The Suns’ X-factor: Earl Clark

If Earl Clark plays to his potential this season, the Suns could be in for a hell of a ride.

If Earl Clark plays to his potential this season, the Suns could be in for a hell of a ride.

PHOENIX — Nobody involved with the Suns’ organization wants to put anything close to expectations on Earl Clark, and after what happened when Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic were hyped a bit last year I can see why.

But I don’t work for the Suns so I’m free to say this: Earl Clark is a very, very good basketball player and the speed of his learning curve will determine how good the 2009-10 Suns can be.

Clark represents one of the few unknowns on this team. I mean, seriously, we know what the Suns are going to get out of Nash, Amare (if healthy), Hill and down the line even to guys like Dudley and Lou.

Sure, Lopez and Dragic are still a bit of an enigma, but I think it’s safe to say they’ll be nothing more than quality role players at best for this season at least.

As for Earl Clark, we really have no idea.

He could come in and be that versatile defender the Suns so dearly missed last year, a guy who can take a crack at Tony Parker one possession and Tim Duncan the next, all the while playing an all-around offensive game complete with shooting, passing and ball-handling skills.

Or we could see a rookie with a questionable motor who shows flashes of talent but all and all looks lost out there on the floor.

“It’s going to be a rollercoaster,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry, “but for the most part he plays with consistent effort, and he’s a pretty good defender.”

We know what they say externally, starting with Kerr not expecting him to beat out Lou and Dudley for playing time, a statement I’m surprised he could utter with a straight face.

But internally, the Suns must be frothing at the mouth about what Earl Clark can do for them, particularly on the defensive end and on the boards.

This is a guy I was praying would drop to the Suns at No. 14, and we’ve already seen some flashes such as when he shut down Blake (not Taylor) Griffin in Summer League and skied above the crowd for rebounds like he did Tuesday night.

Aside from Phoenix’s stars, he’s as naturally talented a player as this team has.

“I’m only a rookie, but I also want to play well and be a standout,” Clark said.

The Suns will need some standpoint performances out of Clark, especially now that Robin Lopez will miss the first handful of weeks of the regular season.

I thought Gentry was joking when he first floated the idea of the 225-pound Clark at the five, but anybody who watched the end of Tuesday’s third quarter and much of the fourth would have seen Clark manning the five spot.

Partizan’s bigs got some easy buckets down low with him in there, concerning since they were Partizan’s bigs and not Tim Duncan, but Clark seems to have a fair understanding of how he must play against guys much heavier than him.

“Just try to use my quickness,” Clark said. “We read a lot, so I tried to front them, and hopefully the weakside will help me, because if not there’s going to be trouble.”

But on the other end, “I can use my quickness to get around them, pull up for shots and things like that. I have trouble defending them, but they have trouble defending me, so it goes both ways.”

With Clark at the five, the Suns have the potential to throw out some fascinating lineups. How about Nash-LB-Richardson-Dudley-Clark? Opposing defenses just can’t match that lineup on the Suns’ offensive end, and it provides some opportunities to switch on defense with those interchangeable parts.

The Suns will be anything but conventional this season, especially with their only conventional center on the shelf, and Clark’s versatile skill set will go a long way toward allowing Gentry to mix and match his lineups however he pleases.

You hate to see a 21-year-old like Clark have to start thinking about what he would do if he’s playing the five and Dwight Howard rumbles down the floor, but it is interesting that Clark was billed as a three who can play some four in Small Ball on Draft Day, and now he’s in the conversation at the five spot.

So what is Clark exactly?

“Just a basketball player,” he said. “At the end of my career I want to be able to play one through four, and hopefully I can do that.”

Only on the Phoenix Suns would a backup center talk about wanting to play the one through four.

The talented rookie could be that missing piece the Suns lacked last year, or Clark could struggle through an inconsistent rookie year. I think he will be great eventually, but in the interim neither result would surprise me much.

The Suns are wise to mitigate initial expectations, but let the truth be known that Earl Clark is this team’s X-factor.

Carly McElroy contributed to this report.

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