CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Earl Clark met James Johnson at the NBA combine last month, he kidded him about Wake Forest's stunning NCAA tournament loss to Cleveland State, which wiped out a potential round of 16 matchup with Clark's Louisville squad.
Little did they know they'd soon face each other after all — over and over — while becoming nearly constant companions on the NBA pre-draft workout circuit.
The two forwards were paired for the ninth time on Thursday, this time banging, running and sweating for Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown.
"We've been to the Mall of America, rode roller-coasters, things like that. A lot of chilling at the hotel," Johnson said. "Then we get on the court and we go after each other's throats. That's what it is, a cutthroat league. You can have friends off the court, but you've got to know how it is on the court."
Teams like to pair similar players in these workouts, and Clark and Johnson are seemingly perfect to go 1-on-1.
At nearly 6-foot-10, Clark is long, a good ballhandler and defender and has about a two-inch height advantage over Johnson. Stronger and heavier — maybe too heavy — Johnson is skilled, has a better shooting range and is perhaps more raw. But they've both played small and power forward in college, and are expected to go somewhere from the middle to late first round of the June 25 draft.
Johnson, of Cheyenne, Wyo., left school after his sophomore year. Clark, of Rahway, N.J., left the Cardinals after his junior year. They never faced each other in college.
"You know West Coast guys, they're a different kind of guy. But that's my boy," Clark said. "They took an L to Cleveland State and I joke with him all the time that, 'Hey, we were supposed to match up a long time ago.' He just gets mad at me."
The two realized at the combine they had nearly identical workout schedules. Since then they've become inseparable, whether they're in Sacramento, Minnesota, New Jersey or Charlotte.
"He's like a roommate now," Clark said. "We get to the hotel and chill out. It's not always fun going state to state by yourself, so it's good to have a friend along with you. It's definitely fun."
According to Brown, both players have the potential to be longtime friends and foes in the NBA — if they address some flaws.
Johnson, who averaged 15 points and 8.5 rebounds last season, was criticized for having high body fat at the NBA combine. While he insisted he's done well with his fitness at workouts, Brown believes he has to get lighter to guard small forwards in the NBA.
"I'm sure he'll be in better shape when the season starts," Brown said. "The better shape he's in the better chance he'll have to play (small forward). But he can shoot it, he can pass it, he can handle it. He's real good."
For Clark, who averaged 14.2 points and 8.7 rebounds last season, it's about getting stronger to bang with power forwards in the NBA. Coming off an impressive performance in leading Louisville to the Midwest Regional final, Brown compared him to veteran NBA forward Tim Thomas.
"I think he'd have to get a little stronger to play (power forward), but he's over 6-9, he's got long arms," Brown said. "I think he could handle the ball against the press. I think he'll be able to guard multiple positions when he's into the league a while. He's a really, really good prospect."
Knowing a team looking for a forward in the middle of the draft may decide between them, the competition has been intense. They were guarding each other for several segments at the end of Thursday's workout.
Yet as Johnson talked to a reporter before exiting the court, Clark waited for him. Soon they started laughing as they discussed their next workout.
Yes, they'll be together again on Saturday in Phoenix.
"It's been a back and forth battle," Clark said. "I think I've been getting better through this whole process."
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