What do you make of Jordan Clarkson? Seriously. The perception of him as a player fascinates me.
I think we all have our opinions of Clarkson at this stage of his career — with some being more harsh (or forgiving) than others. But, one thing that intrigues me about him now is the path he took to get to this point and, more importantly, what the next steps are for him as a player (and with the Lakers — which are, of course, connected).
Regarding his path, it’s hard to not view Clarkson as a major success story. A college transfer out of Tulsa into Missouri after his sophomore season, Clarkson found his way as a combo guard and ended up being drafted #46 overall in 2014. Going that late doesn’t come with many expectations, but whatever ones existed Clarkson obliterated them. After flashing some game in summer league his rookie year, Clarkson ended up becoming a major contributor in the 2nd half of that first season. Under Byron Scott and with assistance from Steve Nash, Clarkson found his niche as a scoring PG with some play-making ability. He played so well, he ended up making 1st Team All-Rookie.
In his 2nd season, however, Clarkson found himself in a bit of a pinch. The Lakers didn’t keep him at PG, instead drafting D’Angelo Russell 2nd overall. The point guard of the future was now Russell and JC was moved to SG sandwiched between the new hot prospect and Kobe effing Bryant (who slid up to SF). Clarkson’s natural mindset of scoring could be satiated in this role, but Kobe being in and out of the lineup, the position switch in general, and playing next to Russell (who Scott tried to turn into a traditional lead guard), did not have the best affect on his game. Yes, his scoring and 3 point shooting percentage climbed, but the play-making regressed.
Last season, Clarkson again had his role shifted. After signing a 4-year, $50 million contract in July, Luke Walton decided early in the pre-season to give Clarkson extended looks as the reserve SG behind Nick Young. No longer a starter, maybe Clarkson could be unleashed more as as scorer/play-maker against 2nd units. This was somewhat successful, but Clarkson, playing next to Lou Williams, often took a “your turn, my turn” approach to the offense. His assist rate was flat from his 2nd season and down almost 10 points from his rookie year. Luke Walton commented during the season that he wanted to see JC rekindle some of the passing and play-making he flashed as a rookie, even moving him to the starting PG spot late in the year to try to coax it out of him. There were some bright spots down the stretch, but overall, it all seemed fleeting.
Clarkson will now face more change this season. The roster has been turned over. Gone is Russell, in is Lonzo Ball. Gone is Nick Young (and Lou Williams), in is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The only backup PG on the roster is Tyler Ennis. The backup SF’s on the roster are…Corey Brewer and…Luol Deng? Kyle Kuzma? In other words, there are minutes to be had in the backcourt and on the wing, should someone seize them. That could, in theory be Clarkson.
Can he reaffirm some of his PG skills and usurp Ennis as the main backup to Lonzo? Can he grab minutes on the wing and facilitate more three guard lineups? Can he defend better than he has in the past, be more of a natural ball mover, and make some of the higher level reads as a passer in the pick and roll? How will he adjust to playing with Lonzo and can he adapt to the shifting culture of ball movement and unselfishness? These are open questions that will have a major impact on Clarkson’s future in Los Angeles.
A future that, right now, is truly in question. There have already been comments made about the Lakers being “confident” they can unload Clarkson in a trade if they need to. Remember, the Lakers are in hot pursuit of two max-level free agents next summer. In order to get there, the Lakers will likely need to dispose themselves of at least two of the Clarkson/Deng/Julius Randle trio. If the team is sure they can trade Clarkson and Randle is an RFA, might that solve their cap crunch right there? If they are able to unload Deng, it very well could come down to the Lakers needing to choose between Clarkson and Randle — ironic since both were drafted the same season.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can say most every fan I have a dialogue with assumes Clarkson will not finish his contract in Los Angeles. The combination of the salary cap math + his game becoming more one dimensional over the past two seasons lends itself to a certain amount of souring on JC as a long term piece of the puzzle.
That said, if a leap can be made, Clarkson may defy his critics and find a way to stick. Looking at how he got to where he is now, it wouldn’t be the first time.