I need to start out by saying I am a big Jordan Clarkson fan. By all accounts, both public and from what sources have told me, he is one of, if not the, hardest workers on the team and is a good teammate. He takes the game seriously, genuinely wants to become a great player, and seems willing to do what is necessary to improve.
In watching this season, though, a nagging question I have had is how much improvement has he shown from his rookie season to this point in his sophomore campaign? Reflexively, I think most would say a fair amount. I know I did when I first asked myself that question. The truth, though, isn’t so straight forward.
Simple per game stat-line watching says Clarkson’s scoring, rebounding, steals, and three point shooting percentage are all up. His assists are down, however. His minutes are also up nearly 8.5 per night, so measuring improvement in how his counting stats are affected is sloppy and offers incomplete conclusions.
Per-36 minute measurements give us a cleaner statistical look by making minutes a constant. When using this measure, then, we see Clarkson’s numbers are mostly flat or down. Scoring, rebounding, and free throw attempts are all basically the same as his rookie season. Assists are down by nearly two a game per-36 minutes, which is noteworthy. But the uptick in his 3 point shooting by nearly 7 percentage points stands out just as much.
When looking at “advanced” stats, his PER is down by over a point and a half, while his true shooting and effective field goal percentages are both slightly up, though not enough to say they are improved in a tangible way.
What clouds the picture further is how, in very specific individual ways, Clarkson is better than last year. His handle is tighter, his ability to create his own shot is better, and his finishing in both the short-range (3-10 feet) and long-range (16-23 feet and behind the arc) are much improved. In general, he’s just a more polished scorer than he was last season.
This is countered, however, by how much his playmaking for others has fallen off. His position change to shooting guard helps explain some of this, but he still does log PG minutes when sharing the backcourt with Lou Williams. And, as noted, his assist rate is well down and, just by watching the games, you can see that he is pounding his dribble a lot and not organizing the team’s offense as well as he could be.
Make no mistake, this represents a regression from the path he was on last season when the Lakers were grooming him as a point guard. There is context at play — when the Lakers made Clarkson a starter last year, they ditched most of the Princeton sets they were running in favor of more P&R’s and spread floor sets while pairing him with a good roll man in Ed Davis — but the difference in his approach has consequences.
No one is saying Clarkson should be a pass-first player, but by shifting to being mostly a scorer — even when playing PG — it changes how smoothly the offense operates with him at the helm and impacts his ceiling as a player. One of the benefits of the idea “Jordan Clarkson: combo guard” is that his ability to play on the ball as a playmaker for others allows him pair with Russell even more seamlessly by allowing the latter to do some work off the ball as a scorer too. I would also argue it is in Clarkson’s best interests to be as well rounded a player as possible, which means continuing to grow as both a scorer and a distributor.
None of this is to say Clarkson is a bad player — he clearly is not. If he can hold his three point percentage at above 35% for the season while continuing to score somewhat efficiently from 2-point range (both of which seem like a lock), he will continue to be a viable scoring option regardless of the type of offense he plays in. Add in his athleticism and individual shot creation ability and he has a nice skill set any smart team can effectively mine to boost a lineup.
Add to all this his hard work and self awareness on what his weaknesses are — in a recent interview he noted he wanted to focus on improving his defense and playmaking for others — and there is little not to like about his approach or his want to do the right things to improve.
I also do not want to undersell Clarkson’s ability to make plays for others — he certainly can be a good assist man and has shown to have a good chemistry with Russell this year as both a ball handler and off-ball worker. And, no matter which way you cut his numbers, Clarkson has been a bright spot for these Lakers via his consistency and approach to playing, practicing, and putting in the extra work.
However, I would be lying if I did not say his improvement — and in some areas, lack thereof — has gone by unnoticed by me. Maybe this ins’t a big deal for a second year pro who isn’t in the most ideal situation in terms of offensive system and switching between positions. Those factors certainly add needed context to the discussion. But it is a discussion worth having nonetheless.