LOS ANGELES — This offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers made a $50 million investment in third-year guard Jordan Clarkson.
On Saturday, Clarkson made his first start of the preseason, scoring 15 points during a 112-107 loss to the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers will get a rematch against the Warriors on Wednesday, and head coach Luke Walton is still trying to decide on a role for Clarkson, be it off the bench as the team's sixth man or in the starting backcourt next to point guard D'Angelo Russell.
"That's something we'll figure out—if we want to try it again next game," Walton told reporters Monday. "As a staff, we'll probably talk to him a little bit, see what he's thinking, how he's feeling and make that decision tomorrow."
Clarkson has spoken highly of Walton, despite what might be perceived as a demotion to the team's second unit after he started each of the 79 games he played last season. Walton has instead gone with veteran scorer Lou Williams in the team's five other preseason contests, citing the chemistry developing between bench players such as Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., Tarik Black and either Jose Calderon or Marcelo Huertas.
"It's a good, active young group for the most part," Walton said. "They've got some basketball IQ there where they help each other a lot. It's too early to tell exactly what it is, but there's definitely something to that group."
Said Clarkson: "Coach is doing a good job of mixing up the lineups and trying to build chemistry. I think he's doing a really good job."
Acquired by the Lakers in a trade with the Washington Wizards, who drafted him with the 46th pick in 2014, Clarkson impressed as an offensive player through his first two seasons. But he criticized his own play after the Lakers' 17-win debacle last year.
"I was horrible on the defensive end this year, to be honest with you. This summer, I've got to make strides," Clarkson said in April.
Working with longtime trainer Drew Hanlen, founder of Pure Sweat, Clarkson dedicated his summer to improving on both sides of the ball. On Thursday, Hanlen detailed Clarkson's summer regimen on the Hollywood Hoops podcast.
"We just watched the best defenders," Hanlen said. "If you look at Kawhi Leonard, it's not like he's out there running around like crazy—he's just always in the right spots...more so than anything, is just getting in the right mindset of, 'Hey, listen, I'm not just going to go out there and get 20 points, but I'm going to stop that guy from getting 20 points.'
"[Clarkson] plays guard in the Western Conference. You're talking about Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, etc., etc. If you don't bring it on the defensive end, you're going to get torched on any given night."
Walton has noticed a difference in Clarkson.
"We watch tape at our coach's retreat, and they gave us the analytics on him defensively, and he was not good last year at defense. He was not good," Walton said. "He's been maybe our most consistent perimeter defender since the start of camp."
Said Clarkson: "All defense is is taking angles, finding a spot where to cut somebody off, using your chest. Some of that stuff had to come in the weight room. I got stronger this summer. I just put in a lot of work."
"A big part of defense—if you're going to play it on every possession—is enjoying the idea of trying to get stops and trying to make it hard on your guy," he said. "He's a year older—who knows what it is, but he's done a great job for us."
Despite Clarkson's growth as a player—and his substantial salary, which makes him the team's third-highest-paid player—Walton may still opt to bring the 24-year-old guard off the bench. If so, Hanlen said Clarkson will use that as further motivation to improve.
"If he's playing 35 minutes a night and it's off the bench, I think he's fine with that," Hanlen said. "Obviously, there's no way to beat around the bush—everyone would like to be a starter in the NBA."
His message to Clarkson is simple: "Eventually be so good and be so valuable that there's no other thing to do but get you back in that starting lineup."
Russell Humbled by Damian Lillard
While Russell may be on the verge of a breakout season, the second-year player still has a lot to learn.
After a 33-point game against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 9, Russell missed all nine of his three-point attempts during a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 11. Meanwhile, All-Star guard Damian Lillard finished with 30 points, hitting six of his nine tries from behind the arc.
"It hurt me, honestly. Defensively and offensively, I've got to find a way to get guys involved more," Russell said. "I can't do anything but learn from it. I've got to check film, see what I can do better. I'll be playing against him for a while. I need to find a way to win some of those battles."
Walton defended Russell.
"Lillard is one of the best guards in the league," he said. "Some of the threes he hit [were] from eight feet behind the line."
Two nights later, Russell responded with his best game of the preseason, scoring 31 points against the Sacramento Kings while dishing out 11 assists with just two turnovers in 33 minutes.
The next challenge was Saturday against the Warriors, with All-Stars Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant in the starting lineup. Russell scored just eight points to go with five assists and four turnovers.
"When it comes to experience, there's only so much you can do," Russell said. "When you don't have that experience and you're going up against these veteran guards, they're two steps ahead. But you being a young guy going into this league, you don't have that confidence until you get a reality check. I've got my reality check ready to go."
Nick Young's Resurgence
Nick Young's career seemed to be bottoming out last season, when he scored just 7.3 points per game while shooting 33.9 percent from the floor.
Off the court, his engagement to Australian rapper Iggy Azalea ended after a video of Young boasting about infidelity, recorded by Russell, was released online. The Lakers actively looked to move Young but found no takers. The franchise even considered buying out the two years left on his $11.1 million contract.
Instead, Young was part of the team's 20-man roster at the start of training camp and gradually earned the admiration of Walton, not only by shooting the ball well but also by playing with energy and determination on the defensive end of the floor.
"I'm more pleased with the way he's playing defense," Walton said. "He's fighting through screens, he's locking and trailing. He's getting in there and rebounding. I told him ... that he proved to us that he can do it, so now we expect to see it every time he's out there."
In five preseason appearances, Young has averaged 12 points per game while leading the team in three-point shooting at a blistering 56 percent. The 31-year-old swingman has seemingly found new life, earning what looks to be a regular role in Walton's rotation.
"He's still a scorer," Walton said. "He'll hit a three in practice and run down and look at me and start naming Reggie Miller, Larry Bird—and then he'll throw his own name in there. When you like scoring as much as that, that's who you are. But he's buying in right now, and that's fun to see."
Skyhook is Zubac's Signature Shot
The Lakers won six NBA titles in the 1980s with Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tossing in skyhooks against the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons. Despite Abdul-Jabbar's success, though, few if any players use the skyhook in their arsenal of offensive weapons.
Lakers rookie center Ivica Zubac has a theory on why the shot is so rarely used.
"You need to have a feel for that shot. It's not an easy shot," Zubac said. "If you don't have a feel, even if you work out a year on that shot, you're not going to master it. I think I have that feel, and I'm going to keep working on it."
Zubac believes he can bring the skyhook back to the Lakers.
"That's going to be my move," Zubac said.
The 19-year-old naturalized Croatian, drafted by the Lakers with the 32nd pick in June, practiced the move while overseas, but he wasn't encouraged by coaches to try the shot in games.
"When I was joking around, I was always shooting the skyhook," Zubac said. "I knew I could hit it, but in Europe, you don't have freedom to do things like that. When I started working with [special assistant to the general manager] Bill Bertka, we were watching film of Kareem, and he asked me if I can shoot the skyhook, and I said, 'Yeah, why not?'
"He was thinking that I was joking, [but] when we got on the court, I showed him. From there, we started working on the skyhook every day."
Zubac has logged just 26 minutes over four preseason games. It may take some time before he gets an opportunity to show off his signature move.
Last week, the Lakers trimmed their roster from 20 to 17, waiving forwards Zach Auguste and Travis Wear along with guard Julian Jacobs.
All three could be candidates to join the D-Fenders, the Lakers' NBA Development League affiliate. Of the three, Auguste was the only player to receive a guaranteed salary to join the Lakers for training camp, earning $60,000.
The Lakers will need to make two more cuts before opening night, and the casualties will most likely come from among Metta World Peace, Thomas Robinson and Yi Jianlian. Only $250,000 of Yi's $8 million contract is guaranteed, while World Peace ($1.6 million) and Robinson ($1.1 million) have make-good, non-guaranteed contracts.
"It's going to be really hard. Honestly, I have no idea right now who those two will be," Walton said Monday. "Everyone's worked very hard and has been great, done everything we've asked and been good teammates. So, it's going to be a very tough decision when we have to make it."
The Lakers need to decide if Yi's value both as a player and a potential trade asset trumps what Robinson and World Peace might bring to their roster, as Yi's contract may hold a unique value.
According to Basketball Insiders, after Dec. 15, a team might be able to deal a player earning up to $12.1 million to the Lakers. Such a trade partner could then waive Yi, with a price tag of roughly $350,000, to trim approximately $11.8 million in salary from its books. Yi is also due a trio of $2.3 million bonuses if he plays 20, 30 and 59 games.
Other options for the Lakers would be to create space via trade before the season or cut a fully guaranteed player.