Earl Clark, enigma

TrueHoop has a nice piece on Louisville forward Earl Clark, a versatile 6’10” forward who some believe has the most upside of anyone in this draft even though he’s projected to go in the middle of the first round. His advocates say that he’s a top five talent but his detractors say that he’s a tweener and doesn’t have the drive or intensity to succeed in the NBA.

Clark embodies this basketball archetype. When he falls below the radar on the court — whether it was in that horrendous game against UConn or in a hostile road environment like Morgantown, West Virginia — it isn’t so much that he’s unassertive. It’s often a case of not knowing which of his many skills to assert on a specific play. A player like Clark can look like he’s taking plays off when, in reality, he’s paralyzed by choice.

When Clark gets twitchy on a halfcourt possession, he often holds the ball overhead along the perimeter. He looks over at the weak side, then down low, then back up at his point guard. There’s a moment you think he’ll put the ball on the deck and drive past his defender, and sometimes he’ll start his dribble move that way. Only Clark doesn’t display the tunnel vision of a fierce slasher. You can riffle through dozens of clips before you see Clark simply put his head down and drive for the hole. He hesitates, will look for a kickout or a cutter, maybe back it out, or just stop in his tracks. It’s the tentativeness of someone with too many options.

Watching Clark at moments like these evokes memories of Lamar Odom’s early days with the Los Angeles Clippers. Odom came to the pro game with a vast array of skills, almost none of which were wholly NBA-ready. He’d recognize a mismatch — for instance, a hulking big man guarding him on the ball along the perimeter. Odom’s initial instincts would be spot on, and he’d blow by the big man without much effort. But he’d ease up before he got to the hole, which would allow a lanky weak side defender to challenge the play and force him to his weaker right hand. Prior to arriving in the NBA, Odom never needed more than 80% speed to finish an elementary play like that.

The Odom comparison is a good one. It’s frustrating to watch the Laker forward because at times he’s the best player on the floor. Other times, he barely makes an impact. I watched several Louisville games this season and Clark seems to be a background player. He doesn’t make a big deal when he makes a great play, and his points are often of the “quiet” variety. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t effective.

He averaged 14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and 3.2 turnovers per game during his senior year. He shot 46% from the field, 65% from the line and 33% from long range; none of those numbers are particularly good for a 6’10” perimeter-oriented forward, but keep in mind that he was arguably the best player on a Louisville team that won the Big East Championship.

Clark’s draft stock was consistently in the top 10 most of the season and started to take a dip when all of these point guards — Jonny Flynn, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday — began to emerge before and after the combine. Now he’s projected to go in the middle of the round, while the occasional mock will have him cracking the top 10, usually to Toronto at #9 or to Milwaukee at #10.

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