It has not taken long for Earl Clark to quickly become a fan favorite. It was shortly after the trade that Brian Serra of Howard the Dunk and Magic Basketball Online started the hashtag #FreeEarlClark that I and many others have happily joined. His energy and length have many salivating that he could become the latest Orlando development success.
It did not take long also for Earl Clark’s name to be on the Internet for something negative he did on the floor either. It was in LeBron James’ 51-point demolition of the Magic that Clark started trending worldwide for his defense on the Heat’s All Star. Clark was not necessarily doing anything wrong, James was just making shots. Still, hardly anyone who watched that game would ever think he could become a team’s best perimeter defensive player.
Still, you can see all that talent and athleticism in him at every turn. And seeing that he is young and that he spent his first season with a team that does not stress defense at all, this transformation if you will is somewhat surprising.
But if Earl Clark wants to see more time on the floor, he is going to have to earn it on the defensive end of the floor.
Stan Van Gundy said after Wednesday’s loss he would go deeper into his bench to find guys that would play harder. He went to Clark and kept going to him, liking the way the young forward played. Clark logged nearly 22 minutes, his third most since joining the Magic, but did not have the best offensive game. He scored only three points and it came on 3-for-8 shooting from the free throw line. Not a good offensive outing.
So how did he get 22 minutes while Ryan Anderson played only four? It was Clark’s defense and energy that got him playing time.
He had a 100 defensive rating, which actually ranked among the worst ratings on the team Friday night. But Clark certainly passed the smell test.
Kevin Durant was tearing it up in the first half, scoring 18 points. But Durant finished with only 23 points on 7-for-22 shooting. Clark had a big hand in that effort.
“He is not an easy guy to play against. He likes guarding the ball,” Stan Van Gundy said after Friday’s game. “He knows where he’s gotta get better is in his team defense and into his focus mentally on what he’s doing and what his job is. If he does that and becomes a better team defender — he’s already a pretty good individual defender — he’s got a chance, I think, to be a really special guy on the defensive end of the floor, if that becomes a role he embraces and understands that’s sort of how he can make his reputation in this league.”
That is undoubtedly some pretty high praise. And something Orlando will need from its young forward come playoff time. The Magic lack the long, athletic defender that they had in Mickael Pietrus or Matt Barnes to put on guys like LeBron James. Hedo Turkoglu may be able to bother Paul Pierce, but he is hardly a lock-down defender. The Magic’s defense is based on strong rotations and Dwight Howard.
Van Gundy appears to really believe the second-year player from Louisville could develop into that player.
His defensive rating since joining Orlando is 101, although that is more a measure of how his team does defensively while he is on the floor. Still, it is eight points lower than his defensive rating while he was in Phoenix this year.
Clark has the potential to be a good defensive player. And he has to understand that his role on this team is to provide energy and play defense. The offense will come later in his development.