It has become commonplace the past few months for experts and fans alike to debate whether it will be D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, or Brandon Ingram who will be the Lakers’ best young player this season. In advertisements and on television and radio coverage of the team, the constant topic of conversation is about Russell, Randle, and Ingram, proclaiming they are the key to the franchise’s future.
With all due respect, the best player on the roster last year, this year, and for the foreseeable future, is Jordan Clarkson. It is not even close at the moment. If the coaching staff does not know that already, they will learn it soon when the comfort of the practice facility gives way to actual games with real opponents. Yet, when people talk about the Lakers, most times Clarkson flies under the radar.
Two years ago it looked like things would be different. Clarkson had an outstanding rookie season and finished as arguably the second best first-year player in the league (after Andrew Wiggins). He made the NBA All-Rookie First Team which was quite an accomplishment considering he barely played the first half of the year under Byron Scott. Clarkson might never have gotten an opportunity to play at all if mid-year Kobe Bryant hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury.
Clarkson was briefly the toast of the town, which he earned not with hype but with his stellar play on the court. The accolades ended abruptly, however, the moment Russell was drafted with the No. 2 overall pick two months after the season ended for the Lakers. Russell, for whatever reason, is an attention-magnet. It is not clear that he actively seeks the spotlight, but he draws it nonetheless.
Combined with the highly-anticipated return of Julius Randle, the team’s lottery pick from the year before, Clarkson was often the forgotten man last year. He was forced to relinquish the point guard position to Russell but still started 79 games, played the most minutes on the team by far, and scored more points than anyone not named Kobe Bryant (on far fewer shots), yet he received little attention. Then, when the Lakers received the No. 2 selection again in this summer’s draft, and they chose Brandon Ingram who many pundits were comparing to a young Kevin Durant, Clarkson might as well have become invisible.
The point of this article is not to denigrate Russell, Randle, or Ingram, whose growth as NBA players is indeed crucial to the franchise’s future. They have great potential, and hopefully, they will one day become as good as or better than Clarkson. If they do, it will mean the Lakers are doing pretty well, but to say they are better than Clarkson now or are guaranteed to be better than him in the future is delusional.
The Lakers and Luke Walton have clearly gone “all in” on Russell. They are gambling that he is much better than he showed last year. The record is so incomplete on Russell that yes, he could become a star, but it is also possible he could be a bust if his turnovers don’t go down, his assists don’t go up, and he fails to become consistent from half to half and game to game. The two preseason games this season are a perfect reflection of the dilemma with Russell: He scored four points the first game and 21 points in the second; and in the second game, he scored 19 points in the first half but only two points in the second half.
While some Laker players lack energy at times, that is never a problem with Clarkson who could appropriately be called the Lakers’ version of the energizer bunny. He can play 38 minutes in a game that goes down to the wire and ten minutes later he looks refreshed and ready to start another game that same night. He simply loves to play basketball and works incredibly hard at improving his game so he can be the very best version of himself that is possible.
He could have seen the writing on the wall and decided he did not want to be on a team where all the attention is paid to Russell, Randle and Ingram. Clarkson would have commanded considerable attention on the open market but opted to quickly re-sign with the Lakers for four years, $50 million. He could have made more money elsewhere but said he wanted to finish what he started after two miserable years for the Lakers overall. He didn’t want to cut and run when things were tough.
All you need to know about Clarkson is, after signing a lucrative contract with the Lakers, he was at the training facility bright and early the next morning working on his game. He is serious, soft spoken and mature. Last season, when he and Russell were interviewed together at the All-Star game, in response to a question about their relationship with Byron Scott, Clarkson whispered to Russell before he could answer, “Don’t say nothing stupid.”
Clarkson has two strikes against him both of which are unfair. For one, he stayed in college four years and started his NBA career at 22 instead of 19. For another, he was drafted in the second round thus there is an assumption he can’t really be as good as he seems. Clarkson doesn’t respond to this bias with words; he lets his play on the court do the talking for him. No matter his age, or when he was drafted, his performance earned him a place on the All-Rookie team his first year, and that is what counts.
When the preseason began it took everyone by surprise that Clarkson was not starting. Instead of sulking, he has played two outstanding games on both ends of the court with the second unit which has been better than the starters. No matter his role when the season begins, with Clarkson you always know what you are getting which is a consistent, high energy player who is always in attack mode who is going to give 110% at all times and perform at a high level.
In his third NBA season, with Kobe Bryant retired and a new coach and system in place that perfectly fits the pace at which he likes to play, Clarkson is poised to have a breakout year. No one should be surprised if by the end of the season he has made a name for himself around the league.