Sometimes the answers to our most important questions are right under our nose. In the case of who should play point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, the answer was sitting on the team's bench for a few months in the form of a 6’5” rookie named Jordan Clarkson.
Without question, the best thing that happened to the Lakers during an otherwise dismal, injury-riddled campaign in 2014-15 was the emergence of Clarkson as a legitimate combo guard with star potential. The former Missouri Tiger showed poise and command of his position almost immediately from the time he became a starter in late January.
Which would make the thought of going after former Dallas Maverick and Boston Celtic point guard Rajon Rondo in free agency a misguided, utterly ridiculous notion.
Are Lakers fans so star-struck as to prefer an overpriced, injury-prone, temperamental veteran over the younger, more athletic, highly motivated Clarkson? Who, by the way, will only cost the Lakers $845,000 next season, per Spotrac.
While it is impossible to predict how Clarkson will develop and grow in the league, his all-around play over the second half of the season makes the idea of pursuing the enigmatic Rondo a highly questionable one.
Despite his recent burnout with the Mavericks, there still seems to be a popular notion that the Lakers remain mildly interested in signing Rondo if he’s amenable to a short-term, bargain-basement price. But even that would be a waste of the Lakers’ financial and emotional resources.
Clarkson was extremely productive on offense, showing great penetration ability and a mid-range game that only got better as January turned into February, March and April.
In 38 games as the starting point guard, Clarkson averaged 15.8 points, 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 32 minutes. He shot 46 percent from the field and made 84 percent of his free throws during that 38-game stretch.
What makes those numbers even more impressive is that prior to being thrown into a starter's role, Clarkson was hardly seen in the lineup at all. In 21 games coming off the bench, he averaged 4.9 points on 39 percent shooting in just over 12 minutes of action.
The main reason Clarkson didn’t finish higher than seventh in the NBA Rookie of the Year voting was because he spent the first half of the season collecting bench splinters while watching veteran PGs Ronnie Price and Jeremy Lin handle the ball and the team’s inept offense.
As the team suffered one big injury after another—most notably rookie Julius Randle to a broken leg in the first game and Kobe Bryant to a torn rotator cuff after 35 games—and found itself out of the playoff race, the decision was made by coach Byron Scott to give young players like Clarkson an opportunity to showcase their talents.
Talk about trial by fire: Clarkson’s first start came in his hometown of San Antonio against the world champion Spurs and in front of his father, Mike, who is battling a rare form of cancer (per L.A. Times).
Clarkson was more than adequate. In 29 minutes, he scored 11 points with four assists and just one turnover playing against future Hall of Fame point guard Tony Parker.
Make no mistake: There were some off nights for Clarkson along the way. He went 1-of-6 and scored just two points in an April 5 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. But Clarkson came back two nights later and, in a rematch with their Staples Center rivals, scored 20 points and dished out six assists.
Clarkson had 11 games in which he scored 20 or more points, including a season-high 30 on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder. And, most importantly, his assist total increased every month from January to April. Clarkson averaged 6.8 during the final month of play.
Not only is Clarkson an excellent athlete with tremendous speed, he also has a great work ethic.
While teammate Nick Young said, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, of his summer plans that he needed to get away from the game for awhile (“I’ll be in Maui if ya’ll need me”), Clarkson said he would be living at the Lakers practice facility and getting ready for Summer League.
Clarkson clearly is determined to keep working and improving. Being taken with the 46th pick in last year's NBA draft has left a big, motivational chip on his shoulder and has only fueled his intense desire to let other teams know what they passed on.
One of Clarkson's biggest fans and supporters has been Steve Nash. The former Laker, who spent a disappointing three seasons mostly injured and unable to retire a champion, did answer the call by the team to be a mentor to Clarkson and Randle.
Nash thinks Clarkson has all the tools to be a star in the league, an endorsement that carries a lot of weight from one of the best to ever play the point guard position. Per Medina:
I tried to give him tips on creating space for himself. If he creates space for himself, space will open up for him to pass the ball. Then the decisions will become clearer and easier to make.
He’s got a lot of ingredients to be a terrific NBA player. The sky’s the limit. He has great size and athleticism. He can score and hit big shots. He’s developing into a good playmaker.
Nash went on to further praise Clarkson and feels he has the ability and mental capacity to be a leader on the Lakers if he continues to work hard.
The biggest thing about a leader is being authentic, being yourself and having pure motives. If you are there every day, working hard and trying to get better and lay it on the line every night, that’s leadership. Whether you’re a vocal leader or quiet leader, it’s about your teammates believing in you, trusting that your motives are pure and trying to win.
Veteran forward Carlos Boozer was equally impressed with the play of Clarkson. He told reporters at the team's exit interview that Clarkson may have been the steal of the draft, and that fans may be looking at a "baby Westbrook" (per L.A. Times), referring to Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook.
For Clarkson, who was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March (a first for a Lakers player), the accolades are nice, but he seems more concerned with improving his overall game and getting his team back on a winning track.
There were no nights off. The league in that position is tough. You see the tricks that they do, how they get places, how they interact with their teammates — it was a great experience for me. It was a learning experience.
Let's hope the season was also a learning experience for Lakers management. What general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss should have learned is that in order for the team to compete again for multiple championships, it needs to embrace its young talent, like Clarkson, and let them develop.
Of course, the Lakers will always look to get better in a hurry with big free-agent signings. But they have only been successful with that approach when they brought in stars who were ascending in their careers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol.
Rondo does not fit into that group. When he won in Boston, Rondo had the luxury of playing with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. That wouldn't be the case in Los Angeles, where Bryant is nearing the end of his reign and a changing of the guard is at hand.
Assuming the ping pong balls bounce their way, there's a distinct possibility that either D'Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay is available when the Lakers make their first-round draft pick next month. Either player would make a great backcourt teammate for Clarkson, if not used as trade bait to bring in an elite big man.
Rondo is not the key piece that will transform the Lakers from their current also-ran status to title contenders in one season. And it's equally hard to see him in the role of mentor to anyone.
Clarkson is helping to steer the Lakers in the right direction and could be a big part of the reason they return to prominence and dominance sooner than later.
Howard Ruben has also written for UPI, L.A. Times, Los Angeles magazine, Adweek, and Ad Age.