This has been an unusual season for the Lakers. Instead of chasing a championship, their focus is on keeping the top five protected pick they owe the 76ers (via the Suns) and developing young talent that could give them depth for cheap. It was unfortunate that Julius Randle got hurt, but they got the chance to kick the tires on Ed Davis, who looks like a solid player, and the opportunity to see what Ryan Kelly could do. It was a productive year in terms of assessing the potential of big guys that could give the team some minutes next season, when it will be looking to make the playoffs.
In the wing and the backcourt, however, it was a different story. Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin and Nick Young were slotted to get most of the minutes, which suggested no young player was going to break through and emerge as an option going forward. That’s why the recent play from rookie Jordan Clarkson is such a welcomed sight. Since the All-Star break, the 22-year-old guard is averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists in almost 30 minutes per game. Those are impressive numbers that could mean he’s an unlikely long-term piece for a Los Angeles team in dire need of affordable talent.
The most noteworthy thing about Clarkson’s stats is that he’s carrying a huge offensive load while accruing them. His usage percentage is the highest among rookies who have cracked their team’s rotations, ahead of Andrew Wiggins and Nikola Mirotic. Yet, he has managed to remain reasonably efficient as a scorer and passable as a playmaker, especially considering he’s a combo guard at heart. He’s a very good pick-and-roll player already and there’s a case for him to get a slot on the All-Rookie First Team right now, which calls for a reevaluation of his ceiling as a player. Late second-rounders rarely go on to become good NBA players, but Clarkson might beat the odds.
Clarkson is older than most other rookies so he lacks the tantalizing potential others boast, but with only small improvements, he could have a long career. The biggest flaw in his game right now is his lack of a dependable outside shot. He’s decent from mid-range but is shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc, an unacceptable number. There’s reason for optimism, however, in his 34.5 percent from the three-point line on catch-and-shoot opportunities, a mark that’s far from elite but suggests there’s room for improvement, at least as a floor spacer.
He has a long way to go on defense, as he simply doesn’t have the speed necessary to guard the league’s premier guards, but is tall enough at 6-feet-5 to become at the very least passable at guarding catch-and- shoot guys. If the Lakers land a perimeter defender who can handle point guards, Clarkson could be hidden, like so many other guards are, on a spot-up shooter instead of having to be on the ball all the time. He’s not disruptive enough to ever be a huge factor on defense, but with time he should be able to clean up the mistakes he makes too often right now.
He’ll get the chance to do that with the Lakers, in all likelihood, because of his favorable contract. He’s on the books for another season at the minimum and his performance suggests he’s more than worth that. Lin has clashed with Byron Scott all season long, and considering he could command a multi-year contract, the Lakers will very likely part ways with him. Bryant wants to play with Rajon Rondo and the Lakers will surely look for an upgrade at lead guard, but Clarkson’s spot on the roster is pretty much guaranteed thanks to how cheap and productive he has been.
So Clarkson has been really good for three months, could be a viable rotation player for a good team with some small improvements and is on an affordable contract that all but eliminates all risk of keeping him around. It truly looks like the Lakers found a gem where they least expected. The only question that remains, then, is can he adjust to a smaller role more fitting to his talent or is he just one of those players who thrives on bad teams that let him control the ball?
It’s not a coincidence that Clarkson’s numbers skyrocketed after Bryant went down. He got minutes and the ball in his hands, but that won’t be the case next season. That’s why his evolution as an off-ball threat is so important and why his pitiful numbers as a cutter (20th percentile in the league, according to Synergy Sports) are so worrying. He should get better with more reps and practice, but he has been a lead ball handler since his college days and it could prove challenging for him to make the right reads as a spot-up player. As good a fit as the Lakers have been for him this year, it all could change once Bryant gets healthy and Clarkson is asked to adjust to a role that’s vastly different from the one in which he has thrived so far.
While there are questions surrounding Clarkson and his future in Los Angeles, his talent is evident. He won’t be a star but he has proved he belongs, which is more than most rookies can say. This lost season will only be salvaged if the Lakers can keep their pick and either draft a cornerstone or flip it for a star. But the emergence of a cheap, young player who could blossom into a quality sixth man is a happy subplot on a year that hasn’t had many for Lakers fans.