'Never Count Me Out': Meet the Rockets' Rookie Who Took Melo's Minutes

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2018

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 13:  Gary Clark #6 of the Houston Rockets plays the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on November 13, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is just two days away, but for all the talent scouts, analysts and experts who told Houston Rockets forward Gary Clark he wasn't good enough to play in the NBA, turkey won't be on the menu.

They'll be eating crow.

"I used to hear it all the time," Clark told Bleacher Report after Houston's 132-112 win over the Sacramento Kings at the Toyota Center on Saturday night. "They didn't think I could play in the NBA. That was the one thing that I heard more than anything else: 'This kid, he's too small, he's not long enough, he's not athletic. He can't shoot it that well, so he can't play in the NBA.'

The locker room is nearly empty, with Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, James Harden and most everyone else gone into the night, likely on their way to catch the tail end of Travis Scott's sold-out Astroworld Festival at NRG Park.

Clark didn't plan on attending, but he was still beaming.

"Those guys right now are the ones saying: 'Oh yeah, he's solid. He got a good position, and he's in a good situation.' They try to give a little credit now, but at the end of the day, my friends and family always had my back, and I always knew inside that I was going to be able to get out here and perform and actually get minutes."

The undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati could be smiling because he just turned 24 and was gifted a Mercedes GLE for his birthday by Chris Paul. Or because his team, reeling after a 4-7 start, is on a four-game winning streak.

Chances are, it's all of the above. But more than that, it might be because he will soon exceed 45 days on the Rockets roster, which means his two-way contract will convert to a standard NBA contract.

"Gary Clark's a player," head coach Mike D'Antoni said after Clark posted six points, eight rebounds, one steal and one block in 33 minutes in Houston's 115-103 win over the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 11. "He's a player. His defense, his rebounding—smart, right position, shoots the ball. I mean, he's a player."

When the Rockets signed Carmelo Anthony to a one-year, $2.4 million contract this summer, it was an attempt at a "home run" that was later panned as the equivalent of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Anthony was renowned for being a volume scorer with a penchant for isolation plays. What Houston needed, especially after the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, was a role player who fit its offensive scheme of scoring at the rim and shooting an abundance of threes.

More specifically, it needed a three-and-D guy.

When the Rockets decided to move on from Anthony, it was clear Clark, who had earned D'Antoni's trust and the minutes vacated by the 10-time All-Star, was the prototypical peg Houston had been looking for: a defensive specialist who could score the long ball.

"You can just see it," Harden said. "From blocking shots to running the floor to rebounding the ball and grabbing offensive rebounds—just the way he plays—that's what we need from him."

The 6'8", 225-pound swingman has the second-best defensive rating (101.4) and the sixth-best offensive rating (105.6) on the team, per NBA.com. He also has a 4.1 net rating, second-best on the squad.

In the small sample size of 10 games, Anthony was on the other end of the spectrum. He had a defensive rating of 111.0 and a net rating of minus-9.0, both fifth-worst on the team.

Clark, who finished with four blocks against the Kings, is sixth among rookies in blocked shots per game (1.0) while averaging fewer minutes per contest than any other NBA freshman in the top 10.

"I just try to protect the rim," Clark said. "A lot of times I act like I'm not aware, and smaller guys just think it's going to be an easy layup. So defensively, trying to block shots and use that to my advantage and cause havoc throughout the defense."

Clark's uncanny ability to block shots comes from his versatility and the deceptively quick feet he displays when closing out opponents.

Case in point: With 9:11 left in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 8, Steven Adams backed down Capela on the low block. But when Adams dipped his right shoulder to get past Capela, Clark was there for a help-side rejection.

That block would have been enough to make any coach happy, but Clark had the presence of mind to also recover the ball, giving the Houston offense a bonus possession.

His instincts on the defensive end have impressed Paul, who remembers when Clark played for his AAU club, Team CP3.

"He's smart defensively," Paul said. "He wants to learn, and he listens all day, every day."

Clark's willingness to learn is commendable, but it's his commitment to doing the little things that makes the difference.

"When it comes down to winning, I do the things that a team needs," Clark said. "I don't always score. I will never complain about scoring or shots. But you'll see me getting steals, rebounds, blocking shots, getting other guys opportunities to score. All I'm about is winning."

After a senior year with the Bearcats in which he averaged 12.9 points per game while shooting 43.5 percent from deep and was named American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year (he also won DPOY in 2015-16), it was surprising Clark wasn't drafted in June.

The Smithfield, North Carolina, native believes what kept him off draft boards was his age combined with the lingering ankle injury that plagued his junior and senior campaigns.

"I knew the reality of me not getting drafted with my age and my injury," Clark said. "But I knew at the end of the day when I didn't get called it was back to the drawing board to figure out how to get on the court the same way I did as a freshman in Cincinnati. So never count me out. As long as I'm still breathing and healthy, I'm always going to try to push forward."

The only rub against Clark right now is his shooting.

Part of the reason the Rockets finished last season with the best record in the league (65-17) and pushed the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals was their ability to space the floor with the three-ball.

For Houston to bounce back as a contender in the West, it will need Clark to hit the open three when Harden or Paul penetrates and kicks it out and off the pick-and-pop. For the season, Clark is only connecting on 30.8 percent of his shots from behind the arc.

But he is trending the other way.

In the last five games, he's hit seven of his 19 threes. That's 36.8 percent, which is exactly what Ariza shot from deep last year. That number goes up to 42.3 percent when Clark takes a wide-open three, per NBA.com.

"He's just solid," Harden said. "He's solid on both ends of the floor, and he's always ready to catch and shoot. The first couple of games, he was just so nervous. I could tell in his face that he didn't want to make a mistake. Now, you can just see his confidence level."

Clark's confidence stems from his knowledge of the Rockets system. He said he watched Ariza defend and knock down shots last year and believes his style of play aligns perfectly with general manager Daryl Morey's analytical approach.

Luckily for him, the Rockets, who had only one pick (second round, 46th overall) in the draft, agreed and gave him a shot at his dream with an invite to summer league.

"He's got character and he's got heart," D'Antoni said. "He'll have his bad moments; he's a rookie. So, it'll be ups and downs, but he deserves all the confidence we can give him."

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.

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