PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — It’s a sleepy afternoon as Jordan Clarkson—dressed in spotless white vans, modishly torn jeans and a self-graffitied white hoodie—plops down for lunch.
The most consistent player on a Los Angeles Lakers team that’s won 38 games since he was drafted, Clarkson is about to enter the busiest, most pivotal and financially significant summer of his life. On May 26, Nike ships him to Manila, Philippines. Then it’s off to Beijing on behalf of NBA Cares until the first week of June.
The philanthropic travels mean a lot to Clarkson, but just as notable is his looming restricted free agency on July 1. Whether another team extends an offer sheet or the Lakers make a firm long-term commitment on their own (the two most probable scenarios), his savings account will soon swell in a way most 46th overall picks never experience.
Jordan Clarkson @JClark5on
Surprise! This is what it's all about. Bringing smiles through the common love of basketball. #Nike https://t.co/cCLWzeYWdo2016-5-28 23:52:42
But the 23-year-old (his birthday is June 7) claims he doesn’t talk to his agent about such things, then chuckles when asked if he expects the entire process to induce any anxiety. In his eyes, the only franchise he’s ever played for is like family.
“So, I want to be here in L.A.,” Clarkson said. “This is the place where I want to call home, so I’m just in the gym and working. That’s all I can control—myself getting better. If I end up somewhere else or I stay in L.A., that’s what I’d love to do.”
After two years of hopelessness and unwatchable basketball, he’s excited about Luke Walton becoming Los Angeles’ new head coach. Clarkson happily ran around his house, yelling, when D’Angelo Russell first broke the news with a text message, perhaps a sign of the franchise’s upward trajectory.
But those are big-picture concepts, and right now Clarkson is understandably day-to-day. In the short term, his mind is focused on more simple things. First up is his basketball camp, which kicks off June 6 in Corona, California. It’s four days of teaching and positively impacting the lives of children by merely being a living, breathing NBA player in their presence.
“It just means a lot to me because I didn’t have the opportunity to experience camp and stuff when I was younger, with NBA guys,” he said. "So it’s definitely something where I want to give back to the community. I enjoy working with kids and impacting their lives any way I can.”
Jetting across the globe one week, then running around all day with a bunch of children the next, sounds demanding because it is. But once it's over, Clarkson's life will go back to revolving around his quest to become the best basketball player he can be.
The gym is Clarkson’s sanctuary. Each day he wakes up and drives to the Lakers practice facility for a morning lift before running through a series of on-court drills to improve his shot, ball-handling, on-ball defense, balance, footwork and composure.
The one I observe right before our lunch is particularly grueling. For about 45 minutes, he alternates between pull-up and catch-and-shoot jumpers with Lakers coaches Thomas Scott and J.J. Outlaw smashing a large purple exercise ball off Clarkson's frame to simulate screens and defensive pressure.
“What I’ve been focused on recently is a lot of shots off the dribble, coming off screens. Mostly just boosting my three-point percentage,” he explained afterward. “There’s times where, in the game, I have to shoot those kind of shots, and I just want to be able to make them.”
Clarkson isn’t a bad shooter, but his three-point stroke isn't anywhere near where it needs to be. He shot 32.2 percent in three seasons of college basketball and is up to 33.8 percent since entering the NBA.
There were 56 players who attempted at least 80 pull-up threes last season. Clarkson made 35.2 percent of his 108 tries. His volume was lower on a per-game average, but, for the optimistic, this technically made him more accurate than Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and James Harden while holding his own compared to Klay Thompson and Bradley Beal.
But those numbers still aren’t enough of a sample size to carry much weight: Clarkson isn’t a reliable deep threat. He doesn’t contort defensive game plans by floating off the ball, and opposing teams would rather he shoot than drive.
The San Antonio native hopes to develop a more formidable offensive repertoire, one that elevates his efficiency from more spots on the floor. Heading into his third season, and first under a new, presumably hefty contract, Clarkson understands how critical it is for him to hone a more consistent outside shot, along with better touch around the basket.
“The goal for me is to raise my three-point percentage and just become more effective on the offensive end in terms of taking good shots. I know sometimes I rush into shots. And then finishing at the rim and trying to get to the free-throw line,” he said.
Even on mornings when he lifts and gets his shots up, nights are spent with his trainer, Drew Hanlen, going through specific drills designed to improve his finishing at the rim, playmaking ability and, again, the three-point shot.
"He got better last year, but we want to see him get above 40 percent from three this year," Hanlen said. "We don’t think he got enough assists. We thought he was sped up at times, and we thought he was out of control at other times. So just being able to play at a controlled pace, make better decisions, make more plays and create for himself and others."
Despite being relatively old for an NBA player heading into his third season, Clarkson's manic work ethic and late introduction to the game makes improvement a virtual guarantee.
"He's a gym rat. That's one of the things I love about him," said Hanlen, who's worked with Clarkson since he transferred from the University of Tulsa to the University of Missouri.
"There’s a story: Two years ago, his rookie season, where I was working him out...he started for the Lakers and had a nine-point game or a 10-point game, and then the next night we went in the gym and we were working out. After his practice, and the D-League team had a game that night, and they asked, 'Do you want to play?' just to get some extra reps. And so he played in that game, and then the next day we got another workout in before his Lakers game, and he went out and started for the Lakers again.
"Most guys wouldn’t play in that D-League game, sandwiched in between two starts for the Lakers, but he’s a guy that, really, he started playing basketball late. A lot of people don’t know that, but he didn’t even play as a freshman. He just kind of played for fun. He didn’t start taking it serious until he was in high school. So he’s still learning all the nuances of the game, and it’s something he loves doing. He lives in the gym now."
“You pick up some of their moves,” Clarkson said. “A lot of it’s footwork stuff. You know, small moves, like Steph dribbling to his side and then crossing back over and creating space, then being able to get to his shot.”
Clarkson’s game can be cinematic. He vaults downhill toward the paint, with a jackrabbit first step and enough bouncy athleticism to instill fear in opposing coaches who realize he’s a ticking time bomb. But sometimes the bomb doesn’t go off.
Clarkson only cracked the 20-point barrier 20 times in 79 games last season, and he’s yet to score more than 30 points during his career. Some of this can be blamed on Los Angeles’ general disinterest in executing a modern NBA offense, and some of it’s due to how he goes about putting the ball in the basket.
A higher percentage of his production came from mid-range jump shots than fast-break points or free throws last season. If we’re strictly talking about the allocation of an individual’s attack, this is the fundamental difference between Monta Ellis and Russell Westbrook.
Elsewhere, defense is a concern. Clarkson struggles to stay in front of his man and tends to slide below ball screens when the matchup calls for him to go over. Away from the action, he's often out of position and slow on help rotations. But he's long, quick and has the physical makeup to become a pest if he wants to be.
Those flaws make pairing him beside D'Angelo Russell (another guard who’s most comfortable with the ball in his hands and subpar defensively) for the foreseeable future feel like a questionable call. But Clarkson doesn’t see it that way.
“We’re both 6’5”, long and able to put the ball on the ground. Score as well as pass. So we kind of want to make our own lane,” he said. “When it comes to defense, there’s a lot of team stuff that has to go on. Steph [Curry] is not the greatest defender in the world. But if we find the right pieces to put together with us, I think it will help us a lot. At the same time, I feel like we can grow in that area, for sure.”
If it’s the eventual solution to a problem that may never even bubble up in Walton’s egalitarian offense, Clarkson has no problem coming off the bench so long as his minutes don’t dwindle.
"It really don’t matter to me, to be honest with you," he said. "As long as I’m on the court impacting the game...wherever it is, however I get my minutes, I’m gonna try to impact the game however I can."
Throughout lunch—a buffalo chicken wrap and sweet potato fries—Clarkson is deferential and shy. When asked what went through his mind as he watched the NBA lottery—a franchise-altering night for the Lakers, who wound up landing the second overall pick—he said, “Uh, nothing really. I guess I was excited for the organization; I think it’s good for us.” Then a short pause and self-conscious laugh. “I’m kind of dry, so, I don’t really have too many emotions.”
When the conversation shifts to off-court interests and how he handles having so much time to himself now that the season is over, most of his answers are short enough to fit inside a Snapchat post.
He’s somewhat of an oxymoron: arguably the best player on the most celebrated franchise in NBA history, who somehow blends into a crowd.
We eat outside in a bustling area with tons of foot traffic, but only one person verbally acknowledges the two-year starter (“You’re the bomb, Jordan!”).
People turn their heads and raise their eyebrows—like they should know who he is but aren’t 100 percent sure—but there are no autographs or selfie requests. Our waiter looks more bored than starstruck when Clarkson politely asks her to refill his empty lemonade.
And, when you think about it, the relative anonymity makes sense. Clarkson was one of the league's least efficient guards last season on a bad team that had more exciting names on the roster.
Life is busy but far from complicated. When not in a gym, Clarkson is basically a lanky kid who falls asleep at the movie theatre and draws on his own clothes.
After he finishes most morning workouts, Clarkson journeys north to Valencia, a 45-minute drive (without traffic) to bask in his home away from home away from home: Six Flags.
Clarkson loves Six Flags. Words fly out of his mouth twice as fast when it’s the subject of conversation, and the thought of pounding chunks of their funnel cake into his mouth momentarily detaches his brain from reality.
“Now that I have time to actually go, I’m always there,” he says. “We wait in the general line. I swear. The lines haven’t been that crazy so we just wait, regular. ... I just like the fact that you feel like you’re about to fall out [of the roller coasters]. That’s like the best part,” he says as a smile spreads across his face.
But whether he’s free-falling down the Superman ride, shopping on Melrose, hitting up an arcade (Time Crisis 4 is his favorite game) or making the rare Saturday night excursion out in West Hollywood, Clarkson’s priority is basketball.
The workouts will last through the summer and pick up after Las Vegas Summer League, when he'll have an opportunity to participate in more five-on-five situations to test out all the subtle improvements he's just now adding into his repertoire.
Everything else we talk about (including Six Flags) is a vessel for him to pass time from one workout to the next. Clarkson doesn’t lack for confidence, and no player who lives in the gym ever should.
“Basketball is the number one thing in my life,” he said. “Everything else comes after.”