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His name is Earl, and he's an unlikely Lakers starter now

Earl Clark emerges from obscurity as a feel-good story in Lakers' rocky season, earning a starting job with high-energy defense, rebounding and occasional scoring.

January 26, 2013|By Ben Bolch
  • Earl Clark, shown putting up a shot against Utah's Derrick Favors, has averaged 10.6 points and 9.4 rebounds since moving into the Lakers' starting rotation earlier this month.
Earl Clark, shown putting up a shot against Utah's Derrick Favors,… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)

Brenda and Larry Clark didn't see as much of their son Earl as they might have liked while visiting the Lakers forward over New Year's.

After polishing off some of his favorite dishes, including his mom's stuffing and potato salad, Earl would return to his team's practice facility late in the evening for a few hours of extra shooting.

"Sometimes, man, you'd get there and the security guard would be sleeping," Earl said, "and sometimes they don't open the gate."

It was nothing new for Clark. Teams had been sleeping on him for his first 31/2 seasons in the NBA.

The end-of-the-bench reserve didn't log one minute on the court during his parents' visit, which wasn't surprising considering he had rarely played for most of his pro career.

Before his parents headed back to their New Jersey home, they told Clark not to get discouraged.

"We said, 'Be patient and be ready. Your time is coming,'" Larry Clark recalled.

Was it ever.

Meet the newest Lakers starter, Earl Clark.

A player who had logged a total of 37 minutes over the season's first two months is now being introduced alongside Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

Starting at forward, in his fourth season from Louisville, No. 6 . . .

Hearing Staples Center P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter say his name isn't the only perk Clark has enjoyed in recent weeks.

"Just waking up knowing I'm going to play," he said, "is a great feeling."

The feel-good story of the Lakers' season was largely a result of aches and pains felt by Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill. A spate of injuries to the big men early this month opened a spot for the 6-foot-10 Clark, who seized the opportunity and hasn't let go.

He played what was then a season-high 20 minutes against Houston on Jan. 8, impressing with his hustle and defense. The next day brought more tangible evidence of his potential: career highs of 22 points and 13 rebounds against San Antonio.

Clark has started seven of eight games since, supplanting four-time All-Star Gasol as part of Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni's insistence on a smaller, quicker lineup. D'Antoni said Clark's sustained effort and versatility as someone who can defend all five positions could keep him in that spot for the rest of the season.

"Just his defense alone will help us," D'Antoni said of a player who has averaged 10.6 points and 9.4 rebounds since moving into the rotation. "Whatever else is gravy."

Clark's meat-and-potatoes stretch with the Lakers has followed years of fighting for scraps.

Phoenix drafted him 14th overall in 2009, with then-general manager Steve Kerr envisioning Clark as an uber-athletic, Shawn Marion-style defender. But he didn't get much of a chance during a rookie season in which a veteran team made a surprising run to the Western Conference finals.

The Suns changed general managers in the summer of 2010 and traded Clark to Orlando several months later. Stan Van Gundy, then the Magic's coach, touted Clark's potential as a defensive stopper, but he was buried on the depth chart behind Howard, Ryan Anderson and Glen Davis.

The waiting wore on Clark.

"Some days you can be positive and feel good and upbeat," he said, "and some days it's like, man, am I ever going to get a shot?"

Coming to the Lakers as part of the Howard trade in August didn't do much to change Clark's fortunes.

Until now.

"Ultimately for guys like Earl it's about finding your niche and understanding who you are and this is an opportunity where he can kind of figure that out," said Kerr, now an analyst for TNT. "He needs to be a defender and rebounder first and a scorer second and as long as he understands that he's going to be fine."

Like most 25-year-olds, Clark doesn't have all the answers. He told reporters earlier this month that the Lakers' next game was against Miami when it was actually against Milwaukee, and he once sprinted toward the locker room after the first quarter, thinking it was halftime.

Clark also found himself defending Miami's LeBron James and Chris Bosh last week on his birthday, laughing as his teammates ribbed him about James' pinning a dunk attempt against the backboard.

"He's still just Earl," Brenda Clark said.

That means he continues to work at all hours to improve. He has brought game-like intensity to practices and altered his shot to get a quicker release during marathon sessions with assistant coach Darvin Ham and player development coach Phil Handy.

"With the success he's had in recent games, human nature is to tend to scale back a little bit," Ham said. "Oh, I'm getting minutes now, I need to rest a little bit. Nah. Not him, man. He's taken full advantage of the opportunity and he wants to make sure he plays well."

He also intends to keep the Lakers' practice facility as his favorite late-night haunt.

"We don't really practice hard here in the NBA," he said, "so I like to go in and get a good sweat, get my shots up so I can be prepared to knock them down."

He's finally getting his chance. His parents are already planning a return trip to L.A. to hear the sweetest words they could imagine.

Starting at forward, in his fourth season from Louisville, No. 6 . . .

ben.bolch@latimes.com

twitter.com/latbbolch

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