Small Picture Yes, Big Picture Maybe

Darius Soriano —  January 14, 2013

What do you make of Earl Clark?

He is a former lottery pick. When he came out of college, people compared his game to Lamar Odom’s. He has a 6’10” frame with length on top of that and enough quickness and athleticism to fit right into a league that is only getting quicker and more athletic.

Clark’s also a player who has rotted on the benches of three separate teams (including the Lakers’). Drafted by the Suns, Clark couldn’t find any court time under Alvin Gentry. After being traded to the Magic, Clark languished similarly under Stan Van Gundy. Before he came to the Lakers, Clark had appeared in a total of 138 games and played a shade over 1,400 minutes in his 3 years as a professional.

Clark could best be described as a player who had a bunch of talent but didn’t seem to “get it”. In talking with some Orlando Magic observers whom I greatly respect, I was told that his talent is unmistakable but that his game would only let me down over time.

In the four games since injuries to Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Jordan Hill greased the skids to a spot in Mike D’Antoni’s rotation, Clark has averaged 12.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists while playing 30.5 minutes a night. He has tantalized with his length and athleticism, impressed with his ability to knock down open shots, and earned his keep by playing hard when he’s been afforded the opportunity.

He’s not been perfect by any means, but he has proven useful. When he’s on the court, he stands out. Part of that is because besides Dwight Howard and an aged Kobe Bryant, the Lakers don’t have an athlete like Clark on their roster. He glides up and down the court and into open spaces. When he jumps, he does so effortlessly. His first step is smooth and with his long stride he seems to get by his man fairly easily.

The disconnect between the player who was essentially a mid-round bust and the guy who has played for the Lakers the past several games is mostly about shot making. On the Lakers, Clark is hitting his jumper. Since becoming a rotation player, Clark has hit 11 of 19 (57.9%) from beyond 15 feet from the basket (including 2 of his 4 three pointers). The Clark that played for Phoenix and Orlando, couldn’t sniff those percentages.

In other words, some of what Clark is doing on offense simply isn’t sustainable. There is a regression coming and when it comes we’ll all be wondering what happened to that guy who was hitting all those shots against the Cavs and the Spurs. The good thing is that even when Clark regresses, it may not be as bad as the numbers from his previous seasons suggest it would be. Clark shows excellent balance on his jumper. He’s also shooting mostly wide open shots under a coach that will encourage him to continue to shoot.

Defenses will start to treat him differently when they get more tape on him and that will require adjustments. A lot of players go from being effective to struggling when they are forced to adjust. We’ll have to see what happens to Clark and how he deals with defenses paying more attention to him.

While hanging your hopes on Clark’s ability to continue to make jumpers probably isn’t a good idea, what is nice is the fact that what’s making Clark a surprise performer goes beyond his shooting. Clark, using those lottery talent skills and athletic frame, is making all sorts of plays that can be sustained if he simply continues to play hard and take advantage of the space afforded to him due to playing with more talented teammates.

For example, one thing that Clark has done really well is move off the ball into space and then use his quick first step to get into the creases of the defense to score:

On this play, Clark simply lurks near the top of the key as the defense shifts to the strong side to corral the ball handler. As the ball is penetrated to the rim, you see Clark time his cut perfectly to make himself available to either get an offensive rebound or receive a pass. The pass does come and Clark takes one step, elevates, and finishes in traffic.

Besides finishing, Clark can also continue to get into the paint in order to create for teammates:

Here, Clark simply takes an easy pass, sees that no one is in front of him, and attacks the paint. When the defense collapses, he makes the easy read to the open shooter in the corner. There’s no forced action here, simply good solid basketball.

But, even more than what he can provide on offense, Clark can really help the Lakers on defense and the glass. First, here’s a blocked shot he got against the Cavs simply be being long and athletic:

This play is nothing special, but besides Dwight and Gasol, the Lakers simply don’t have another player on their roster that actually blocks that shot. Jamison surely doesn’t. Neither does Ron. Sacre might be able to, but you notice who Clark is guarding on that play? Yep, that’s Shaun Livingston who played mostly SG and SF last night.

And here’s another sequence that shows what Clark is capable of (both good and bad):

This mostly has Clark working off the ball, attentively watching his man while peeking at the ball to see if he needs to help. When the shot goes up, Clark rushes to the ball and leaps over a Cav to grab the rebound. Clark proceeds to push the ball but commits a turnover when trying to hit an open teammate diving to the rim. However, in transitioning back to defense, Clark slows the ball handler, drops to the rim, and then blocks the shot of a Cavalier who was filling the lane.

How much Clark continues to help the Lakers in a big picture sense remains to be seen. As teams start to incorporate him into their gameplans to account for him, his effectiveness may decrease — especially on offense. Furthermore, since he’s not shown the ability to come anywhere near this level of production earlier in his career, it’s only natural to doubt he can continue to consistently produce at this level moving forward.

However, in the small picture, Clark has enough qualities that are currently lacking on this Laker team to continue to prove useful. His ability to operate in space offensively and cover ground on defense are especially good traits to possess on a team that has had issues in those specific areas this year. And if he can simply continue to play hard and make the simple play in front of him, that may be enough of a help considering the physical package he brings to the table.

Only time will tell how this plays out over time, but, for now, Clark is taking advantage of his chance.

Darius Soriano

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