Jordan Clarkson’s career has been full of twists and turns in his two-year stint to date as an NBA player. Not much was expected from a mid-second round draft choice, but when he finally got an opportunity to play mid-way through his rookie season, Clarkson took full advantage. Today, he is one of the most important players on the Lakers’ roster, and many are wondering if, in his third year, when some players are known to take a giant leap forward, he is poised to have a break-out season.
Nothing has been easy for Clarkson since he joined the Lakers. After the disappointment of the draft when he expected to go higher, and some eye-opening highlights in Summer League and preseason, when the regular season started he barely played the first three months while the team suffered one loss after another.
Finally, in late January, he got an opportunity to start and never looked back. With Julius Randle injured in the first regular season game, Kobe Bryant done for the year by mid-season, and Coach Byron Scott employing logic-defying rotations that left some wondering if he was deliberately “tanking,” Clarkson was the only thing to smile about as the Lakers won only 21 games that year.
One especially fun moment during Clarkson’s rookie season was a game in Memphis against the Grizzles, when he got off to a particularly fast start. During a pause in the action, Zach Randolph yelled to former teammate Ed Davis who was then playing for the Lakers, “Who is that guy?” Clarkson was rewarded for his stellar performance with NBA All-Rookie First Team honors, and by season’s end, he was outperforming nearly all other first-year players.
For the season, he played in 59 games and started 38, which means he did not play at all in 23 games and played sparingly in the 21 games he appeared in before mid-January. He shot 45 percent overall from the field, making 48 percent of this two-point attempts and 31 percent from three-point range. He made 83 percent of his free throws and averaged 3.5 assists per game. These averages were misleading, however, because they included the 21 games he appeared in but played only a few minutes. If Clarkson had been in the rotation from the beginning of the season playing 30 minutes per game, there is no telling what he might have achieved.
After his incredible rookie season, Clarkson was set to become the team’s most popular player going forward, but things changed drastically the following summer. Kobe Bryant returned and took over the spotlight, and the Lakers drafted flashy D’Angelo Russell, high-flying Larry Nance, Jr., and solid defender Anthony Brown. Suddenly, Clarkson went from the center of attention to a mere afterthought.
In particular, nearly everyone has been obsessed with Russell from the moment he joined the team, and combined with the anticipation surrounding the return of Randle; Clarkson was overshadowed in the media last year.
Nevertheless, he was still the team’s best overall player during the 2015-16 season, although when a team only wins 17 games that is not saying much. Starting 78 games, he led the team in minutes played and improved his scoring average from 11.9 to 15.5. His three-point shooting percentage, rebounds, and steals were up from his rookie season, though his assists were down which was perhaps the product of playing alongside ball-dominant performers like Bryant, Russell, and Lou Williams.
Still, there was a perception that Clarkson did not improve last season to the degree many expected. Some started to question if his ceiling was as high as previously thought, which is unfair. Last season was a disaster for the Lakers on every level, and playing alongside Russell, Randle, Williams, Nick Young, Roy Hibbert and in particular Bryant, for a coach who was unable to cure the team’s ills on either side of the court, Clarkson did the best he could in very difficult circumstances.
Recently, the Lakers drafted two more flashy rookies, Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac, who have drawn huge media interest, so Clarkson’s public profile dipped even further. Instead of sulking, he re-signed with the Lakers as soon as league rules permitted. As a restricted free agent, after enduring two consecutive seasons in which the team set a franchise record for fewest wins, he might have maneuvered his way to a new team or at least tested the waters. Instead, he made it clear that he did not want to run away from the team’s adversity and signed a new long-term contract with the Lakers that probably left a little money on the table.
The other thing Clarkson does is work hard at his craft. He is tireless, training all year long and putting in long hours in the gym. He clearly loves playing basketball and will play anytime he gets the chance. When he joined the league, he was pegged as a point guard, but despite how well he played the position in his rookie season, he was moved to shooting guard the moment the Lakers drafted Russell. Clarkson’s outside shooting improved last season, and there are signs it might be getting even better. Recently, a video surfaced which showed him hitting 15 consecutive three-point shots during practice and made news when he scored 33 points in a Drew League contest.
Jordan Clarkson is soft spoken with the media and unlikely to emerge as a vocal leader in the locker room. His play on the court, however, speaks volumes about who he is and how he plays the game. While most of the attention is focused on Russell, Ingram, Randle, Nance and even Zubac, no one should be surprised if it is Clarkson who quietly leads the team in scoring this next season and proves to be the player the team relies on in key moments. To the rest of the league, watch out for Jordan Clarkson who is likely to make great strides this next season.