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February 15, 2013

Clark won't say it, but his game is starting to speak

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Three feet from the front of the orange metallic cylinder, Cameron Clark took flight.

Hands are glued to the basketball, he leaves it hanging delicately at mid-waist while ascending and slings the ball away from his body. His right wrist and arm cup the ball as it rotates 270 degrees through the air.

His head momentarily holds steady, inches from the hoop, as the full force of his shoulder and arm mercilessly crash the ball through the net, and his knees absorb the hardwood just as gently as when he left it. Such is the motion of a Clark windmill dunk.

"It's pretty easy, man," Clark said. "It's easy."

It's easy?

"I mean, it's easy for me -- I got bounce," he said.

SCOOPHD: SOONERS GET READY FOR A BEDLAM ROAD SHOW

Video by Eddie Radosevich

Watching his acrobatic feat is as inspiring as it is confounding. The dexterity, coordination and flexibility it takes to perform such an act isn't lost on those who watched him rattle the rim or the man who passed him the ball for that dunk, point guard Sam Grooms.

"The emotion behind it was crazy," Grooms said. "When I gave him the pass, I wasn't expecting that. I expected Cam to go up and do some kind of dunk, but when he went up and he started to go in the windmill motion, I mean, my heart started going fast. I can only imagine what the fans did."

During Oklahoma's Dec. 2, 2011 home game versus Sacramento State, that dunk brought the crowd to its feet and stamped the 82-53 victory. But that's not who he is this season.

FINDING HIS RHYTHM

The nephew of former Oklahoma football assistant coach Chris Wilson, Clark was ranked as the No. 34 prospect in the country by Rivals.com as a high school senior. He was a two-time first-team All-State hoop star out of Sherman (Texas) High School.

Known as the fifth-best small forward in the country in 2010, he led Sherman to 21-14 record while averaging 21 points, nine boards, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals as a senior.

He spurned offers from Arizona, Baylor, Kentucky, Texas and Oklahoma State. Sooner fans were excited about his signing, and rightfully so.

Then-Sherman coach Jeff McCullough knew they were going to be privy to more of the same brilliant athleticism he'd seen from Clark in Sherman. Even now, McCullough believes Clark hasn't shown what he's truly capable of on the court.

"I think Cam's an extremely unselfish player, and he has tons of potential," McCullough said. "I think he's still just scratching the surface of some of his potential."

McCullough said Clark wasn't the kind of player who forced shots or overplayed the play, and that might be the reason he's underachieved as a top 35 Rivals recruit. Through his first two seasons as a sophomore he averaged just 8.9 points and shot 44.3 percent from the floor.

"I was hoping he'd be putting up a little bit better stats, but, at the same time, we knew he was an unselfish guy that's about team and about winning," McCullough said.

After starting 60 of the first 63 games of his career, Clark was asked to come off the bench in favor of two freshmen and a transfer. Some players in their junior year would buck at the notion, but Clark didn't. Clark hasn't.

He's become an integral member of a rotation that, when healthful, rolls 10 deep and spreads minutes like Take 6 spreads love. After averaging 30.4 minutes per game through his sophomore season, Clark averages just 16.2 this season.

Along with seniors Andrew Fitzgerald and Sam Grooms, he's made an effort to make the most of his court time this season, and it's paying off in the form of the best season the Sooners have had since 2009-10.

"Cam, lately, has been pretty consistent with his production," Oklahoma men's basketball coach Lon Kruger said.

Next year, Clark will be one of just two juniors who've played in all 23 games for the Sooners this season. Next year, they'll need his experience more than ever.

Team captain Romero Osby is aware of that fact. He's not only thinking of what Clark can do for OU today, but what he could do for the Sooners in 2013-14. Osby doesn't think Clark has hit his peak, either.

"I hope one day it clicks for him, and he really understands how good he can really be because when that happens, it'll be a wrap for the league," Osby said.

AFTER HOURS WORK

Clark is taking strides to get there after every practice, just like he did Jan. 31, before the Sooners hosted Kansas State.

Players and coaches were done with practice, done with interviews. Most had left the court at Lloyd Noble Center, save a few.

Clark and Osby rebounded balls out of the basket and passed them to each other, stroking jumper after jumper. They moved from one space of hardwood to the next and watched the ball swiftly pass through the nylon.

"Me and Cam always been close, on and off the court, and sometimes we'll just give each other that look like, 'Hey, you trying to shoot?,' and he'll be like 'Yeah,'" Osby said. "He does that every day."

It's a habit they formed after many practices this season, and the routine has been crucial to their success. For Clark, the after practice shoot-arounds aren't so much about watching the ball go into the hoop as much as repetition.

During local media day, just before the start of the season, Clark said Kruger spent time with him over the 2012 summer and during preseason working on making him a more efficient shooter. Clark wanted to be a man who could not only attack defenders off the dribble but hit shots over outstretched arms.

"Last year, I kind of shot it over my head," Clark said. "Just trying to keep it in front of me more and put more arc on it."

Clark's improvement was most readily apparent against then-No.5 Kansas when he scored 10 points from the bench in just 14 minutes.

His scoring numbers sit at a career low, but his impact on the team might be at its height. Osby is the first to recognize this and continues to implore Clark take more shots and trust his jumper.

As one of the most versatile athletes on the floor for the Sooners, Osby doesn't believe OU can afford to have Clark pass up shots or defer often.

"He's got the body," he said. "He's got the athleticism, the skill set. So he needs to be aggressive. If he's playing passive, then we can't get as much as we can get out of him."

When Clark is playing at his best, he is one of the most dynamic players on the court. He proved that earlier this season when he scored 17 points off the bench on 8-of-12 shooting against Texas A&M in the All College Classic.

Even then he didn't boast or pound his chest about being named the Classic's Most Valuable Player. His demeanor is quiet, introspective. Unless there's a rim to rattle.

"He can be vocal when he's dunking on somebody," Osby said. "The rims will talk for him."

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