Los Angeles Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell has returned to the lineup after missing a dozen games due to a knee injury. The team played poorly in his absence, losing confidence and swagger along with a lot of games, resulting in a tailspin from which the team has not yet recovered even though Russell is back.
The player the Lakers needed most to step up in Russell’s absence was Jordan Clarkson. It was a golden opportunity for Clarkson to showcase marked improvement in this, his third NBA season. He was counted on to lead the team and play big minutes, and he finally rejoined the starting lineup after coming off the bench with the second unit all season. Unfortunately, Clarkson chose that moment to play the worst basketball of his career, and his reputation has suffered for it.
Clarkson broke into the league in an unexpected way. He dropped to No. 46 in the 2014 NBA Draft after he was projected on some boards to go in the first round. With a chip on his shoulder, he started off strong in his very first Summer League performance, and he continued to look good on the rare occasions that former coach Byron Scott played him the first half of the season. His big opportunity came when Kobe Bryant was lost for the year in January, and Clarkson never looked back.
He finished the 2014-15 NBA season as arguably the best rookie in the league not named Andrew Wiggins. He outshined other point guards who were drafted ahead of him, and his athleticism made people believe that NBA scouts had fumbled their evaluation of him. Although he played only half a season, he was a first-team All-Rookie selection when the year ended, and his future as a point guard looked very bright.
Things changed quickly and unexpectedly when the Lakers made Russell the No. 2 selection in the draft just a few months later. With other good prospects available, that the Lakers selected a point guard with their high pick, so soon after Clarkson’s outstanding first season, seemed odd the time. Either the Lakers thought Russell would become a once-in-a-generation point guard or they didn’t feel point guard was Clarkson’s best long-term position. Either way, if Clarkson were to survive and flourish, he would have to conform his game to Russell’s and play a subservient role.
One of the biggest questions for the Lakers going into last season, and again this year, was whether Clarkson and Russell could complement one another and excel on the court together. Unfortunately, the results are still, at best, inconclusive. Last year was such a mess in all areas that it was hard to judge, but Russell and Clarkson never really shined at the same time. Still, Clarkson finished the year as the Lakers best player, starting all 79 games in which he played and leading the team in minutes.
Clarkson is known for being a hard worker during the offseason, so he came into this season, as usual, in great shape and ready to go after signing a big contract extension. It was presumed that Luke Walton’s fast-paced offense would be ideal for the speedy Clarkson and that he would start in the backcourt alongside the more deliberate Russell. But in a big surprise, Clarkson was asked to play point guard for the second unit instead of starting.
If he was bothered by the demotion, he never showed it. After all, more important than starting games is finishing them and playing significant minutes overall, which more often than not he has done. Although his minutes are below what he averaged last year, he has still, thus far, played 29 minutes a night to lead the team in that category.
Of greater concern is that his production is down. He is averaging 13.3 points per game (compared with 15.5 last year) while making only 43 percent of his shots overall and a poor 29 percent from three-point range. He is grabbing only 2.9 rebounds per game and dishing out 2.3 assists per contest. His PER rating of 13.27 ranks a very disappointing 11th among players on the Lakers’ roster. These numbers are all below his averages of last year, which were only slightly better than his statistics in his rookie season.
With Russell out for an extended period, it was Clarkson’s time to take over and prove that he is a future star who deserves to be a starting NBA guard. It was a perfect opportunity, but he fumbled it. His shooting percentage dropped along with his assists, rebounds, steals, and overall defense, while his turnovers increased. He played reckless and out of control far too often, something which is usually corrected by good players after their rookie season.
One indicator of Clarkson’s progress (or lack thereof) is to compare him to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine, who entered the league the same year as Clarkson and plays a similar style of basketball. LaVine was not a full-time starter until this year, but he has taken a huge leap from year to year. LaVine is three years younger than Clarkson having joined the NBA after one college season. This year, as a starter, he is playing 37.7 minutes per contest and scoring 20.5 points per game on nearly 47.2 percent shooting and 37.3 percent from three-point range. He is making 87 percent of his free throws while averaging 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. At age 21, Levine is on the cusp of stardom in his third season, while, if one is going to be honest, Clarkson is floundering.
No one wants to give up on Clarkson. He is exciting on the court and likable off of it. You know he really cares about the team and his teammates, and about winning.
But if things do not change soon, it may be too late to alter peoples’ diminishing expectations for him, and it may be time to re-evaluate his potential ceiling which was once thought to be quite high. Clarkson has played a lot of minutes in this three NBA seasons but does not seem to be improving much, or at all, and he is not as young as Russell, Randle and Ingram so he has less time to grow. Right now, the entire team is in a funk, just as Clarkson is down, but let’s hope both mount a comeback during the current Lakers’ road trip.