If you believe in the theory of multiple universes, then in at least one, there is a version of the Lakers' '14-15 season in which the Washington Wizards decided holding on to Jordan Clarkson was more valuable than cash. Julius Randle was still lost in the season opener, Kobe Bryant did not make it to the All-Star break, and Ronnie Price was starting point guard for an extended period of time.
If Clarkson had not been available to be dug out from the bottom of Byron Scott's rotation, the last 30 games of the 2014-15 Lakers campaign would have been a mostly joyless experience. I, for one, am glad we do not have to live through that barren, positivity starved Lakers campaign.
The spark of excitement that is Clarkson's recent play has led to some out-sized expectations (search "Clarkson Westbrook" on Twitter for a laugh), which it may be time to temper. But I decided to look into the numbers behind another 22 year old rookie point guard -- Damian Lillard's first season -- compared them to Clarkson, and came away mostly excited for Clarkson's future prospects. (h/t to Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold for the idea).
Jordan Clarkson is the not the next Damian Lillard, but the fact you can look at the per-36 minutes numbers from their rookie seasons and come away without Clarkson (the 46th overall pick) being completely blown out of the water by Lillard (the sixth-overall pick and Rookie of the Year award winner) is certainly exciting.
Clarkson has snagged marginally more rebounds, while Lillard dished slightly more assists and scored a bit more. Lillard also shot threes more often and at a much higher percentage, while both players got to the free-throw line and converted at comparable rates. Overall Lillard rates out better, but it isn't a landslide, which is a huge win for the Lakers in exchange for nothing but the spare change they found in Jim Buss' couch.
So have the basketball gods blessed the Lakers with their own version of Damian Lillard as a reward for the real one (accidentally) breaking Nash's leg and destroying any hope of the "Now This is Going to Be Fun" team working out? It is a bit more complicated than that.
The above chart shows the advanced metrics for the two point guards in their rookie years. Clarkson's higher rebounding rate mirrors the per-36 minute numbers, but the AST% is a far bigger disparity in favor of Lillard. The cold blooded Blazer's guard assisted on 28.8 percent of all field goals while he was on the floor, almost exactly ten percent more than Clarkson (19 percent). This despite Lillard's usage rate (24.2 percent of his team's plays used while he was on the floor) being only a little over 2 percent higher than Clarkson's (21.9).
In his lower usage, Clarkson has turned over the ball a lower percentage of the time than Lillard did as a rookie. This is especially encouraging when factoring in Lillard had the privilege of playing with Lamarcus Aldridge versus Clarkson playing with big men who's hands are elaborate promotional tie-ins for the Buttery Jack from Jack in the Box.
Clarkson is also fairing pretty well when he decides not to pass the ball, as you can see by taking a peek at his heat map (per Basketball Reference)
That confirms what the majority of pre-draft scouting reports said about Clarkson's game; he has a knack for getting to the rim, finishes well when he gets there, and a sprinkling of green to demonstrate that he has potential to become a consistent three point shooter.. All of this despite the almost non-existent spacing and playmaking the rest of the Lakers offense provides.
Now look at Lillard's from his rookie campaign:
FLAMES! FLAMES EVERYWHERE!
What Lillard setting the court on fire and the rest of these statistics demonstrate is obvious: Clarkson is unlikely to develop into the same caliber player as Lillard or any of the other upper echelon point guards. Jordan is in an offensive system that emphasizes long-twos and doesn't generate many open looks from deep, but that's a steep difference in shooting touch.
Does that mean the former Mizzou Tiger cannot be a contributor for the Lakers for years to come? Of course not, if he continues to work hard and develop, it's easy to envision Clarkson being the latest in a pantheon of memorable Lakers role players. Not every draft pick is a home run, and future picks have been comically overvalued at times in recent years, but what Clarkson's rookie season shows is that it is better to have a draft pick and take a swing than it is to give up your at bat in exchange for some money to use at the concession stand.
Just something to keep in mind as the end of the season rapidly approaches, and the Lakers hover so perilously close to edge between losing and retaining their lottery pick.