After three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Jordan Clarkson’s head has to be spinning. Billed as a combo guard coming out of college, his ability to switch between two positions is a blessing for a Lakers team in need of flexibility, but it’s also caused his role to shift dramatically from one season to the next.
The Lakers purchased the 46th pick in the 2014 draft from the Washington Wizards for $1.8 million, which was then a fairly hefty price for a pick in that range. They used it to select Clarkson, and after showing some flashes early, in January of 2015, he made Los Angeles look brilliant for making the move.
Taking over as the team’s starting point guard, Clarkson posted averages of 15.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 5.0 assists en route to earning himself a spot on the First-Team All-Rookie squad that year.
It appeared as though the Lakers had their point guard of the future, but the selection of D’Angelo Russell in the 2015 NBA Draft pushed Clarkson to the shooting guard position more often than not. That, coupled with the return of Kobe Bryant to the starting lineup, created a down season for Clarkson.
By last summer, the idea took hold that Clarkson would be best-suited as a super sub off the bench, coming into games to inject a pace and scoring when the team needed a boost.
New coach Luke Walton obliged by moving a resurgent Nick Young into the starting shooting guard spot, leaving Clarkson to manage the second string. However, his role was usurped by Lou Williams, leaving Clarkson to get by on whatever scraps were left over after Williams had his meal. Late in the season, he went full circle when Walton used him as the starting point guard for the home stretch.
Now it has been three years, and there still isn’t much clarity on what, exactly, Clarkson’s best role with the team will be.
Magic Johnson, who is entering his first full season as the Lakers President of Basketball Operations, has already challenged Clarkson to become a 6th Man of the Year candidate next season.
His versatility–once again, a blessing and a curse– means that Walton can potentially deploy Clarkson in a backcourt featuring Clarkson at shooting guard next to Tyler Ennis or one with him at point guard next to someone like Josh Hart or Corey Brewer.
In the former option, Clarkson would have a good chunk of the playmaking burden taken off of his shoulders by Ennis, but in the latter, the second unit would largely live or die by his ability to create shots for others.
A final decision on his role won’t be made until training camp at the earliest, and in all likelihood, he will be asked to both facilitate and score at some point this season, which isn’t an easy task.
Given a role to call his own, Clarkson has the potential to be an impact player.
He has shown a slithery ability to get to the rim, darting by defenders the moment they lean the wrong way. He has a pull-up jump shot from mid-range that is accurate enough to keep teams honest and can also make acceptable reads out of the pick and roll.
Clarkson isn’t going to make next-level passes like Chris Paul or fire cross-court rockets like John Wall, but he can find open shooters in the corner or hit the roll man with some regularity. On a Lakers team that badly wants to space the floor, that’s a vital skill.
That said, while his play on the floor passes the eye test, digging deeper unearths some disturbing statistical artifacts.
Despite his ability to get into the paint, Clarkson shot the second-lowest number of free throws of any guard who at least equaled his minutes, shooting a career-low two per game. Good scorers find ways to manufacture points at the foul line, and Clarkson’s inability to do so is a cause for some concern.
He also had the sixth-worst three-point percentage among his peers, which is another efficiency-killer. The modern, pace-and-space NBA has been built around threes, layups, and free throws, and Clarkson struggles in two of those areas.
He often gets burned defensively and negates his own quick feet by taking the wrong angle or gambling at the wrong time.
The third year is typically when guards truly adapt to the NBA, but Clarkson regressed, sliding further away from the unquestioned success he had as a rookie.
That’s not to say that all has been lost. The talent and athleticism are there for Clarkson to be a key contributor, and if Lonzo Ball and Brook Lopez can help morph the offense into a spacing utopia, then Clarkson could turn things around very quickly.
Of course, even a bounce-back year may not be enough to save Clarkson’s place in Los Angeles. With the Lakers hell-bent on signing two max players next summer, he could find himself a trade casualty of the quest for cap space.
Still, there are a few paths that the Lakers can pursue to get to two max slots, and a successful season from Clarkson could go a long way towards convincing them that trading him is not a road they want to travel.