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Gary Clark has been a pleasant surprise for the Rockets

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After breaking into the rotation six games ago, Gary Clark has made the most of his opportunity.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

While Gary Clark isn’t the immediate solution to any of the Rockets’ current problems on the wing, he’s been much more than just a placeholder so far this season. The rookie currently holds the second-highest rebound rate on the team, a higher block rate than Clint Capela, and a similar Player Efficiency Rating (PER) as the departed Trevor Ariza. And it’s no accident.

Going into Thursday night’s shellacking at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Clark had been averaging nearly 17 minutes, 6 points, 3.5 boards, a steal and a block per night, since officially entering the rotation six games ago. His energy at times has been one of the few remedies for the aloofness that’s plagued the Rockets to start the year.

And though he wasn’t as good against the Thunder on Thursday, exhibiting the lack of consistency many rookies are known for, and though his counting stats admittedly aren’t all that impressive, it’s Clark’s instincts and effort on the defensive end that have catapulted him up the Rockets’ depth chart.

Having played four years of college basketball at the defensively-supercharged University of Cincinnati— earning two American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Years in the process— Clark’s maturity on that end is well beyond his years. He’s rarely a step out-of-place on rotations. His weak side help is already damn near elite. And his anticipation in passing lanes rivals that of a seasoned vet.

Clark’s defensive intelligence is the main thing that has stuck out to his teammates and the coaching staff since he joined the team at the start season. Head Coach Mike D’Antoni recently praised the undrafted rookie saying “[Clark]’s old-time, like a vet. He doesn’t make many mistakes.” A sentiment that Chris Paul shared, adding “[Clark] just knows how to play.”

It seems Paul is especially impressed with Clark’s approach and demeanour, supposedly inviting him into his home following Clark’s impressive 11-point showing in the Rockets miserable 104-85 loss to the Trail Blazers on October 30— his first game earning extended minutes.

Going into Thursday night’s game, Clark was one of the few Rockets with a positive defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) at 1.4 and the team was performing 7.8 points per 100 possessions better on defense with him on the floor. Those both slipped slightly after Thursday night’s loss, but his impact has been so necessary to the second unit’s defense that the coaching staff has begun pairing his most of his minutes with the notoriously slow-footed Carmelo Anthony to make up for the veteran’s physical limitations, something that The Athletic’s Alykhan Bijani highlighted recently:

While Clark’s been far from special offensively, struggling to hit even 30% of his threes after a scorching 55% in preseason, he’s fit the Rockets’ system perfectly.

Clark’s 0.931 three-point rate is so absurd that teams have no choice but to close out to him regardless of the percentages, opening space for Houston’s slashers. He’s played completely within himself, and somehow still played with purpose. Now if anyone on the Rockets could start making their shots (Clark included), we would start to see an even bigger impact.

Looking at Clark, it’s hard not to question how it is that a player with such a translatable 3-and-D skillset would go undrafted in the first place. D’Antoni even begged that question earlier this year:

Well, despite not being as sexy as having the bragging rights to say you were drafted in the second-round, signing as an undrafted free-agent holds essentially the same weight, as neither contract guarantees much of anything.

In fact, many would argue that going undrafted is actually the better option as players are given their pick of the litter rather than being stuck on a non-guaranteed with a team you didn’t choose. One of the NBA’s best-kept secrets is that plenty of agents tell teams not to draft their guy if he falls past pick 45 so that said agent can handpick their destination.

Whether it is TJ McConnell, Fred VanVleet, or Royce O’Neale, it is far from unheard for an undrafted player to make a serious impact in the league. Acquiring such players is oft what separates the league’s great organizations from the rest, and the Rockets seem to have further solidified their place in that camp with Clark’s signing.

It’s likely if the Rockets’ acquire a veteran wing on the buyout market or through a trade, Clark gets squeezed out of their playoff rotation. It’s no secret Houston’s in win-now mode, and D’Antoni’s not exactly known for his patience with rookies. But that shouldn’t matter right now.

Right now, Clark is doing his best to help the Rockets’ defense rebound from a poor start, and in the process, he’s making a mark as one of the more intriguing two-way rookies in the league.