Earl Clark has gone from a virtual unknown to a standout player on the Lakers… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — That free agent in the Lakers' frontcourt stands to make a lot of money this summer.
Sure, Dwight Howard will get paid too, but Earl Clark has gone from a career washout to a gradual climber up the NBA's free-agent list in July.
"Obviously, not playing earlier and averaging those [low] numbers, I didn't know where I would end up," Clark said. "Playing good now and with other teams wanting you, you can pick your own destiny. It feels good to be in the driver's seat."
He's quick to add that his first choice is the Lakers, who can sign the unrestricted free agent even though they are already well over the salary cap next season.
"This is my first team that gave me an opportunity. I love the guys here," Clark said. "The organization and the style of play fits me. I really want to stay here."
Clark, 25, has been the feel-good story in an otherwise grim Lakers season.
He continues to progress in his fourth pro season, his first with the Lakers after arriving as an afterthought in the Howard trade last August. He ended his 13th career start with 17 points and 10 rebounds Sunday as the Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons, 98-97.
Red-flag alert: He still makes mistakes on both sides of the court and hasn't shown any consistency in his career beyond the last four weeks.
In fact, there's a back story with that alley-oop dunk he scored off Kobe Bryant's inbounds lob from the sideline with 0.4 of a second left in the second quarter.
"Earl forgot the play," Bryant said, smiling. "It was the perfect fake-out. It was like convenient amnesia and then he takes off and we got it going."
Clark later stumbled in one of the few late-game pressure situations he has experienced. He missed two free throws with 16.8 seconds left and the Lakers up by one. He got lucky. And he wasn't alone. Steve Nash proceeded to miss two free throws with 2.7 seconds left.
Detroit couldn't capitalize either time.
"I'm glad it's a regular-season game," said Clark, a career 68% free-throw shooter this season. "Next time, we've just got to go to the line with confidence and knock them down."
In a league where the average salary is $5.3 million, Clark makes a relatively low $1.2 million in the final year of his contract.
He was drafted 14th overall by Phoenix in 2009, traded to Orlando a year later and averaged a quiet 3.8 points with the Lakers until Coach Mike D'Antoni made him a starter last month. Since then, Clark is averaging 10.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
His athleticism can't be mentioned enough on a team severely lacking it.
After a steal under the basket against Detroit, Clark tiptoed to stay inbounds with the ball, then fired it to Metta World Peace, who kicked it up to Bryant, who found Pau Gasol for an easy dunk.
On another play, Clark snared a long rebound off World Peace's missed three-point attempt and immediately put up a successful high-arc 14-footer.
He's not alone
Clark will join a crowded free-agent market this summer that potentially includes Howard, Josh Smith, Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Martin, David West, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, O.J. Mayo, Mo Williams, Jose Calderon, J.J. Redick and Kyle Korver.
Clark isn't worried. His play over the last month has made his future much more comfortable.
"It feels good that the opportunity's there when it becomes free-agent time, and I'll deal with that when it comes," Clark said. "It feels good just to go out and show people I do belong here. I've been waiting for so long since I've been in the NBA."