Watch Earl Clark play basketball, and it's clear he could have the most potential of any player in the 2009 draft. He's 6-10, can do just about everything, and starred on the best team in one of the toughest conferences in NCAA history. So why is he projected to go in the middle of the first round? Kevin Arnovitz investigates.
The summer after eighth grade, Earl Clark's knees started to hurt. Really hurt. His folks took him to a doctor to see if there was something structurally wrong with his body. it turned out to nothing more than growing pains -- the kind a 6-foot kid gets when he sprouts six inches in matter of months.
"I couldn't play for a while," Clark said. "I was growing too fast."
As a 6-foot guard in middle school, Clark excelled at running his team's offense from the perimeter. He could handle the ball and pass. "Before I started growing, I was a guard, so I always had those skills," Clark said. "They never stopped being there."
The growth spurt morphed Clark into a big man, even if only by stature. He went from being a guard's guard in eighth grade to, at 6-6, one of the bigger players on the floor in his freshman year. Size like that invites certain expectations by coaches, teammates, and recruiters. Nobody cares that in your formative basketball years, you cultivated a specific set of skills and sculpted your game around them. A basketball team has tasks that need to be performed by big men. If you're tall, those responsibilities are going to fall to you, even if you remain the best perimeter player on the floor, with a love of playing outside.
"I needed him to be a post presence," Clark's coach his senior year at Rahway High School, Chris Remley, said. "That took the ball out of his hands, and he didn't like that very much."
Clark achieved a steady balance during his high school career. He still thrived on the perimeter, where he was a comfortable and practiced player. He gradually learned how to exploit his length up front, even though that project was less fun for him. What emerged was one of the most versatile talents in the nation by his senior year of high school. Clark took his game to Louisville, where he starred for Rick Pitino. Last season, the Cardinals were the regular season champions of the best league in college ball -- the Big East -- and 6-9 junior forward Earl Clark was their best player.
When team executives and player development people talk about Clark, they rhapsodize about his tools as a basketball player. Then, in the same breath, they qualify that praise with a litany of ifs: If he can apply those tools all the time. If he wants it bad enough. If he can learn how to compete at an NBA level. It's these lingering doubts about his inner desire, the observers say, that have Clark projected to go in the teens on Thursday, rather than in the two-through-eight range.
Something strange happens when you ask where these impressions come from. The observers back off a little and, almost uniformly, tell you that they're just relaying the conventional wisdom on Clark.
Conventional wisdom doesn't manifest itself out of nowhere, right? It has to come from someplace. Finding that place can be a bit of a scavenger hunt.
Top Five Talent
Last season at Louisville, Clark averaged 14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.2 turnovers in 34.3 minutes per game. His production has him projected as the 12th best collegiate prospect in John Hollinger's Draft Rater.
Finding evidence of Clark's full array of skills is an easy task. Some of his best performances came in Louisville's biggest games -- in the Big East Tournament, which Louisville won to secure the top seed in the NCAA tournament, and during the Cardinals' run to the Elite Eight.
Clark's effort against Providence in the Big East Tourney opener was one of the most complete games of the college basketball season by any player at any position. Clark scored 24 points (making 10 of his 15 field goal attempts), grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out seven assists, and blocked a couple of shots:
[1st half, 5:52] When Clark's game is characterized as "versatile," the label usually refers to his offensive game. But Clark's range as a defender in Rick Pitino's system shouldn't be overlooked. During his career at Louisville, Clark has been utilized in the backcourt of Pitino's patented press, on the perimeter against dynamic scorers and, most often, on the back line of Pitino's 2-3 zone. Here, we see Clark slide over from the weak side to block Geoff McDermott's shot. When McDermott picks up the remains, Clark elevates and again blocks McDermott's shot. As the ball ends up in the hands of Terrence Williams -- who pushes it ahead to Edgar Sosa -- Clark races ahead of the pack to put himself in position for the alley-oop, which he converts with ease.
Clark tends to begin offensive possessions out on the perimeter, but moves gracefully and purposefully off the ball to generate good shots:
[1st half, 4:05] A beautiful possession that begins when Clark leaves the ball up top with his big man, Samardo Samuels. Clark deftly cuts to the basket and catches the entry pass from Samuels down low in traffic. Up against two Providence defenders, Clark creates space for himself by forging ahead with his right shoulder, then flings a soft left-handed hook off the glass for the two.
[2nd half, 13:54] Critics often point to an unwillingness by Clark to work in the post, but as you go through video of Louisville's games, you see several instances when Clark recognizes an opportunity on the block and exploits it. After a broken offensive possession by the Cardinals, the ball squirts out to guard Jerry Smith out on the perimeter. Clark assertively calls for the ball in the post. With his back to Providence's biggest defender, Jonathan Kale, Clark goes to work -- he backs Kale down with his right shoulder, spins baseline, the launches a turnaround jump shot that falls through.
The most alluring quality of Clark's game might be his instinctive ability to know where both his guards and big men are on a given play. 24 hours after Louisville's win over Providence, Clark had a different sort of game against Villanova. He made only six of 14 shots from the field for 17 points and mustered only seven rebounds. But in a profound way, Clark seemed almost more integral to the offense:
[1st half, 4:05] Villanova has been applying pressure the whole game on Clark -- even out on the perimeter. When Clark receives the pass out on the left wing, he's immediately swarmed by Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and Corey Stokes. Clark puts it on the deck, starts a dribble drive, but then picks up the ball. He sees that Terrence Jennings has gotten deep position underneath. He elevates for a running jumper, but instead delivers a gorgeous pass over the top of three defenders that hits Jennings in the hands. It's an easy layup for the big man, but it's almost entirely Clark's doing.
[2nd half, 10:44] Just as he did against Providence, Clark demands the ball in the post. He clearly likes the matchup against Shane Clark on the left block. The ball goes into Clark there. He waits patiently to see if a hedging Rey
nolds is going to slough off Louisville guard Andre McGee to double down on him. When Reynolds commits, Clark kicks the ball out to McGee for a 3-pointer. This is a very pro-like possession, and Clark demonstrates a professional level of patience and execution. He realizes that his value on the play will come not from working down low for his own shot, but by leveraging his mismatch to draw the double-team and, ultimately, a wide open 3-point attempt for one of the shooters.
[2nd half, 6:52] Clark recognizes what's happening on the floor at a given moment in time. He holds the ball up top. When Jennings draws the 6-foot-1 Corey Fisher underneath, Clark immediately reads the mismatch from the perimeter and fires a pinpoint pass to his big man so that it can be exploited.
Clark can create offense in a variety of ways, though he doesn't always do so efficiently. He attempted only 3.8 free throws a game last season (and hit at only a 64.7% clip at the stripe). His effective field goal percentage dipped below 50% in 2008-09, and he turned the ball over 3.6 times per game -- both red flags for a forward.
There are those who say that the flaws in Clark's overall game can be found in these stats -- forget about the intangible "if" elements that may or may not plague him. These flaws can also be seen in games like Louisville's blowout loss at home to Connecticut where Clark withered against Jeff Adrien -- hitting two of 16 shots from the floor, while hauling down only three rebounds against three turnovers. Clark barely stepped foot into the paint that night, content to settle for long jumpers on perimeter pick-and-pop plays.
Clark's naysayers outside the world of analytics don't mind these numbers. They're actually quite sold on Clark's talent. They worry about two things: Whether Earl Clark truly understands the level of competition that awaits him in the NBA, and whether he has a natural position.
The Intensity Rap
When Clark was told that there is a legion of basketball people out there that don't think he's a killer, he was befuddled.
"I averaged nine rebounds a game in the Big East," Clark said. "How can you do that, how can you play for Coach Pitino for three years, and not be a killer?"
Clark's skeptics would respond that he didn't work that hard to get those 8.7 rebounds. They believe that because Clark is so uniquely talented, and so much better than everyone else he's played with for most of his 21 years, that he never had to grind to be effective. They point to the UConn game as an example of Clark's inability to elevate his offensive game against an elite defense. Why not challenge Adrien off the dribble? Why not get Thabeet and company to collapse and use playmaking skills to find shooters on the perimeter?
His high school coach, Remley, recalled the 2006 state high school championship game between Rahway and Haddonfield, led by 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek, who went on to play for Duke. "I thought [Clark] would make Zoubek look slow," Remley said. "But Earl looked like he was in a hole, like he was 6-2. He couldn't do anything." Clark finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, while Zoubek went for 27 points and 18 rebounds in Haddonfield's 71-37 win.
Other than the UConn game and Remley's testimonial of a game Clark played three years ago in high school, I had trouble finding too many instances of Clark taking plays off. I watched hundreds of sequences on video, taking special care to study Clark's body language, which had been labeled as languid and carefree by some. Though Clark has a sleepy expression at times, it rarely translated into performance. That Providence game? Clark flashed few facial expressions that afternoon; he was too busy dominating the action. But for those desperate for a little show of emotion, Clark punctuated his assist on that interior feed to Jennings described above with an emphatic fist pump.
"I'm not going to start screaming and barking on the court," Clark said. "That's not who I am. If people don't like my persona, I can't do anything about it. I'm just a basketball player."
It's hard not to sympathize with Clark's protests. Would he be a more desirable ballplayer if he got down on all fours like Kevin Garnett and snarled? Is it possible that a player can harbor an inner intensity that doesn't surface in external behavior or mood?
These are difficult questions to answer, which is why fifteen teams are now using BBIQ to evaluate a player's core personality and makeup. Given the reputation Clark has developed as a less than assertive player who lacks an inner fire, you might expect him to perform poorly when measured for mental toughness, court awareness, and competitive instinct. But according to those who have seen the results of his BBIQ test, Clark rates high in coachability, resiliency, and appears to display a strong need for dominance (a good trait). Go figure. Clark's advocates like to add that he comes from a nurturing two-parent family (something that's seen as a predictor of success in certain quarters), and hasn't had any reported academic or personal issues.
Could it be that when some execs and coaches try to quantify intensity and willingness to grind that they look at the wrong things?
Stan Jones, an assistant coach at Florida State, drew an interesting parallel. "It takes a keen eye to tell the difference between motor -- or false effort -- and a true competitive edge," Jones said. "You don't win the Big East Championship with guys who aren't competitive."
In court mannerisms, Clark reminds Jones a little of John Salmons. "They're not the kind of guys who are chewing up the floor and spitting nails," Jones said. "They may not visually look like they're intense, but they're getting plenty done."
Jones' delineation makes a lot of sense, but many general managers and coaches don't have the patience and inclination to play mind reader. Why take a chance on a guy who might give you his all each and every night when you can choose a player who's certain to do so? This is the line of thinking that Earl Clark is up against.
The Plight of the Forward Tweener
In terms of timing, there's something a little ironic about the concern that Clark doesn't have a natural position -- the other major worry about Clark. We just witnessed an NBA Finals that featured a menagerie of unique talents like Lamar Odom, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Pau Gasol. The positional landscape of the NBA is changing before us, yet we cling tightly to an orthodox understanding of the game.
Back-to-the-basket power forwards are nearing the point of extinction; The face-up "four" has become the norm. Even most of Clark's critics concede that with his size, length and court awareness, he's probably capable of guarding both positions. The question they ask is: Where should a team situate him offensively?
Is it possible that indictment #1 (Earl Clark doesn't look like he's trying) is directly related to indictment #2 (Earl Clark do
esn't know what kind of player he is)? Is it a coincidence that guys who are classified as "versatile big men” are often regarded as flighty? We've seen Odom, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Turkoglu, and Lewis each take flak for being whimsical. How can a guy with that size and that range of skills disappear like he does?!
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.
It took Odom a couple of seasons to summon a level of effort he'd never before had to apply on the basketball court. He'd have to finish 20% more assertively. His passing game -- which he lorded over much smaller players in amateur ball -- would have to be 20% more precise. He'd have to play 20% less upright on defense because the competition was that much quicker. Above all, he'd have to get comfortable playing 20% harder.
For guys like Odom in his first couple of seasons -- and now Clark -- this might come across as an affront. Are the critics suggesting they haven't been giving it their all this whole time?
Not exactly. When only 80% has ever been required of you to succeed, you might not even realize that you're not working at full capacity. Why would you? Clark's sum effort is uncalculable -- not by scouts, not by BBIQ, not by the Louisville coaching staff, maybe not even by Clark himself. It's entirely possible that Clark's mannerisms distort our perceptions. We won't know until he's playing at the NBA level, an uncertainty that impatient NBA front offices don't want to entertain.
Just a Basketball Player
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Clark to classify his game. He initially began to roll out some general talking points about his versatility, his defense, and wanting to combine all his skills and bring them to the next level. Then he paused for a beat.
Maybe he lost his train of thought, or maybe he was exhausted from having just finished a workout for his umpteenth team in the last two weeks. Maybe he was just tired of talking about himself.
"I think I'm just a basketball player," he said.
Clark isn't just any basketball player -- he's the enigma of this year's draft class. He has advocates who think his multifaceted skill set is brilliantly suited to a pro game that increasingly rewards versatility at both ends of the floor. He also has an army of doubters who expect him to be the next Tim Thomas -- a boundless talent who lacks the drive to make good on those promises.
Clark realizes there's nothing he can say or do right now to sell anyone on his competitive spirit. When asked about it, he's quick to point out that his team got the best from him when it mattered most last March. Will that be enough to persuade an NBA GM with a Top 10 pick? Only a few more days until we find out.