In their desperate search for some semblance of reliable size, the Los Angeles Lakers might just have found themselves another viable stopgap. And his name is Earl.
Earl Clark, that is.
The seldom-used fourth-year forward out of Louisville established new career highs with 22 points and 13 rebounds to keep the Lakers within striking distance of the streaking San Antonio Spurs in what turned out to be a 108-105 loss—L.A.'s fifth in a row. Clark's performance wasn't lost on head coach Mike D'Antoni, who remarked after the game (via Lakers reporter Mike Trudell):
D’Antoni: “Earl Clark was phenomenal … he deserves (a shot to enter the rotation when other bigs return).”— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) January 10, 2013
For once, the much-maligned Mike D. might be right about something. At 6'10" and 225 pounds, Clark showed off his length and athleticism on both ends of the floor. He crashed the boards, disrupted shots and even defended Tim Duncan, an all-time great, better than any benchwarmer should.
His hustle was hardly surprising—a player of his physical profile and lack of opportunity should bring effort and energy, at the very least. What was surprising, though, was his apparent comfort on the perimeter. Of his nine makes, five came from outside the paint, including a late three-pointer and three other long twos from the wing.
His ability to handle the ball came seemingly out of nowhere as well, though Clark should hardly be granted priority in that regard, especially when sharing the floor with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
With the handle/perimeter game he showed tonight, I figured Earl Clark grew up playing guard & had a late growth spurt. He confirmed it.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) January 10, 2013
Clark had a growth spurt in 8th grade (5-10 to 6-6) & started playing inside at Louisville. Then grew to 6-10. Still works on guard skills.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) January 10, 2013
Still, Clark's utility within this Lakers squad is and will be on the interior. Injuries to Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill have left L.A. rail-thin up front and scrambling for solutions in the interim.
Rookie Robert Sacre has started the last two games at center after spending the bulk of the season either playing in the D-League or dancing on the end of the bench. Metta World Peace does well to masquerade as a power forward, but he can hardly be considered a "big man" in the conventional sense.
As for Antawn Jamison, his ability to rebound and defend ditched him long ago, and his one projectable skill—his scoring—has followed suit this season.
All of which leaves the Lakers with little choice but to allot minutes to Clark while their three centers heal. Clark made the most of his playing time on Wednesday night, and he might have emerged as a true hero had his three-point heave at the final buzzer found its way through the twine.
On the other hand, Clark is hardly the first Lakers reserve to have a "breakout" game this season. Jamison registered 33 points and 12 boards in a blowout of the Denver Nuggets. Jodie Meeks has chipped in a pair of 20-point games. Devin Ebanks and Darius Morris have topped out at 15 points this season. Chris Duhon has topped 10 assists twice, albeit as a starter both times.
None of those five subs would likely be considered worthy of big minutes on a consistent basis. Each has had his moments during what's been a trying season in Lakerland without truly asserting himself as a reliable contributor.
In all likelihood, that'll be the case for Earl Clark too. Embolden him one night, embroil him the next.
For now, though, the Lakers need a big body who plays hard, rebounds and defends. Earl Clark just so happens to fit that bill and delivered on this particular occasion. That should be enough to earn him another opportunity in the immediate future.
But as soon as L.A.'s top bigs are back in action, it'll be back to the bench for Earl. If nothing else, he'll go back to distributing towels knowing he impressed his coaches and teammates (even the Black Mamba) during his time on the floor.
Not bad for a guy who was an afterthought in the Dwight Howard deal.