LOS ANGELES — In some respects, Jordan Clarkson has already arrived.
The 23-year-old University of Missouri product earned first-team All-Rookie honors last season while bringing hope to forlorn fans of the Los Angeles Lakers. He's spent the summer touring around Asia, including a week-and-a-half in the Philippines (his mother is half Filipino) and working out with longtime trainer Drew Hanlen, whose growing list of clientele is littered with the NBA's elite.
But in so many other ways, Clarkson is still climbing uphill.
The Lakers, fresh off of their worst campaign in franchise history, spent the offseason loading up on competition for Clarkson's spot. There's D'Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft and soon-to-be-christened savior of the team's future. There's Lou Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. There's Marcelo Huertas, the Brazilian maestro who left behind a lucrative career in Europe to take his shot at the NBA.
Not to mention Jabari Brown, Clarkson's college teammate who came on strong for the Lakers down the stretch in 2014-15.
The Lakers are counting on Clarkson, the No. 46 pick in 2014, to be a prominent part of their post-Kobe success, but that won't come easily. He shared a backcourt with Russell at the Las Vegas Summer League to uneven effect; the team lost four of its five games, and neither Clarkson nor Russell performed at a consistently high level.
|Lakers Backcourt at Las Vegas Summer League|
Since then, Clarkson has seen his prospects of playing for Gilas Pilipinas at the FIBA Asia Championship fall victim to paperwork problems. In addition, his former agency severed its relationship with him, with restricted free agency awaiting him next July.
"I’ve got a chip on my shoulder in terms of everything that’s happened this summer and even me getting drafted," Clarkson told Bleacher Report after a recent workout in Los Angeles.
Considering where the Lakers are coming from and where they hope to go, that's exactly what they'd want to hear from a potential cornerstone who's come so far in such a short span of time.
Clarkson came to the game later than most who have set foot in the NBA. For much of his youth, he'd been a budding track star in San Antonio. Not until his freshman year at Wagner High School did Clarkson kick his basketball career into gear, behind the blinding speed that's become his greatest on-court asset.
He took to hoops quickly enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Tulsa. While with the Golden Hurricane, he was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team in 2011 and played his way onto the all-conference team as a sophomore the following season.
Once Tulsa fired its coach, Doug Wojcik, Clarkson took his talents to Mizzou. It was there, during his redshirt year, that he met Hanlen, a St. Louis native and former sharpshooter at Belmont University who'd been putting other Tigers players through their paces.
"He would go practice with Mizzou, and after practice, he would come in the gym and get extra work," Hanlen recalled. "He jumped in a workout and then we just clicked and started working together on almost a nightly basis."
In time, Hanlen helped to mold a twitchy jitterbug into a bona fide collegiate stud. Clarkson averaged 17.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists during the 2013-14 season and, for his efforts, was named to the All-SEC second team.
"When I got him, I was actually really surprised how much potential he had and how much game he had, a lot more game than a lot of people expected," Hanlen said.
Clarkson's superb performance at Mizzou pushed him into the first round of many predraft projections and, in turn, out of Columbia prior to what would have been his senior season.
Come draft day 2014, though, he had to wait until the second round to hear his name called. He had to wait even longer to find out the Washington Wizards, who'd snapped him up halfway through that round, had sold his rights to the Lakers.
At that point, L.A. was in disarray. The team was without a head coach (in the wake of Mike D'Antoni's resignation) and absent a healthy superstar (after Bryant's recovery from a torn Achilles gave way to another knee injury). D'Antoni's mishandling of Pau Gasol during the 2013-14 season had all but sealed the slender Spaniard's eventual exit to Chicago.
Despite that discord, the Lakers had yet to hit rock bottom. They followed up a dismal 27-55 campaign with the second-fewest wins (21) and the worst winning percentage (.256) in franchise history.
Clarkson missed some of that misery while biding his time on the bench and shuttling between the big club and the Lakers' NBA D-League affiliate, the D-Fenders. In the 59 games he did play, Clarkson averaged 11.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists—solid production for a rookie, especially one taken with the 46th pick in 2014.
But unlike fellow All-Rookie first-teamers Andrew Wiggins and Elfrid Payton, Clarkson had to wait for the opportunity to show off his true talents.
"We knew the Lakers had a hidden gem on the bench," said Hanlen. "We knew the opportunity would come at some point, so we just kept working."
Clarkson finally got that opportunity to start in late January, after Kobe suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in New Orleans. From that point on, the rookie's contributions and game-by-game improvement took off.
But as much as Clarkson made of that opening, there was no ignoring the losing and the toll it took. The Lakers won just nine times in Clarkson's 38 starts, albeit for reasons beyond just his own growing pains. As Silver Screen and Roll's Harrison Faigen pointed out, L.A.'s lack of success cast some doubt on the strength of Clarkson's stats:
NBA history is littered with the names of guys who put up big numbers on bad teams simply because someone had to score, assist, or rebound. Now, much of the discussion centers on how Clarkson must prove he is the real deal, that he can produce on a good (or at least better) team.
"A lot of people around the league thought that he had a first-team All-Rookie season because the Lakers had a poor season and he had ample opportunity to have the ball in his hands," Hanlen explained. "I think that they’re going to see this year that he’s a legit player."
With Hanlen's guidance, Clarkson has been hard at work sharpening his game for his sophomore season.
Clarkson might not be in a position to reap the rewards of international sports celebrity without Hanlen, who has helped him hone his use of screens and finishing at the rim this summer. But above all, Hanlen has hammered away at his jump shot.
"We just been perfecting his shot, making sure he’s going straight up and down, making sure his balance is perfect," Hanlen said.
That wasn't always the case during Clarkson's debut campaign. At times, he would lean into his shot:
Or fall to the side:
Or fade away:
Those habits contributed to Clarkson's poor shooting percentages as a rookie.
|Jordan Clarkson's Rookie Shooting Stats|
"A lot of it is just with my shot consistency in terms of leaning back and finishing my shot [and] in terms of staying there and not fading," Clarkson said.
Watch him now, and you'll see a player whose feet land, more or less, in the same spot as where they took off—and whose shot drops more frequently and more cleanly as a result.
"I feel I’m becoming a shooter," he said.
Whether that's enough to keep Clarkson in head coach Byron Scott's starting five will be decided when the Lakers head to Hawaii for training camp later this month. The other four spots figure to be filled by Bryant, Roy Hibbert and the rookie tandem of Julius Randle and Russell. If Scott is comfortable playing Bryant at the 3, as he told NBA.com's David Aldridge, Clarkson should slip into the backcourt next to Russell.
"Our team is still going to be put together, but we’ve got a lot of people on paper that look really good," Clarkson said.
He could certainly use the playing time. His development aside, Clarkson will be playing for what could be a prodigious payday—and should, at the very least, be a significant raise over his 2015-16 salary ($845,059)—as a restricted free agent next summer. According to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton, Clarkson's foray into the market could be a peculiar one:
Because Clarkson will be a free agent with two years of experience, he'll be subject to the so-called "Arenas provision" limiting other teams from offering more than the mid-level exception as a starting point on an offer sheet. In year three, however, teams can offer Clarkson what would be his maximum salary -- somewhere in the ballpark of $23 million, depending where the cap falls -- setting up the possibility of a three-year, $34 million offer similar to the one the Houston Rockets used to acquire Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin as restricted free agents in 2012. Or teams could go an additional year and offer four years and up to around $58 million.
Even that bit of business takes a backseat to Clarkson's pursuit of self-improvement.
"He’s got his eye set on a lot more than just the next contract," Hanlen said. "I think a lot of people put that expectation of, 'Oh, you’re going to be a free agent,' but all he’s focused on is helping his team win, being the best player he can be and then ultimately becoming a guy that is a force to reckon with for the next 10, 15 years."
Clarkson has a great shot to get there if he continues to put in the work, year after year, summer after summer, gym session after gym session. For now, he's locked in on getting his game up to speed in time for the fast-approaching season with one goal in mind.
"Just win. That’s it. Do whatever it takes to win some games," Clarkson said. "Last year wasn’t fun, losing and stuff, so definitely want to win some games."
Perhaps a few more victories will help to lighten the chip Clarkson has carried around on his shoulder. In the meantime, the climb continues, for both Clarkson and the Lakers, in their quest to restore the purple and gold to its former glory.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.