Jordan Clarkson Emerging as Impressive NBA Draft Steal for Los Angeles Lakers

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistMarch 11, 2015

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 4:  Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Miami Heat on March 4, 2015 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Second-round draft pick Jordan Clarkson has come a long way during his rookie season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The 6’5” speedster out of Missouri and Tulsa chalked up 22 did-not-plays (DNPs) during his early months in Los Angeles. But since being thrust into the starting lineup in late January, the point guard’s trajectory has gone through the roof.

Averaging 9.4 points per game through 40 games, Clarkson is currently fourth in scoring among all rookies.

That's impressive on its own.

But progress doesn’t stop there—his 15.2 points per game over the past six games puts him in second behind Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves for the month of March.

Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick last summer. Clarkson was obtained on draft night when the Lakers purchased the rights to the Washington Wizards’ No. 46 pick for $1.8 million.

To watch the 22-year-old play these days is to witness the birth of something special, as he continues developing at an exponential rate.

Among his latest benchmarks was a career-high eight assists Tuesday night against the Detroit Pistons, with the Lakers snapping a five-game losing streak, 93-85.

He’s also getting the chance for sweet comeuppance at the expense of those who were favored ahead of him—like a fast-break dunk on Dante Exum of the Utah Jazz on Feb. 25.

In addition to the highlight reels, Clarkson’s making his share of rookie mistakes. He presses too hard under pressure, and his long-range shooting has been atrocious during March at 26 percent.  

But painful lessons are part of the journey, and Lakers coach Byron Scott is now giving his young ward plenty of room to grow.

On Sunday, the Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks were tied up late in the fourth quarter when Clarkson chucked up an ill-advised three-point miss that led to Rajon Rondo completing a short jumper at the other end. A minute later, Clarkson was picked off on a bad pass by Monta Ellis, leading to free throws—Los Angeles never regained its footing and lost, 100-93.

But Clarkson still had 15 points, six rebounds and five assists for the night—a solid performance despite the lapses in judgment.

Afterward, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle praised the emerging guard, as well as Scott for grooming him, as tweeted by Lakers beat reporter Mike Trudell.

It’s part of a pattern for a team that has difficulty closing out games and for an injury-depleted roster made up largely of castoffs and young projects. But that doesn’t lessen the silver lining represented by the Lakers’ sleeper draft pick.

Two nights earlier, another fourth-quarter meltdown occurred against the Memphis Grizzlies, with Clarkson going mano a mano against lockdown defender Tony Allen late in the game.

Memphis won the battle, but Clarkson’s career-high 25 points on 12-of-18 shooting was yet another step in his progression.

Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News noted the torrent of congratulatory text messages Clarkson received after the game from friends and family, and, more importantly, the balanced praise and critiques that came from teammates and his coach.

“Only 10 games ago, he wasn’t doing this,” said veteran forward Carlos Boozer. “And 10 games from now, he’ll be even better. You have to keep watching him grow.”

Boozer also pointed out Clarkson’s folly of taking on Allen one-on-one, adding: “But he’ll learn and get better. That’s a great experience for him too to go against a defender like that.”

It’s a matter of putting entire games together, not just the great moments.

“He’s learning he can play in this league at a very high level,” said Scott. “But he’s also learning the last three or four minutes of the game is where he has to be at his best.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 23:  Head coach Byron Scott and Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the game with the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on December 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 115-105.   NOTE T
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

A native of Texas and a Filipino-American, Clarkson was a combo guard for two seasons at the University of Tulsa before transferring to Mizzou, where he ran the point alongside shooting guard Jabari Brown.

Clarkson and Brown were roommates who bonded like brothers over challenging family circumstances. Each declared for the draft at the end of the season.

But while one was selected, the other was not. Brown went undrafted but earned an invite to the Lakers training camp. He didn’t make the cut but wound up signing with the team’s Development League affiliate—the Los Angeles D-Fenders.

And now, Brown is being called up to the main stage on a 10-day contract, per Lakers.com.

For a Los Angeles franchise so used to championship seasons, the last two years have been difficult and unfamiliar ones. But despite their current record of 17-46, the Lakers are intent on finding diamonds in the rough that can help fuel their ongoing rebuild.

It’s far too early to predict the ceiling for Clarkson, but he continues to be fueled by the belief that his potential was undervalued by the league last June.

"It's definitely motivation, the guys that went in front of me," Clarkson said after his career-high night, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times. "Bigger chip for me on my shoulder. I'm going out there and trying to prove people wrong and get wins as well."

Was he a steal for the Lakers? Absolutely. Will he keep getting better? No doubt.

"I'm never satisfied, man," Clarkson added. "I want to continue to keep working. I'm trying to do great things."

These are the moments, the rays of hope and promise, that help assuage a frustrated fanbase during trying times.

Jordan Clarkson heads into the tail end of his rookie campaign having proved he at least belongs in the league, and he is thirsty for much more than that.

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