Jordan Clarkson has been far and away the brightest ray of light in a stormy Los Angeles Lakers season. But what role should the 22-year-old play in the team's future?
It is not an unreasonable question. After all, the 6'5" Clarkson was both a shooting guard and point guard in college and has played both positions during his NBA rookie campaign as well. And as far as starting versus coming off the bench—won’t that depend on the makeup of the roster after a summer of transition?
Los Angeles will have up to two first-round and two second-round draft picks on June 25, depending on the standings, and there’s also the matter of free agency.
Nobody in their right mind would start last year’s No. 46 pick over an elite guard like Goran Dragic, should the Lakers manage to nab the fiery Slovenian. And if management lucks into a lottery pick like Emmanuel Mudiay, would they sit him behind Clarkson?
Sometimes the answers are not as obvious as they initially seem.
After all, the thought of Clarkson having a better rookie campaign than No. 5 pick Dante Exum of the Utah Jazz or No. 6 pick Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics might have been cause for unmitigated scorn last summer.
But lo and behold, Clarkson is playing heads above them both.
In a recent Hang Time Blog roundtable prediction, four out of seven prognosticators picked Clarkson for the All-Rookie team. Smart received just one vote, while Exum shot blanks.
Lakers coach Byron Scott sides with the majority, per Bill Oram of the Orange County Register:
It’s also worth pointing out that the L.A. newbie is improving at an exponential rate—the poise he is now displaying is a far cry from his eager, headlong rushes during summer league and the early part of the season.
In December, Clarkson averaged just 3.2 points in minimal minutes as a reserve shooting guard.
But since being promoted to starting pointing guard in late January, he has averaged 15 points, 4.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds. Those numbers increased to 15.8 points in March, and 21 points, 6.7 dimes and 5.3 boards over his last six games.
After Clarkson posted 18 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans Wednesday night, Scott said, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, “He’s shown enough for us to know he could be a hell of a player in this league for a long time.”
In other words, a young player's arc is continuing to rise. In fact, Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com has Clarkson at No. 5 on the Kia Rookie Ladder. And to top things off, the over-achiever has been named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in March. He is the first Laker to achieve this honor.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to only compare Clarkson’s stats against those in his own draft class. A more interesting context would be the rookie seasons of players who ultimately demonstrated a more meaningful track record—say Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dragic?
|Comparisons By Rookie Season|
|Kobe Bryant||7.6 ppg||1.3 ast||1.9 rbd||17.6 pts per-36|
|Steve Nash||3.3 ppg||2.1 ast||1.0 rbd||11.2 pts per-36|
|Goran Dragic||4.5 ppg||2.0 ast||1.9 rbd||12.2 pts per-36|
|Jordan Clarkson||10.9 ppg||3.1 ast||3.1 rbd||16.7 pts per-36|
Of course, it would be wildly premature to predict that Clarkson will ever turn into another Bryant or Nash. But it isn’t unreasonable to believe he might work hard and evolve his game, just as they did theirs.
Plus, Clarkson has the advantage of actually being mentored by Nash and Bryant—right here, right now.
“They’re two different players and two different positions,” Clarkson said recently, per Lakers Nation. “I’m learning a lot from both of them, they both kind of go through the same process in terms of thinking the game...Me and Steve are more on the court. We’ll get in the gym tomorrow. We’ll see what Professor Steve has up his sleeve.”
There are numerous paths for the rookie to take in his sophomore year. He could become a sixth man, an instant-energy guy off the bench. Or he could switch back to the 2 with Bryant moving to small forward in the fall.
Then again, sometimes the best answer is the one that is already so evident. The statement Clarkson first made way back in early July has become eerily prophetic.
“I feel like I was one of the better point guards in the draft, maybe the best,” said Clarkson, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “But falling out of the first round and being selected in the second round… That’s where I get my chip from.”
Clarkson could turn into a good shooting guard over time, but he’s more intriguing at the point, combining speed, slashing ability and superb ball-handling in a compelling skills package. His court vision and passing instincts continue to improve. He is maturing and blossoming before our eyes.
Management will try to hit paydirt in the draft again this year, taking the best players available. But free agency is a little different. With enough money to sign one or two major-contract players, they’ll have to prioritize by position. You could bet the farm on a guard. Or you could put that money into a dominant center and/or a small forward with a killer defensive mentality.
The Lakers will have to bolster their backcourt during the offseason, and there is no doubt of that.
As good as Jeremy Lin has been lately, he’s far from a perfect fit in Scott’s system, and he'll hit the market this summer. Ronnie Price, a defensive bench specialist, will also be ticketed to free agency.
But if this season has shown anything, it is that Clarkson can be a legitimate starting point guard in this league. And he’ll only be getting better.
Come training camp, Jordan Clarkson will be ready to take on all doubters and prove once again that he belongs on the floor.
Just like he has this season.