LOS ANGELES — Thanks to his nifty bag of floaters, efficient mid-range game and out-of-the-blue three-point accuracy, Jordan Clarkson has quietly become the best player on the Los Angeles Lakers.
As it stands, that particular label lacks the prestige it once did, but Clarkson’s blooming gifts have glimmered within the darkness of Los Angeles’ 2-9 start. In a slightly different role from his rookie season, the second-round pick is even more dynamic in year two, as a pure scorer who ends plays from just about any spot on the court.
As the Lakers’ current leader in total minutes, shots and points, Clarkson doubles as one of the most effective scorers in the entire league. According to Basketball-Reference.com, among players who average at least 30 minutes per game, Clarkson is one of four who are making at least 44 percent of their threes and 45 percent of their overall field goals.
According to NBA.com, as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Clarkson is more efficient than Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Tony Parker (on equal or more attempts). As a spot-up shooter who is knocking down 48.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, he’s averaging more points per possession than Kyle Korver and Dirk Nowitzki.
“I’m trying to knock down the open ones,” he said. “The easy ones when I have the opportunity, worrying about taking good shots instead of bad shots. … I’m continuing to grow in that area.”
He’s clearly in good company, even if very little of his influence has improved the Lakers’ all-around sorrows. They have the third-worst offense in basketball and score at an even lower rate with Clarkson on the court. But his rapid development can’t be overlooked.
Eleven games into a lost season, embedded within a roster that's already infamous for its toothless pack of “shoot first, ask questions later” hyenas, Clarkson is L.A.'s most reliable guard. If necessary, he can curl around screens and pick defenses apart from behind the three-point line. If asked, he can initiate a passable pick-and-roll-based offense that would make life easier for his teammates.
But the pieces around him don’t complement his skill set, and in many ways that makes Clarkson’s shooting splits even more impressive. After finishing at about a league-average clip in the restricted area as a rookie, Clarkson still lives around the basket (Russell Westbrook and Monta Ellis earn about the same percentage of their points in the paint as the Lakers guard does). But, simultaneously, he’s diversifying his shot selection by drifting a bit farther from the rim.
So far, he’s made 54.5 percent of his shots within eight feet of the hoop, according to NBA.com. He's also shooting a ridiculous 57.7 percent in the non-restricted area of the paint. Those are tricky shots that require an insane level of improvisation. It’s unteachable creativity, and Clarkson has more than enough.
“I feel myself letting the plays happen more than anticipating the play and forcing it,” he said. “I see a lot of things. The game is a lot slower.”
That patience really shows. Instead of hammering his way into the teeth of the defense, he’s herky-jerky with head fakes, hesitation dribbles and agile, controlled movement. He has no problem changing direction on the fly, and he caps off slithery forays with plush touch. Out of all the players who average at least six drives per game, only Goran Dragic, Wade and John Wall are more accurate than Clarkson’s 57.5 percent. Here’s an example:
The Lakers need him to make these types of plays because, well, nobody on the team can do so without being predictable. But there’s a cost, and a fear, that Clarkson is turning into more of a one-dimensional device than the playmaker he can be.
With D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams in the mix, more and more he finds himself working away from the action, and adopting a different role isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially for a 23-year-old who doesn’t even have 50 starts under his belt. There are definite growing pains.
“I’m playing a lot more off the ball, so it’s kind of a different aspect for me in terms of trying to get assists and stuff because I have such an aggressive mindset playing the 2-guard,” Clarkson said. “But I need to find a way to balance that out and get my teammates involved as well.”
Clarkson’s assist percentage is literally half what it was last year, but he doesn’t stop the ball so much as he continuously keeps the defense on its heels. He probes to score and requires the narrowest of angles to get up a quality shot.
It’s a pretty floor game, but similar to all but one or two guys on this Lakers team, defense is Clarkson’s Achilles’ heel. He’s decent on the ball, with quick hands, quicker feet and fluid reflexes. But too often he’ll die on a screen, almost like he isn’t sure whether he’s supposed to slide above or dive below.
Clarkson is also one reason why L.A.’s transition defense is so horrendous. Sometimes, it’s because he’s out of position when a teammate gets a shot up. Sometimes, it’s because he wants to needlessly dive in for an offensive rebound. And sometimes, when he misses the shot, Clarkson’s drives leave the Lakers susceptible to five-on-four breaks the other way.
He’s young, though, and most of his weaknesses on this side of the ball are correctable.
“I feel like my defense has grown a lot,” Clarkson said. “I still have strides to make. The big thing for me, since I’m playing the off-ball position [is] post defense, trying not to let guys score on me on the block. Now it’s just kind of playing help side and helping my teammates and keeping guys out the lane.”
He isn’t particularly strong for a wing, but Clarkson has held his own against some of the league’s better post-scoring guards. Here he is against Dallas’ Wesley Matthews:
When engaged and trying to stop his man from a direct basket, Clarkson is solid. But problems pop up in knowing when to dig on a post up or slide off his man to tag a rolling big. Again, those are correctable. He’s still so inexperienced, playing in an environment that's never been confused for a warm incubator.
Clarkson's overall game is on an upward trajectory, though. As the Lakers crawl through what will probably be Kobe Bryant’s final season, they should savor and embrace every reason for optimism they can find.
And Clarkson's emergence is a reason to be hopeful for the future.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Stats are accurate as of Nov. 19.