Earl Clark, Gani Lawal bring different temperaments, but both appear to be a year away


PHOENIX — If you could combine Earl Clark’s raw ability with Gani Lawal’s heart and toughness, you’d have a player worthy of a spot in the Phoenix Suns’ rotation.

As things stand now, Clark and Lawal appear to be player Nos. 11 and 12 in a 10-man rotation, and both face an uphill struggle for meaningful minutes.

It should be no surprise that a raw second-round pick like Lawal would be on the outside looking in. A year to develop his offensive game — his shooting touch in particular — could make him a valuable piece moving forward for the Suns.

The fact that Clark still has yet to sniff the rotation is much more of a surprise considering Alvin Gentry’s post-season declaration that he would be “really disappointed” if Clark is not part of the 2010-11 rotation. Gentry has now had a few months to prepare for this inevitable disappointment, as the Suns acquired Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress to fill the time that might have gone to Clark just as the Louisville product was stinking up summer league.

With the Suns boasting a whole slew of small forwards, Clark has since switched exclusively to the four. He had issues remembering plays at times last year as he tried to learn both spots (yeah, seriously), and with the Suns thin at the four and deep at the three this move makes sense.

The only legitimate shot either Clark or Lawal have at getting rotation time this year would be if they provide excellent defense and/or rebounding at the four spot while the rest of the roster struggles in that position.

“I think the goal for him is to become really a lockdown defender,” Gentry said of Clark. “I think that’s one of the ways of getting on the floor for him.”

Speaking to both players at media day, it was kind of startling to notice the differences in their temperament.

Clark kind of stared up at the ceiling as he spoke, giving carefree answers and exuding the Laissez-Faire demeanor we often see from him on the court.

Lawal, meanwhile, sounded stern and determined, and after talking to him I was convinced that he felt he would make an impact this year. With Clark, not so much.

When asked about where he sees himself fitting into this Suns team, Clark said, “It’s up to the coaches. I’m just going to be here, play hard and show what I can do. I can’t put myself in the game, so that’s all I can worry about, just playing hard and when my name gets called being ready.”

He also added, “I don’t feel any pressure. If you have too much pressure that can mess you up, so I just come out here clear-headed and just play basketball.”

Lawal, on the other hand sounded much more sure of himself and his ability.

“I’m going to be an impact player from the standpoint I’m going to rebound,” said Lawal, whose translated rebounding percentage ranked third among drafted college players last season. “If I’m in the game for 10 minutes or whatever I’m going to get five rebounds. I just want to be efficient, be very efficient in the rebounding category, play defense, run the floor and just be an energy guy.”

When asked about taking on the Lou Amundson role he wanted no part of that, saying, “I’ll be this year’s Gani Lawal, that’s who I’ll be. Everything I just said I bring to the table.”

Finally, confidence seeped out of his answer as he said, “I admire players, but I never emulate them. I play my style,” and, “As far as my ceiling, if I work hard my ceiling is wherever I take it.” He even said that he was preparing “to be an impact player” regardless of whether Amare Stoudemire left or not.

The conviction in his answers certainly had me convinced.

This isn’t to say I have written off Earl Clark. He’s a tantalizingly frustrating player in that he will make just enough stellar plays to make you keep wondering when he will finally get it. Even in Saturday’s preseason game, it wasn’t a superb effort overall by any stretch, but he made such a beautiful interior pass to Lawal on one play that it’s way too early to give up on him.

Clark may yet be a bust, but he’s probably the Sun best-suited to defend the stretch fours of the world, and he really could develop into the kind of elite defender the Suns envisioned on Draft Day 2009.

“That’s something that comes easy to me, playing defense,” Clark said.

On a team as defensively-challenged as Phoenix, especially up front, Clark may yet weasel his way into minutes by proving to be a fantastic player at that end, and Lawal’s rebounding sure could come in handy for a Suns team that figures to be historically bad in that department.

But as the 11th- and 12th-best players on a team likely to go 10 deep, it might be a year before we know how much of a help Clark and Lawal can be.