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Prince or Frog?
Gerry Callahan
June 22, 1998
Keon Clark from UNLV is the great unknown of this year's draft
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June 22, 1998

Prince Or Frog?

Keon Clark from UNLV is the great unknown of this year's draft

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For the last four years, he has moved around more than a fugitive from the FBI and showed up on more university campuses than Greenpeace. Even Keon Clark has trouble remembering all the stops along the way. Clark, a center who most recently played for UNLV, attended four colleges, not including Temple, the school to which he committed while at Danville (Ill.) High. "It's too bad," says Clark. "I probably wouldn't have had all the trouble I had in Vegas if I had just gone to Temple in the first place."

When his academic shortcomings kept him out of Temple, Clark went to a junior college in California, then to one back in Danville and then to yet another in Utah before signing with UNLV. There he got into trouble for, among other things, letting an agent pick up the tab for a spring-break trip he took to Florida in his junior year. That earned Clark an 11-game suspension to start his senior season; he later tested positive for marijuana, which earned him another suspension. He decided he didn't want to wait out that benching, so in February he left the Runnin' Rebels to prepare for an NBA career. Now, while evaluating Clark before the June 24 draft, NBA general managers and coaches can be sure of one thing: At least he's accustomed to the travel. "We like Keon a lot," says one general manager, "but do you get the feeling he has trouble finishing things he starts?"

Can he finish? That's the question many teams are asking about Clark, a possible lottery pick whose unpolished talent makes him perhaps the draft's most tantalizing prospect. Clark, 23, stands a shade over 6'10", has soft hands, long arms and leaping ability that leaves scouts drooling. But though his wingspan may be an off-the-charts 7'5", his attention span isn't quite as impressive. Clark says that as a kid he never thought about playing in the NBA, and it's not hard to believe him. The NBA is tomorrow; the carefree Clark doesn't like to think beyond today. "It sounds funny, but I really don't think he's followed the NBA much," says John Spezia, the coach at Danville Area Community College, where Clark took classes briefly but never played. "He likes to do lots of things, sing, tell jokes. He's a nice, fun-loving kid, but sometimes he can be in his own world."

A year ago, after earning all-WAC honors and setting a UNLV single-season record for blocked shots (112, in 29 games), Clark could have declared himself eligible for the draft and been a middle-to-late-first-round pick. He chose instead to play his senior season for the Rebels in hopes of improving his NBA stock. But with a lucrative professional career dangling before him, what did he do? He got suspended twice and then quit. In his senior season Neon Keon, as he's known, was eligible for only 10 of UNLV's 28 games. "I definitely feel like I let my team down," he says. "I came back because I thought we could win. I wanted a ring." The Rebels won the WAC tournament and then lost to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but by the postseason, Clark was long gone. "They actually seemed to get better without him, and that makes you wonder," says one NBA general manager.

Quitting your team is an unorthodox way to get ready for the next level. "Keon's got a lot of talent and a lot of potential," says UNLV assistant coach Dave Rice, "but I don't think he understands how good he can be."

Fortunately for Clark, NBA people do. Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel, who will make the 12th and 13th selections—both lottery picks—in the draft, says of Clark, "He's got big-time athleticism. He can do things above the rim. He's got a chance to be a special player in this league." Will Gabriel grab Clark if he is available? "I wouldn't rule it out," he says.

Carroll Dawson, the Houston Rockets' vice president of basketball, saw Clark play three times last winter and recently put him through a predraft workout. Dawson came away impressed with at least one aspect of Clark's game. "He can take an offensive rebound and in one motion funnel it back into the basket better than anyone I've seen in a long, long time," says Dawson, whose team will pick 14th but is looking for help in the backcourt. "That is something that takes exceptional athletic ability as well as long arms."

Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace says Clark "has immense athletic ability, maybe more than any other player in the draft." The Celtics, who need big men, own the 10th pick and are seriously considering Clark, warts and all. "The big issue with Keon is the off-the-court—the intangibles," says Wallace. "We have to round up all the facts, listen to his side of the story, talk to other people and weigh the risk-reward with him. We'll look at the whole picture."

Clark's off-court blunders have given lower-lottery teams such as Boston and Orlando a realistic shot at his services. What if he had spent four years at one school and had amassed an impeccable record? "We wouldn't be having this conversation," says Wallace. "He'd be going in the first few picks."

By draft day perhaps no player will have been as closely scrutinized as Clark. In the weeks leading up to the draft, Clark has bounced around the country even more than usual. As of Sunday at least eight teams either had had him in or were scheduled to have him in for predraft interviews, workouts and psychological exams. After visiting the first cities on his itinerary, Clark said he was enjoying the tour and felt confident that he was winning over skeptics in the NBA's front offices. "I'm pretty sure I'm making a good impression wherever I go," he says. "All I know is when I leave, it's all smiles."

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