If Magic fans were to use word association for Earl Clark, the first word that would probably come out of their mouths? Potential. After languishing on the bench with the Phoenix Suns for two seasons, Clark came over in the Orlando Magic’s trade for Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson last season. And although he didn’t get a lot of playing time with the Magic, when he did see the floor, it became clear that head coach Stan Van Gundy had the makings of a defensive stopper on his hands. With his length and athleticism, Clark showed flashes of a player that could make an impact defensively.
Standing at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Clark has a unique ability to defend small forwards and power forwards in the NBA. Clark’s interchangeability of quickness and strength, depending on the matchup, is what makes him a versatile defender. The problem for Clark, however, is that he’s a poor player on offense, which negates any of the positives he brings to the table defensively. Clark tries too often to be someone he’s not when he plays — a player that’s looking to score rather than a player that’s looking to defend. That’s precisely the reason that Van Gundy hasn’t used Clark much in Orlando’s rotation this season.
Yet against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday, Clark got a chance to play extended minutes. Normally Van Gundy pairs Glen Davis with Ryan Anderson or Dwight Howard as part of the second unit in the second quarter of games. But with Howard saddled with foul trouble after picking up his third foul less than 30 seconds into the second quarter and Anderson needing rest after playing the entire first quarter for the Magic, Van Gundy turned to Clark on the bench. At this point in the game, Orlando was losing. But thanks in large part to Clark’s defensive impact, the Magic were able to withstand a lack of Howard on defense.
When Clark entered the game, Orlando was down by seven points at 29-22. By the end of the second quarter, the Magic were tied with the Pacers at 45 apiece. Clark and his defense was a game-changer for Orlando.
In the period, Clark had five points, three rebounds, one steal, and three blocks in a little more than 11 minutes of playing time. Clark made so many plays defensively, it seemed like he was a mini-Howard.
SLIDE 1, 2:
Several players for Indiana found out the hard way. On this possession, the Pacers run a 1/4 pick-and-roll with Darren Collison and David West. Clark does a great job of showing on the screen, then recovering on West as Glen Davis does an equally effective job of rotating defensively. As a result, without a clean look at a mid-range jumpshot, West is forced to kick it out to Paul George on the perimeter.
SLIDE 3, 4, 5:
From there, George makes an entry pass to Roy Hibbert. Davis makes a bad decision and tries to gamble for a steal, which puts him in a precarious position as Hibbert is able to catch the ball with a clear look at the basket for a dunk. It seems like Hibbert is about to score when Clark, seemingly coming out of nowhere, comes from the weak-side to block Hibbert’s dunk attempt cleanly. For the Magic, only Howard can match Clark’s sequence on that possession.
It’s a perfect example of Clark using his length and athleticism to make a great play on defense. When Clark is fully committed defensively, as he was when he played against Indiana, there’s no questioning his gifts.
The problem for Clark, and it’s an ongoing battle for him, is that he doesn’t always play up to his standards on defense. And when Clark compounds the problem by trying to do too much offensively, he becomes a liability on the court. Orlando has plenty of scorers on the roster but not enough defenders. If Clark is serious about playing time, it’s his defense that’ll get him on the floor.
Likewise, if Clark can scrap his jumper and concentrate on scoring at the rim with the goal of being more efficient, he’ll become a bigger asset for the Magic. For now, it’s baby steps for Clark.
If Clark defends at a high level with consistency, the minutes will likely follow.
Eddy Rivera is the Editor-in-Chief of Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.