Jordan Clarkson is the best of a bad situation.
The Los Angeles Lakers lost Steve Nash to a season- and possibly career-ending injury before the 2014-15 NBA season began and have hardly seen or heard from him since. Jeremy Lin, whom the Lakers acquired as penance for a first-round pick from the Houston Rockets this past summer, doesn't seem long for L.A., if his inconsistent play and impending free agency are any hints. Ronnie Price probably wouldn't be wearing purple and gold if the Lakers weren't so desperate for experience at point guard.
And his age (31) and performance (35.2 percent shooting, 29 percent from three) point to no better than an abbreviated future in the City of Angels.
Clarkson, on the other hand, is everything those guys aren't—for better or worse. Given how bad things have been for the Lakers this season, especially at the point, even the most meager qualifications are enough to push Clarkson ahead of the pack.
First and foremost, Clarkson is under contract beyond April. Granted, he only has one year left on his current deal, and his relatively minuscule salary for 2015-16 ($845,059) isn't even guaranteed, but that's still infinitely more than the Lakers currently have committed to Nash, Lin and Price once this campaign comes to a close.
Which is to say, diddly squat.
The Lakers' season was lost long before Kobe Bryant shredded his right rotator cuff and has only become more meaningless since. But, as Bleacher Report's David Murphy noted, that misery affords L.A. an obvious opportunity to evaluate the rest of the roster and proceed accordingly: "But with the Lakers’ record spiraling down into oblivion, it’s time to put more emphasis on growing young talent, and that means during the team’s own schedule. The postseason has become ever more improbable. It’s time to evaluate and build for the future."
As far as the backcourt is concerned, Clarkson is the closest thing the Lakers have on hand to a glimpse of that future.
Bryant has made it clear on multiple occasions that he plans to hang up his signature sneakers once he's collected the $25 million he's due for 2015-16. Nick Young's under contract through the end of 2016-17, with a player option for 2017-18, but, at the age of 29, he's basically what he is: a swagtastic bench scorer who entertains crowds for reasons beyond basketball.
If nothing else, the Lakers will need Clarkson to be prepared to play enough minutes next season so that head coach Byron Scott can take it easy on the Mamba:
Unlike Bryant and Young—and the other ball-dominant guards on L.A.'s roster—Clarkson is at an age (22) where his potential is far more a matter of projection than something that can be quantified concretely. The rookie out of Missouri is still in the primordial stages of his pro career and as such is due for rapid growth in his game.
The raw materials are certainly there for Clarkson to become a quality rotation player. At 6'5", Clarkson has the requisite size and ball-handling ability to man either guard spot. He's quick and athletic, enough so to slice to the rim for himself:
Or to set up easy scores for his teammates:
It's clear that Clarkson is still figuring out how best to harness his physical abilities in an NBA setting. There are times when the pace of the game appears to overwhelm him, when he gets sucked into playing at warp speed because his feet can keep up, even if his game can't.
"I always say the pace that you play out there, I can do a better job of controlling that," Clarkson said after his first start as a pro against his hometown San Antonio Spurs, via the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. "Now I just have to work on getting guys into spots and getting what we want in the half-court offense. I feel like it’s coming along. I feel like it’s only going to get better.”
With time and its attendant experience, Clarkson should learn how to control the flow of play, rather than the other way around. Even John Wall, against whom Clarkson had his best game as a pro on Tuesday (18 points, three assists), was often a wily mess at the point before he got the hang of the NBA game and the fit of his speed-of-light talent within it.
And just as Wall wasn't (and still isn't) a great shooter, so too does Clarkson have his work cut for him in turning his wayward jumper (39.3 percent from the field, 26.1 percent from three) into a legitimate weapon. To Clarkson's credit, he's already enlisted the help of noted skills coach Drew Hanlen, who's also worked closely with Wall.
This isn't to suggest that Clarkson is the next John Wall, or that he'll ever so much as sniff the level that Wall, one of the league's elite point guards, has achieved as the Washington Wizards' head honcho. Rather, Clarkson, like any young floor general (Wall included), is a work-in-progress. The key for the Lakers is to let Clarkson play, live with the outcomes and allow him to learn on the job.
"I want to see him in a bigger role," Scott said of Clarkson after the rookie's first start (via the Los Angeles Daily News). "We have to find out if he can play. I think he can and believe he can. But I need him to have some extended minutes in an extended role for an extended period of time to really get a good idea if he can or not."
Good news for Lakers fans: They're doing just that. After playing with the big club only sporadically during the first half of the season, Clarkson has been handed the keys to the company car—which is to say, he's started each of the Lakers' last three games at the point.
All have been challenges in their own right. Against the Spurs, Clarkson had to handle Tony Parker, a four-time champion whom he grew up watching in San Antonio, along with the usual spate of butterflies that would fill a player's stomach during his first start, especially with friends and family watching from the stands. When the Lakers returned home to take on the Houston Rockets, Clarkson met face-to-face with Patrick Beverley, one of the strongest and fiercest defenders at his position. On Tuesday, he had to contend with Wall's relentless blur.
So far, Clarkson's results have been predictably mixed. He coughed the ball up just once against the Spurs, though like so many before him, Clarkson occasionally struggled to contain Parker's spin cycle. Beverley hounded Clarkson into five turnovers in addition to a 2-of-10 shooting night. With Wall as his opposite number, Clarkson got off to a strong start (11 points in the first quarter) only to see the Wizards' All-Star starter take over down the stretch.
All three resulted in defeats for the Lakers, who've now lost their last nine in a row.
"We got three stages, man," Clarkson explained after the game via Lakers.com. "I came in, I watched the first half of the season. Now [Coach Scott] was kind of letting me get time on the second stage a little bit. Now he's just kind of throwing me all in there, just letting me learn and letting me grow as a player."
The crucible in which Clarkson's skills will (or won't) be forged has only just materialized. Next up he'll see Derrick Rose, a former MVP and an overwhelming athlete in his own right, when the Lakers host the Chicago Bulls on Thursday. As SB Nation's Harrison Faigen noted, Clarkson's audition/training period will likely continue well beyond that:
If Clarkson is ever going to morph into a real contributor for the Lakers, his getting minutes this season while the stakes are low could be a crucial step in that development process. Scott stating that this group of starters will be in place for "the next 10-to-15 games" is a step towards that ideal outcome.
Seemingly every night, Clarkson will have to go toe-to-toe with someone who's prepared to take the youngster to school—particularly in the Western Conference, where point guards reign supreme.
It is. You feel good about yourself one night, and you might play very well against a great guard, and then the next night, you look at the schedule, and it's Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker or Damian Lillard, and you're just like, 'Oh, man, I got to do it again!' It keeps you focused, it really does. And it keeps you playing your best basketball.
The Lakers can only hope that gauntlet will forge Clarkson into a competent, if not a complete, player. Having Nash, who took all of today's best guards to task once upon a time, to show Clarkson the ropes wouldn't hurt.
"I still haven’t given up hope on that," Scott told the L.A. Daily News. "I would still like for him to come around. If for nothing else, to talk to Jordan Clarkson and help him and tutor him a little bit. But as we’ve been talking all season long, (Nash) has to feel OK about that."
Not that Nash has been entirely absent from Clarkson's development. The future Hall of Famer has reportedly texted Clarkson from time to time with tips on how to run an NBA offense amid a pace much snappier than anything the rookie experienced at the collegiate level.
Either way, Nash's time has come and gone. Lin and Price have had their opportunities as well, but have made little of them. Now, it's Clarkson's turn to steer the Lakers' sinking ship, to see if he might someday be able to captain the Purple and Gold through stormy seas.
That is, at least until the Lakers find a more reliable option, be it through the draft, free agency or pure happenstance.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.