choice is to cut minutes from either all 3 or just from Amundson and Frye, and play Clark on a situational basis when more versatility is needed. I fear however that this would compromise the platoon strategy of bench play that the Suns utilize, and for rebounding/defensive purposes I would much rather have Amundson, Clark, or even Frye play, rather than Barbosa at this point.

                I firmly believe that Clark that can and will be an effective player next season and for many seasons in the future. I hope that this has been an informative, if long explanation of Clark and his basketball career, past, and potential future. Thank you to all of the BSOTS writers whom I hijacked quotes or information from, the Louisville website, Draft Express, YouTube, and anyone else I forgot to mention

 

 

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