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Jordan Clarkson Shattering All Projections for His NBA Ceiling

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistApril 8, 2015

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The rest of the league is finally catching on to what Los Angeles Lakers fans have been saying all season: Second-round draft pick Jordan Clarkson is a legitimate NBA talent.

As for any preconceived ceiling, the dust and debris of shattered limits have been cleared off the court, and Clarkson—a 6'5" point guard—is simply working on his game under the NBA's bright lights.

On most nights the Western Conference Rookie of the Month of March is spectacular. But on other occasions he gets schooled like the young prospect he is—having started all of 34 games for a team with a franchise-worst record of 20-57.

Baxter Holmes @Baxter

Jordan Clarkson is Western Conf. Rookie of the Month for March, becoming the first ever Laker to win the award (first presented in 1981-82).

And that's just fine. The 22-year-old has been thrown into the fire, and it's how he responds that will ultimately shape the real story of just how good this kid can be.

On Sunday night against Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers, Clarkson got his lunch handed to him. He attempted just six shots and made only one of them in 26 minutes of action, finishing with a paltry two points, four rebounds and three assists in a 106-78 shelling. He was harassed by Paul when he tried to score and spun around six ways to Sunday when CP3 had the ball in his hands.

The challenge wasn't lost on Clarkson or on his coach, Byron Scott, who incidentally coached Paul with the New Orleans Hornets from 2005 to 2009.

"We knew Chris would come in that way, knowing Jordan had been playing extremely well," said Scott, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. "CP is one of those guys who likes making statements."

Clarkson, meanwhile, was looking toward Tuesday night's rematch with the Clippers.

"I can definitely redeem myself," Clarkson said, per Medina. "We're going to attack and play aggressively. ... I just got to come back and play better."

And play better he did, with 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting along with six assists and four boards. Paul himself duly noted the difference, as Medina tweeted:

Mark Medina @MarkG_Medina

Chris Paul throwing some love to Jordan Clarkson: "He was a lot more aggressive. He can really play."

The Lakers still lost, 105-100, but they were in the game up to the end. And perhaps more importantly, a rookie's confidence was back on full display after Sunday's momentary hiccup.

It is all part of a learning curve for the San Antonio native, who attended both Tulsa and Missouri before being drafted at No. 46 last year when the Lakers bought the rights to that pick from the Washington Wizards for $1.8 million.

That relatively modest investment may one day be the stuff of legends.

Lakers Nation @LakersNation

Random tweet, but I'd like to thank the Wizards for trading Jordan Clarkson to Lakers. Easily the biggest steal and perhaps, #TheFuture.

The rookie began his season in modest fashion, used sparingly as a backup shooting guard and further developing his game during multiple assignments to the Lakers' D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders.

All that changed in a hurry when Scott unexpectedly handed Clarkson the starting point guard role on Jan. 23 against the San Antonio Spurs. The rangy speedster with great handles and slashing ability never looked back—he averaged 13.8 points in February, 15.8 points in March and is at 16.8 points so far in April.

Needless to say, this month's average, taken from just four games, would be much higher if not for the lowly two-point total Sunday.

The shaping of Clarkson's game is one of the most interesting aspects of his embryonic career and will go a long way toward determining his future success in the league. He loves having the ball in his hands and has a natural score-first mentality. But those around him are trying to instill a greater emphasis on sharing and facilitating, and it seems to be paying off.

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 24: Head coach Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks to Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game against the Sacramento Kings on October 24, 2014 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Clarkson averaged 4.0 assists per game in February, 5.2 in March and sits at 6.0 so far in April. This is especially important in Scott's offensive system, which emphasizes off-ball movement. But for all the hands-on attention the rook receives from the Lakers coaching staff, there is another very important influence in his basketball life—Steve Nash.

One of the true legends of the game was declared out for the season in November and announced his retirement in March. The Lakers recently waived Nash in order to create room for undrafted rookie Jabari Brown, who incidentally was Clarkson's backcourt teammate and roommate at Mizzou.

The Nash-Clarkson tutelage began with text messages and blossomed into film study and a continuing series of on-court workouts. As Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com wrote in March, Scott understands the benefit of peer-based interaction: "Sometimes it's easier to relate to a player like that than to us as coaches, because we're sitting there saying, 'The pocket pass is open, Jordan, the pocket pass is open.'"

It is both a symbolic and tangible passing of the torch, from a former great whose time with the Lakers was hampered by injuries to an impressionable second-round prospect who has suddenly become the team's next great hope.

Ryan Ward @RyanWardLA

Jordan Clarkson busting out his best Steve Nash impression on that drive to the hoop. That was smooth! #Lakers

It is certainly not a storyline anyone would have predicted at the start of the season—that a virtual unknown would wind up making a case for All-Rookie First Team honors.

"We know this hasn't been the type of season that we wanted," said Scott, per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com. "But in the midst of all this, we found a little bit of a diamond in the rough in Jordan Clarkson—a kid that has big-time upside and potential."

And make no mistake—that potential is paramount to the Lakers' ongoing rebuild. That it would be presented through an evolving young point guard is even more striking: The team has searched for answers at that particular position for the past two decades—the entirety of shooting guard Kobe Bryant's career.

Derek Fisher served the Lakers well during their most recent championship era, but he was always a system player—slow of foot but with leadership skills and the ability to make big-time shots. Fisher also always had a special bond with Bryant, his fellow draftee from the class of 1996.

A parade of experiments and would-be solutions have followed over the many ensuing years—too many to name individually, but last summer's acquisition of Jeremy Lin is included. The former "Linsanity" sensation has played well at times throughout the season, but his natural pick-and-roll sensibilities have not been a great fit in Scott's hybrid Princeton system.

But this is the beauty of Clarkson. He's a player who is still malleable and willing to embrace whatever methodology is thrown his way. He's a sponge with an insatiable appetite to learn and compete.

Like Nash, the oft-injured Bryant has also been dispensing basketball wisdom to the next generation.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10: Kobe Bryant #24 and Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers speak during a game against the Detroit Pistons at STAPLES Center on March 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Come next fall, No. 24 will attempt a twilight comeback. This time, he'll have a backcourt partner who combines youth, versatility and untapped potential.

And when the last vestige of a prior basketball generation moves on and retires, the Lakers will take on a new identity—one composed of teens and 20-somethings, of players wanting to leave their own lasting imprint. 

It's a whole new ballgame for a storied franchise.

And Jordan Clarkson, who came out of the blue and shattered all projections during his rookie season, will be one of those leading the way.

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