It's not often that the Phoenix Suns have a lottery pick. In the past decade, Arizona's favorite team has had four picks within the first 15, only three of which they ended up keeping (sorry, 2004 #7 pick Luol Deng; trust me, it's not you, it's us). Those three picks: 2002's Amare Stoudemire (worked out), 2008's Robin Lopez (worked out), and 2009's Earl Clark (not so much).
At this point, the Suns brass seems content to admit a mistake and give up on the young Louisville standout, as evidenced by the front office failing to pick up Clark's relatively small salary for the 2011 season. Why, though, has it come to this? To be honest, the Earl Clark situation has become so bizarre that it feels as though we need some sort of explanation.
Yes, we have all seen the boneheaded plays -- the sloppy passes, poor shot selection, herky-jerky movement without the ball. But in all honesty, how many young players don't make these mistakes?
Out of all 14 picks selected in the 2009 draft lottery, Clark has had the least opportunity to rectify these blunders -- the shortest string, per se. His 429 career minutes rank in dead last among all 14 2009 lottery picks, falling far short of luminary names such as Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Tyler Hansbrough, and Gerald Henderson. Even Blake Griffin, the man-child that missed his entire first season due to injury and the owner of 18 professional in-game appearances, has played almost 200 more minutes than Clark.
Frankly, this doesn't seem fair. The way young players entering the league learn is by getting some run in them -- making the bad mistakes, getting schooled by the veterans, and, at the end of the day, learning from them.
Take the example of fellow Suns, Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez. Both players struggled to stay on the court early in their careers. The fear of slipping-up hampered their ability to play the same game they had been playing all their lives. Any mistake and they would look to the bench in dread that they would get replaced. Hell, we all remember when Gentry was first made coach; he strictly ordered Goran not to look at the bench after a mistake. That is the kind of confidence that most young players need to feel from their coaches -- the assurance that regardless of how I perform, I'm going to stay in this game because they trust me.
And look at what happened. Goran learned as he went, and soon we began seeing flashes of the monster inside the Dragon. The vengeful streak -- remember him getting served up by Jamal Tinsley in garbage time, only to come right back and repay the favor?. The first-half explosion in Utah that only served as a prelude to one of the most legendary fourth quarter playoff performances in Suns history.
The same could be said of Robin. When he was first drafted, many among the Phoenix-faithful, myself included, thought he was a wasted pick. But Gentry trusted him, stuck him in the starting lineup, and now he is one of the pillars of the Suns future.
Why has Clark never been given this opportunity?
When Earl's option wasn't picked up, Gentry commented, "The opportunity will present itself, where you'll have the opportunity to go out and play and prove you belong out there. It's happened a lot in this league where guys have been given an opportunity, and they've taken advantage of it, and they've lasted in the league forever." He finished, "The tough thing is that we're playing ten guys right now. I don't think you can play eleven or twelve. I don't see any way of doing it."
And that is a perfectly logical argument to make. However, didn't the opportunity present itself once Robin Lopez got injured? Instead, they go out and sign Earl Barron? The Suns really couldn't have given Clark the ten minutes a game they have been giving Barron? Logistically, how much does that have to mess with the head of a young man that has already been jerked around far too much in just one-and-a-half seasons?
Even Clark couldn't help but show some frustration at the situation. "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. So sometimes, when you do get out there, the pressure to not make mistakes and look good and try to prove that you need to be out there, sometimes that's hard."
Can you blame him?
We have all seen flashes of the player that Earl can be -- the Lamar Odom type big-man with incredible handles that can drive to the rim with utter fearlessness. Against Orlando earlier this season in a blowout loss, Clark got the most minutes he had since December 1, 2009, and the youngster put on a show. Quite frankly, he owned the court, playing with a tenacity unseen from him before, and virtually forcing the Orlando starters to return to game by himself. Clark was visibly angry, and he wanted to prove a point. In the end, he filled up the stat sheet in only 15 minutes, piling up 12 points, six boards (two offensive), and two assists. But most important of all, he only committed one turnover.
And we were loving it. The Bright Side of the Sun game thread was exploding. While some of it was surely sarcasm, there was still legitimate excitement regarding the progress he had made.
So what happens the next game? Clark gets ten minutes of playing time, doesn't perform as well, and gets banished back to the bench, yet to be heard from since. Again, the psyche of a young player can only handle so much. Similar to the Carolina Panthers destroying Jimmy Clausen's confidence by continually yanking him in and out of the game, the Suns may be destroying Earl Clark's self-belief, and in sports, self-belief is everything. If you are playing to not mistakes, you play tentatively. Above all else, you cannot be tentative out there and succeed. It will never work.
"I'm staying positive. You never know what could happen. It's a long season. Like I said, I'm going to stay positive and wait my turn." Clark said.
Unfortunately, I don't know if that turn will ever come.