HOUSTON — Undrafted rookie forward Gary Clark mustered up the confidence during Houston Rockets‘ training camp to pull Carmelo Anthony aside and show him a picture of them posing together at an AAU tournament several years ago.
Clark, who had to earn a two-way contract, allowed himself to be in awe of the 10-time All-Star for just a moment. Then Clark focused on competing for playing time — and quickly earned the spot in the rotation as a reserve power forward that the Rockets expected Anthony to fill this season.
“Crap, that was my favorite player at one point,” Clark told ESPN on Thursday night, when he played a key role in a 107-86 win over the Golden State Warriors hours after the Rockets announced they were “parting ways” with Anthony. “But it literally didn’t matter who was there. I was going to make sure I got on the court, because I know what I bring to the table.”
With a national television audience watching, Clark showed why coach Mike D’Antoni decided to give him consistent minutes. Clark had nine points on 3-of-7 shooting (all from 3-point range), seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 28 minutes. It was the kind of gritty, well-rounded performance the Rockets need from role players to complement their superstars.
“He’ll have his bad ones; he’s a rookie,” D’Antoni said of Clark. “There will be ups and downs, but he deserves all the confidence we can give him.”
Though Clark idolized Anthony as a kid, his game is much more similar to that of Rockets power forward PJ Tucker. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Clark is a tough, versatile defender who was a two-time American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year at Cincinnati despite being hampered those junior and senior seasons by an ankle injury that damaged his draft stock and prevented him from playing for the Rockets’ summer league team.
Clark was listed as questionable against the Warriors because of a bruised hip but didn’t consider sitting out against the defending champions.
“I mean, I’ve been through worse pain,” Clark said. “The last two years of my college career, I pretty much played in pain, so for me to have a little hip bruise, it wasn’t going to stop me.”
Clark earned minutes with the Rockets on the strength of his defensive ability — the facet of the game where Anthony struggles most, especially at age 34 — and has become comfortable enough as a 3-point shooter to play for Houston.
“In practices, he just looked like a guy that fit in,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told ESPN. “His early minutes, he went in and played hard. Really, our team just seemed to function better when he was out there.”
The analytics provide the proof: Clark has the best defensive rating (101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) and net rating (plus-1.4) of the nine Rockets who have played at least 200 minutes. By contrast, Anthony was the worst in both categories (111.0 defensive rating, minus-9.0 net rating).
“He’s smart defensively,” point guard Chris Paul said of Clark, a fellow North Carolina native who played for Paul’s AAU program. “He wants to learn, and he listens all day, every day.”
Added Tucker: “He wants to get better. I think he’ll just continue to grow in our system. He fits it perfectly, and he’s still learning. He’s not perfect, but he goes out and plays hard. That’s all you can ask.”
The biggest question about Clark is whether he will shoot the 3 well enough to space the floor for the Rockets’ playmakers. He attempted only 141 3s in 139 college games, and he’s shooting 30.6 percent on NBA 3-point attempts. But he’s shooting the ball with confidence, which he said comes from Paul and Harden passing to him with the expectation that he’ll take a 3.
“He’s always ready to catch and shoot, as you seen tonight, and he just works hard,” Harden said. “His first couple of games, he was just so nervous. I could tell on his face, he didn’t want to make a mistake. Tonight, you could just see it, from a confidence level, to blocking shots, to running the floor, rebounding the ball, winning plays. That’s what we need from him.”
The 45 days Clark is allowed to spend in the NBA while on a two-way contract are going fast. It appears to be a mere formality that the Rockets will convert his contract to a rookie minimum deal, as D’Antoni now considers Clark a key reserve.
“A lot of people were really doubting my ability to be at this level and play,” Clark said. “For me, I had such a huge chip on my shoulder that it didn’t matter who was in front of me. I was going to make sure I got on the court. Wherever I was or whoever was in the position to be in front of me, I was just trying to prove the point to everyone else that I was able to play at this level.”