LAS VEGAS — Immediately after the Phoenix Suns selected Earl Clark with the 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft, then-GM Steve Kerr doubted Clark would get much playing time as a rookie behind reserve forwards Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson.
At the time I thought it was undoubtedly a motivational tactic, as the Suns didn’t make the multi-talented Clark a lottery pick so he could sit behind a pair of unheralded bench guys to that point.
Of course, as things played out, Dudley and Amundson enjoyed breakout years while Clark found himself as the 11th man on a 10-man team much to my surprise.
With how deep the Suns ended up being, I figured we could chalk that up to the Suns’ depth allowing Clark to take a redshirt year and I immediately expected bigger things from Clark in 2010-11, especially after head coach Alvin Gentry proclaimed at the end of the season: “I’ll be really disappointed if he’s not a part of our rotation next year.”
When Amare Stoudemire left, the Suns seemed destined to have to rely on Clark. A gaping hole remained at the forward spot and Clark even admitted at the start of summer league that “of course it’s better for me” that Amare left.
But two major happenings of the last week have put Clark’s immediate future as a rotation player for the Phoenix Suns in doubt.
First of all, the Suns traded for Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu. Childress, like Clark, is a spectacular athlete who can guard multiple positions. Turkoglu, like Clark, should log serious time at the three and four as a multi-talented forward (who is actually proven at doing multi-talented things in the NBA).
Their additions on paper push Clark back to the 11th man on a 10-man team status that he was so familiar with last season. Of course, a move could be made to change that, but as things stand, the Suns are very deep at the forward position that Clark plays.
The second reason is more of a disappointment because it pertains to things Clark can control. He showed up to summer league in less than tip-top shape, according to both Clark and summer coach Dan Majerle, and then produced an overall lackluster performance for a Suns squad that could only beat the D-League summer team.
For the week, Clark averaged 14.8 points on 37.1 percent shooting to go with 5.0 boards and 1.4 assists per game. The so-called defender also averaged less than a block and steal per contest as well as 3.4 turnovers per game.
Like in the regular season, Clark often settled for jumpers, and when he drove the lane the results weren’t always pretty.
“He’s a good player, he’s very talented,” said Majerle, which is often where descriptions of Clark start. “He’s just got to figure it out, and he will. He didn’t get a lot of playing time last year, and Earl’s just got to figure a way now to not only make himself better but make his teammates better because he’s one of those players that’s got that kind of tools. He hasn’t figured it out yet.”
No, he hasn’t, but will he?
I’m not ready to jump off the Earl Clark bandwagon that I’ve been heading up since before the Suns even made him their selection.
As Clark himself will tell you, “I can do so much on the court, it’s just putting it together and knowing when to use it.”
In theory this is true, but even in summer league Clark has yet to show bonafide NBA skills.
He settles for contested jumpers that he misses far too often (both in summer league and the NBA), he has been no better than a mediocre rebounder and even on a team in which he could be the star he hasn’t exactly been a play maker.
Majerle suggested that things will be a lot easier for him when he’s playing with Suns regulars, but if he couldn’t create on a team on which he was “The Man” then how will he do that for the real Suns?
Goran Dragic, for one, is optimistic. I asked Goran before the playoffs started if he sees Clark making a Dragic-esque leap during his sophomore season. After all, Goran looked completely lost much of his rookie year and then came out and was a completely different player last season.
“He just needs time like me,” Dragic said. “Every practice, I see the same resemblance. When he’s alone he has the shot, and I was the same. I think next year’s going to be totally different because now he knows the league and the players.”
Clark has all the tools to be a good NBA player and at 22 he still has time to figure it out.
He still has the length and athleticism to be the kind of versatile defender the Suns thought they had drafted, and in theory at least he has the tools to become a well-rounded offensive player as well.
If I’m Clark, along with making sure I’m in better shape for training camp than summer league, I would spend the next two months in the gym taking shots every day. He shouldn’t leave until he makes at least 500 of them. Then he needs to be more selective and stop taking the kind of bad shots that have plagued his career thus far.
It’s certainly frustrating for Suns fans to see a player so talented on paper struggle to make a dent in an already deep rotation. Clark has all the skills to be a rotation player in Phoenix for years to come, but if he doesn’t start putting it all together soon, the Suns are deep enough to banish him to the bench for at least another season.
Some players possess the burning desire to be great and maximize their talents. All Clark has to do is look down his bench and see a couple of guys in Channing Frye and Jared Dudley who busted their butts last summer and came back as much improved shooters.
Can Clark make a Dragic-like leap in Year 2 to become a trusted rotation player or will he help the Suns most next season by waving a towel?
The next few months, while nobody is watching, will largely determine that.
“I definitely feel like I can take a step up,” Clark said. “I have big shoes to fill. I don’t really know my role on the team as of right now. I’m just trying to prepare myself, get better and continue to grow as a player.”