The Orlando Magic knocked off the Philadelphia 76ers last night, 99-95, to pick up their second straight win, and they got some help from an unlikely source to pull it off. Second year forward Earl Clark played 22 quality minutes off the bench, quietly tallying 8 points and a career-best 9 rebounds. It's the latest entry in a strong stretch of games for the lanky Louisville product, who's making the most of his opportunity to play nightly as starting power forward Brandon Bass nurses a sprained left ankle.
Clark has appeared in Orlando's last five games, during which the team has gone 3-2. In those games, he's averaged 7.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in 18.2 minutes, which is reasonable productivity from a reserve forward in this league. The downside is his 42.9 percent shooting from the floor, a poor mark for a 6-foot-10 player who doesn't have three-point range or get to the foul line to compensate for his inaccurate shooting. Still, his play recently shows progress from where he stood when Orlando acquired him via trade with the Phoenix Suns nearly two months ago.
His strong work ethic is no doubt playing a role in his improvement. Last week, Magic strength and conditioning coach Joe Rogowski praised Clark by saying, "I've never had any one make progress so fast," in an interview for an Orlando Sentinel story. According to Rogowski, Clark has added "10 pounds of muscle" and ranks second to only Dwight Howard on the team in terms of wingspan, at 7-foot-2. His body now matches his position, in other words, as he used to lack the strength to defend power forwards. Now, coach Stan Van Gundy feels comfortable using him as the "defense" part in an offense-defense substitution pattern, alternating Clark's stints with Ryan Anderson's in the waning minutes of last night's victory.
Brian Schmitz's piece on Clark wasn't the first instance of a team official praising him. Last month, Van Gundy noted Clark frequently stays late after home games in which he doesn't play in order to work out and get some shots up at the team's practice facility. He also said Clark has the raw athletic tools to become "a really, really good player." David Thorpe, a professional trainer and contributor to ESPN.com, said in an online chat Tuesday afternoon he believes Van Gundy "may" harness Clark's gifts and mold him into a game-changer in the Lamar Odom mold.
To be clear, the Magic haven't used Clark at all like Odom's teams have used him: as a playmaking forward who intitates the offense. Instead, he sets screens--both on and away from the ball--rolls to the basket, and makes himself available for long two-point jumpers. Sometimes he manages to catch in spot-up situations and blow by his defender for layups, but more often he's found himself wide-open and unloading for a deep two. Defenses will be more than happy to surrender that shot, which is why it's something he'll need to improve upon going forward. Time will tell if Van Gundy will ever trust Clark to run the offense; he has just 3 assists in 174 minutes in an Orlando uniform.
Further, Clark's rebounding has picked up during this five-game span. His career rebound rate--an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds he grabs while on the court--of 10.2 represents the low end of what one might expect from a player with his size and skill. Per 36 minutes, he averages 6.4 rebounds, another low figure. But in his last five games, he's improved to 11.4 rebounds. That's huge, especially for Orlando, which needs to support Howard and Anderson's work on the glass. Moreover, it gives Van Gundy further incentive to play Clark even when his shots aren't falling.
As it stands, Van Gundy can't keep Clark off the court so long as Bass' ankle isn't right. When he returns to action, Clark's role will certainly diminish. But he's at least showing here, of late, the Magic may have found a young contributor at either forward spot for seasons to come, provided they re-sign him when his contract expires this summer.