When the Los Angeles Lakers acquired the draft rights to Jordan Clarkson from the Washington Wizards for a reported $1.8 million, he was mostly seen as an afterthought by fans who were entranced with the higher pedigree of Julius Randle. That is understandable, after all, how much could realistically be expected from the rookie season of the 46th overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft?
Then Julius Randle was lost for the year less than a game into his NBA career, and Clarkson became the only young player of any interest or future value to a team that would set the mark as the worst Lakers team of all-time. Clarkson sat for the majority of the year until making his first start just before the All-Star break against the San Antonio Spurs, scoring 11 points and dishing four assists in just over 29 minutes of playing time.
Clarkson took some time to gain his bearings, but after spending the All-Star break working out with future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash, the overlooked second-rounder came back to work with a vengeance. He averaged 16.7 points and 5.4 assists per game while shooting 47.9 percent from the field after the All-Star break on his way to first team All-Rookie honors. Such efficiency while using 24.4 percent of the Lakers' possessions on a team with few other players who could create their own shot was surprising for everyone. Everyone except Jordan, that is.
"I feel like I was one of the better point guards in the draft, maybe the best," Clarkson said in his first interview from the Lakers practice facility after the team selected him. When asked if he was going to try and make the teams who passed on him pay, Clarkson was polite, but the fire in his eyes was unmistakable. "Oh yes sir, I'm just going to come here and work hard and try and be the best player I can be."
Such words could be easily seen as the standard athlete spewed, PR coached platitudes; but Clarkson has backed up that talk, from spending his All-Star break training with a legend while others often take a step back to playing on the Lakers' Las Vegas Summer League team when he easily could have sat out after such an accomplished rookie season.
Exhibition games in Las Vegas were not the only offseason work Jordan put in, either. Lakers' athletic trainer Tim DiFrancesco describes Clarkson as "a true gym rat" who spent his offseason adding muscle and going for beachfront runs to get in even better shape. When Clarkson wasn't in the weight room or working on his conditioning, he and his personal trainer Drew Hanlan and Lakers assistant coach Thomas Scott were working on the technical aspects of his game.
When the Lakers drafted point guard D'Angelo Russell with the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, most analysts agreed that Clarkson would have to improve his three-point shooting in order for the two to have any hope of being a long-term fit. Together with Scott and Hanlan, Clarkson went to work on a process he described as "reconstructing my shot." After shooting just 31.4 percent on threes over his rookie campaign, Clarkson says he mainly worked on improving his balance while shooting.
"Sometimes you can't determine if you are going to fade or not. Sometimes it just happens in the game when you're in the air, but as many times as I can get my feet set, I'm just trying to stay squared and keep my feet pointed towardthe basket," Clarkson explained to Lakers Reporter Mike Trudell before the team's night win over the Washington Wizards. "We put a lot of work and time in this summer and I think it's showing off right now."
When looking at the tape, this appears to be true. Jordan is drifting less on his long-range attempts compared to last, and his shot looks more fundamentally sound:
The results are obvious to anyone who has watched the Lakers or is capable of reading a box score. Clarkson's offseason work has manifested in an improved his three-point stroke, currently setting fire to nets at 41.3 percent (nearly a 10 percent improvement that is good for 23rd in league among players taking more than three attempts per game), which has improved his field goal percentage (47.2 percent) as well. He additionally boasts the best net rating (-8.6, remember, this team is bad) among starters by two points per 100 possessions.
Clarkson's efficiency increase has come in decreased usage from the second half of last season (21.5 percent usage rate this year), but also while learning a new position and generally drawing the team's toughest perimeter defensive assignment. His coaches are starting to take notice:
Byron Scott said Jordan Clarkson has been the "absolute bright spot" this season, that he's clearly improved upon a strong rookie year.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) December 2, 2015
Player development coach and Time Warner Cable analyst James Worthy agrees. "He knew he was better than 46 in his mind. And this kid works, man, every time I see him he's looking at video or working on something new."
Perhaps the most impressive and optimism inducing aspect of Clarkson's season is that he is not satisfied just being the "bright spot' on two of the worst Los Angeles Lakers teams ever. "I'm just trying to come out here and help the team and impact the game any way I can," says Clarkson. "If that's scoring, rebounding, or getting stops and getting steals. I'm really not even looking at myself individually, I'm trying to get wins."
Jordan is a relatively shy second-rounder who scores in a smooth if unspectacular style, still needs to improve defensively, and plays on one of the worst teams in the league. He shares a starting lineup with two much more heralded lottery picks and arguably the greatest Laker of all-time. All of these factors work against him getting the recognition he deserves as the team's best and most consistent player.
Clarkson's proving he is no mere "looter in riot;" a player putting up numbers on a bad team. Yes, he has gotten more opportunities on the Lakers than he would have on most teams, but it's a guarantee teams regret overlooking the former Tiger on draft night.
"The number really doesn't matter where you get drafted, it's about the fit," Clarkson said after the Lakers acquired him. The Lakers have asked Clarkson to fit in a number of roles, from desperation starter to first option point guard in his first year, to shooting guard who sometimes runs point with the second unit in his sophomore campaign. Jordan has never complained, using the opportunities to prove himself and already far outlive his draft status. Clarkson is the real deal, and his own hard work proves it's not all about the fit.
All quotes not specifically cited were transcribed via Time Warner Cable SportsNet.