Earl Clark, the Lakers' lone pleasant surprise

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In the darkest of seasons for the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers, Earl Clark is emerging as a bright spot.

TORONTO -- Everything's going wrong for the Los Angeles Lakers.

They've dropped their last five games on the road, eight of 10 overall. In the latest in the long line of losses, the Lakers let the Toronto Raptors' Jose Calderon put up 22 points and nine assists, shooting 9-for-15. They let Ed Davis and Landry Fields combine for 36 points and 18 rebounds, shooting 17-for-24. Their dreadful defense let an adequate Raptors attack look amazing, leaving the leaders in the losing locker room to try to explain how they'll rise up from the hole they're digging deeper by the day. Los Angeles is on the outside of the playoff picture, collectively craning its creaky neck to look in.

And then there's Earl Clark.

"I'm having the most fun that I've had in the NBA," Clark says.


Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Clark came off the bench in Toronto active and aggressive, present and prominent on the floor every time the Lakers made a run. He finished with 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting and had a game-high, career-high 14 rebounds, plus two assists, a steal and a block.

Since the story this season is a supposed super-team's shocking struggles, Clark won't make many headlines. The 6'10 forward will, however, make defensive rebounders account for him. He'll make offensive players uncomfortable. He'll make his minutes count on a team where larger-than-life stars sometimes seem invisible.

Clark is having fun because he's "just playing and getting to show my game." He's happy he played 34 minutes against the Raptors, but it doesn't mean he's happy with where his team finds itself. Clark certainly doesn't find the Lakers' team defense acceptable and isn't close to satisfied with where they're situated in the standings.

But things have been better for him lately. Two weeks before the game against the Raptors, Clark played one minute against the Denver Nuggets. Prior to that, he played 37 minutes all season. A 22-point, 13-rebound performance against the San Antonio Spurs in Pau Gasol's absence on January 9 vaulted him into a starting role for four games, his first such stretch as a professional. Gasol since returned from his concussion, but Clark remained in the rotation, distancing himself from the doghouse he's been holed up in for the majority of his career.

"Losing isn't fun and no one really cares if you're playing well and you're on a losing team," says Clark, putting his solid string of games into the proper perspective. "It all evens out. I just want to help my team win and I'm going to continue to try to work hard and try to get better."

MORE: Silver Screen and Roll breaks down Earl Clark's impact.

Laker fans aren't short on scapegoats for this subpar season, but Clark isn't one of them. Until recently, they'd only seen him in limited doses, but Clark's energy and athleticism -- unmatched on this roster -- quickly endeared him to fans desperately looking for a change of pace. Like some who saw his potential in Phoenix and Orlando, they wanted Clark free from confinement at the end of the bench. For now, at least, he is.

"When you have people that's for you, it always feels good," says Clark, before downplaying the love he's received amid losses. "I just try to not pay too much attention to that and try to stay focused on the game and ... proving to everybody that I can play this game."

Unable to prove anything when he was stuck on the sideline, Clark could only watch the drama unfold until Gasol's injury. As fascinating as this Lakers experiment is to those of us on the outside, it's a thousand times more frustrating if you're living it. Imagine being near the center of the circus but off to the side, hearing your club constantly criticized without the ability to combat it on the court.

"It's been a real roller coaster because it's L.A.," Clark says. "A lot of media, people put a lot of expectations on us because of the Hall of Famers we got on this team. And they're saying everywhere that your bench sucks. And you're on the bench, it kind of hurts.

"But you just gotta stay positive, man."

It's difficult to stay positive or even engaged when you're not seeing time on the floor, but it helps to have supporters by your side. As far as those go, you can't ask for a better one than Steve Nash. Drafted by Nash's Suns No. 14 in 2009, Clark is more than familiar with the future Hall of Famer tasked with trying to make his teammates better in topsy-turvy territory.

"He's a great veteran to me. He gives me lots of advice. He's just a great friend, a great person," the 25-year-old Clark says of the 38-year-old Nash. "I want to see him win a championship before he retires. I'm going to work hard, trying to get him a ring."

Clark's hard work is obvious when he's on the court, his fresh legs a contrast to his aging, oft-ailing teammates. He entered the league possessing a unique skillset on the offensive end thanks to growing up a guard, but on a team this talented, his versatility is best seen on defense. Against the Milwaukee Bucks last week, he started at power forward but guarded 6'3 shooting guard Monta Ellis. His opportunity only arose because of an injury, he earned more opportunities with his effort.

"I just try to make it a chain reaction," Clark says. "I try to get out there and make it hard for my guy to score, get the rebounds and loose balls and it's contagious. It makes your teammates want to work."

If the Lakers turn it around, it'll be a result of his teammates' work. It'll be because they collectively address their lack of cohesion and their diverse defensive deficiencies. It might even be because of a roster move.

Until then, though, there isn't a lot for Los Angeles to be optimistic about. Except for Clark, that is.

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