The Suns and Earl Clark have always had a tumultuous relationship. As the 14th pick in the 2009 draft, Clark was Phoenix's highest drafted player since the selection of Amar'e Stoudemire in 2002.
As with any lottery pick, expectations were set in place for Clark to become a team cornerstone for years to come. However, even from the beginning, the young man had his doubters. Several scouts and insiders questioned whether Earl had what it took to make it in the NBA. ESPN's Chad Ford even penned this line before the draft, "He has top-five talent, but his inconsistency and concerns about his work ethic could cause him to slide."
Now, after two years of dotted chances and scattered minutes, the Suns have declined to pick up Earl Clark's 2011-2012 option.
"We respect Earl. We like him. Just looking forward, it didn't seem like we could make that commitment to him now," said Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby. "Doesn't mean we don't like him. Doesn't mean he doesn't have a future here. Certainly doesn't mean he doesn't have a future in the NBA. He's going to be a terrific NBA player, but you just have to make judgments at the time and that is the judgment that we made."
Before the Suns' busy offseason, the general consensus appeared that Earl would be a primary player in the team's young nucleus. Yet, after a summer filled with spending and new acquisitions, Clark finds himself in the exact same situation as last year. With a rotation that goes ten-deep, and a glut of players at his primary position, there simply aren't enough minutes to go around.
Head coach Alvin Gentry described, "I don't think you can play eleven or twelve. I don't see any way of doing it. Not unless you're talking about playing a guy for three, four, five minutes; which I think is really unfair."
Nevertheless, despite all the confusion surrounding his situation, the young man refuses to get discouraged.
"I'm a little bit disappointed, but when you're in this business, you know that's what you got to go through. There's nothing I can do about it now. Just stay positive and continue to be a good teammate and work hard," Clark said. "It's not tough to stay motivated. I'm a pretty self-motivating guy. I can't hang my head. I just got to continue to work and wait for my opportunity."
Though, it is fair to ask whether Clark has truly ever been given a legitimate shot. After a rookie season in which he played a minimum of fifteen minutes in only five games - and not once in the final three months - Earl has yet to see a single minute through three games thus far this season. Seven months ago Gentry said that he would be disappointed if Clark was not a rotation player by the November. Now that sentiment has altered dramatically.
In reality, it is only human nature to be affected by such opposing expectations. Clark is only twenty-two years old, and not yet fully acclimated to the inherent adversity that comes in such a competitive business.
"If you make a mistake, you think it's the end of the world because it's not like you have a long leash or a big space to make mistakes. When you do get out there, the pressure to not make mistakes, look good, and try to prove that you need to be out there, sometimes that's hard," Clark explains. "I've improved in a lot of things, as far as just slowing down, not rushing as much, and knowing the plays from the three and the four position."
"Confidence, that's something that comes with playing, and until that happens, I guess you guys are going to see me on the bench," he continued. "Everything happens for a reason. I think if you ask anybody around here, I worked hard. It's just a learning experience. Some people adapt to the NBA quicker than others. I think it's just taking me a while."
At this point, it is valid to wonder whether this constant stagnation is starting to have a negative effect on Earl's game. In March of last year, similar concerns were being raised. To combat this idea, Clark was assigned to the Iowa Energy in the NBA Development League in an effort to give him a chance to see significant playing time. In only three games Earl Clark averaged a stellar 20.7 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 assists per game. This year may see the process repeated.
"If that happens, I'm going to do what I have to do. I went down there before. You've seen the things that I can do down there. That's not a problem," he said. "I feel as though it was kind of a breeze," Earl joked before solemnly concluding, "I'd rather stay here. I want to play in the NBA."
At present, the whole situation seems to be set in a "wait and see" mode. Even so, both Alvin Gentry and Lon Babby seem to be in concurrence that this matter is far from over.
"I think there is a good possibility that there will be a time where [Clark] will have an opportunity to step up and show what he can do," Gentry firmly stated.
Babby agreed, concluding, "We may regret the decision, and I hope for his sake that we do."