Everywhere he turns, Earl Clark suddenly finds people interested in him.
Former high school and college teammates have suddenly flooded his cell phone. A pack of reporters frequently surround him. The Staples Center crowd continues to cheer for him. Clark’s assistant coaches have built-in excuses to tease him.
“Earl, when you go out,” Lakers assistant coach Eddie Jordan said, “Can I hang out with you one night?”
This is what happens when a seldom-used reserve suddenly finds itself his way in the rotation and takes advantage of the opportunity. While Pau Gasol has sat out the last four games because of a concussion, Earl Clark has started in two of those games and has averaged 12.5 points and 10.75 rebounds in 30.5 minutes per contest.
“Getting my name called in the starting lineup at Staples Center, that’s a big accomplishment for me and my family,” Clark said. “Sometimes at night, it’s what you dream about. It came true.”
It initially appeared that wouldn’t happen.
The Lakers considered Clark as no more than a throw-in as part of the Dwight Howard trade. Clark didn’t play for 24 consecutive games. Denver coach George Karl thought so little of Clark that he chose him to take a pair of free throws last week after Gasol suffered a concussion from JaVale McGee’s inadvertent elbow.
“I was kind of insulted,” Clark admitted. “But I’m glad I was ready and knocked them down. It’s like kicking his face.”
Clark’s teammates maintain they’re not surprised. After all, Clark made 92 percent of his free throws in practice. More importantly. Clark often tested players in practice. Because of Clark’s versatility at small forward, power forward and center, that meant Clark matched up with plenty of teammates.
“Before this point, the practice was my game,” Clark said. “There was a lot of frustration and I didn’t really let the guys take the day off. I was treating it like a game, playing as hard as I can and getting the coach’s attention. That’s what they were talking about when they said I was doing it in practice. I was playing with a lot of energy and trying to get the coach’s attention.”
Clark has already done that.
He’s started in two games, something that only happened once in his four-year NBA career. Clark netted a career-high 22 points and 13 rebounds in the Lakers’ loss last week to San Antonio. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has considered Clark valuable for his versatility in playing multiple positions, defensive energy and surprisingly reliable jumper. That’s why D’Anton said he will feature Clark in the bench rotation whenever Gaol returns.
“We’re extremely happy with where he is right now and hope that he keeps progressing,” D’Antoni said. “We hope that his energy and length on defensive body is alive. It gives us a good jolt.”
That jolt may not have been possible had the Lakers not nursed injuries to Gasol (concussion) and Jordan Hill (season ending hip injury)
“I’m sure Earl’s happy about it,” D’Antoni said with a laugh.
Clark sure looked happy after Monday’s practice.
He willingly shared to reporters eager to hear about his off-court interests how he spends most of his time with wife and two children, including his three-year-old daughter (Ke’nya) and one-year old son (Isiah). Clark shared that teammates call him “Eazy” and expressed dissatisfaction with the “Earl Sanity” some in the media bestowed on him. With the Lakers playing the Miami Heat Thursday on what will be his 25th birthday, Clark offered one wish.
“All I would like is a win,” Clark said, “and maybe some cake.”
For a while, Clark had to temper frustrations on whether his NBA dream would come true.
As the 14th pick in the 2009 NBA draft out of Louisville, Clark faced limited roles with the Phoenix Suns (2009-2011) and Orlando Magic (2010-2012). Clark went to China during the NBA lockout that shortened the 2011-12 season.
“It was real frustrating because you have expectations with yourself and you have friends and fans that call you and don’t know anything about basketball that bug you,” Clark said. “Sometimes it gets to you. But I have to continue to be positive and just stay working.”
How did he manage doing that?
“Basically my mom always put strong faith in me to believe in God,” Clark said. “If you live another day, it’s an opportunity. When I wake up, I try to take it as a day to work and get better. Eventually, if it wasn’t here, on some other team I would get my shot.”
The Lakers seem happy that happened here.
NBA teams might gear up more for him now that scouting report’s available, but D’Antoni points out teams will still have to account for Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash on the floor. Clark’s statistical production might drop, but D’Antoni believes his hustle and versatility will remain the same. The hype surrounding Clark’s play may fade, but D’Antoni predicts his value won’t.
“What’s important is as long as I’m out there helping my team win, it feels good to put in a lot of work,” Clark said. “It finally pays off and it feels good.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org