PHOENIX — When the Phoenix Suns drafted Earl Clark with the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, they knew exactly what they were getting.
Then-GM Steve Kerr was well-aware that Clark would be a long-term project, but his massive potential and defensive versatility seemed to be worth the wait.
But after 61 underwhelming games played in Phoenix, Lon Babby and Lance Blanks shipped the 6-foot-10 forward to Orlando along with Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu.
Since then, Clark’s averaged 12.6 minutes per game and impressed Stan Van Gundy so greatly that the Magic coach said Clark has the potential to “become one of the best defenders in this league,” and is “going to be a very good player in this league.”
Superman himself agreed with Van Gundy as Dwight Howard said, “Oh he does. I totally agree. He can play anybody from two down to the five.”
So why is Clark all of the sudden a bigger factor for a championship contender with a defensive prowess than he was for a middle-of-the-road team with defensive deficiencies?
“Basically just because I’ve had the opportunity,” said Clark. “Here I didn’t really play too much and when I did it was maybe for five minutes or so or maybe blowout minutes. (In Orlando) I’m getting a fresh start and I’m just playing.”
Clark’s added 10 pounds of muscle since the trade and is starting to show flashes of why Kerr took a flyer on the 23-year-old Louisville product. He did an admirable job filling in for an injured Brandon Bass and played 20-plus minutes four times in January — more 20-plus minute games than he played over the course of his year and a half in Phoenix.
“Earl, when he has played for us, has given us good minutes. I’ll be honest it takes time with a young player for a coach to really develop a trust factor,” Van Gundy said. “But Earl’s really moving in a positive direction with that because when we played him he’s been good. He’s just got to continue to keep himself ready and I think he could really help us.”
Clark’s provided a lift defensively and given the Magic a versatile big man that they can plug in at several positions, which is exactly what the Suns hoped he would do in Phoenix. He’s filled in for Bass, while most recently playing 32 minutes on Monday against Portland as Howard served a one-game suspension.
Clark is relishing his role with Orlando, after he felt unwanted near the end of last season. The Suns didn’t pick up his option, basically giving up on the long-term project Kerr invested in on draft day in 2009.
“Once they didn’t pick up my option I knew something was wrong, they didn’t want me there. I just took it for what it was,” Clark said. “It’s tough to be somewhere you know that they don’t want you but I just stayed in the gym and kept working.
Clark’s never been thought of for his work ethic, but Alvin Gentry applauded his determination and wasn’t at all surprised with his production in Orlando.
“I know that Earl worked extremely hard when he was here. I thought that he was making a lot of progress, getting bigger, getting stronger which is going to be important for him,” Gentry said. “He’s still a really young player so I think they see him as a guy who’s making progress that in the future could be a good player for them.”
But Clark’s only scratched the surface of his potential. Opportunity was the only difference in Clark’s play in Phoenix compared to his production in Orlando, now he has to learn the ins and outs of the game. Van Gundy talked about Clark’s massive room for improvement on the offensive end, and Howard touched on what it’s going to take for him to take that leap of faith defensively.
“I know for me the biggest thing that helped me defensively is really after games remembering what guys did and studying tape and learning guys’ moves so that the next time I saw them I knew what to do. And I think that’s the next step for Earl,” Howard said. “Once he gets it down pat he’s going to be one of those guys that we’re going to count on to guard the other team’s best player.”
Clark still has a ways to go before he can become one of the league’s greatest defensive players like Van Gundy says he will, but at least he has a chance to show that growth — an opportunity that wasn’t there in Phoenix.
“They just said they couldn’t fit me in,” Clark said of the Suns. “Phoenix it wasn’t really there and I just had to sit through it and continue to work hard.”
Clark now wears No. 3 because of his love for Allen Iverson along with his yearning for a change. He may not be doing anything the Suns didn’t think he could, but he’s finally getting a chance, which is all he could ask for.
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