At the beginning of this season, there was little doubt that nearly all eyes in Lakersland were turned towards Julius Randle, the first top-ten selection for the Lakers in nearly a decade and hopefully a harbinger of better things to come. He may very well still fill the latter role, but at the time, his injury seemingly ripped out all of the joy of this season. Yes, the Lakers were going to be horrible one way or another under the auspices of an underwhelming coach, but at least we would get to see Randle develop, go through his necessary growing pains, and ultimately show us tantalizing flashes of the player we hope he can turn into. Without him, Lakers fans were left with the unfortunate reality of cheering for a team almost devoid of young players that nevertheless was going to play bad basketball and lose an awful lot of games.
And indeed, for a good portion of this season, that was what Lakers fans received: Byron Scott's inability to recognize that basketball has progressed past the 90s and poor play from veterans who have no future on the team. There was perhaps some small clamor for Jordan Clarkson, who was viewed as a great value selection for the Lakers in the second round and had shown some promising signs in summer league, to get a bit of playing time, if only because he was supplanted by Ronnie Price of all people in the rotation. At that time, however, the expectation was merely that in a season that was clearly lost from its inception, we would rather have Clarkson taking his bumps than a panoply of veterans it was difficult to care about.
If you told the average fan in October that Clarkson would average 15.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game on a 52.1 TS% in the month of March, they would have probably laughed in your face. If you told that same fan that Clarkson would be second in PER (15.98) among all rookies in a draft class that was hailed as one of the best in years, you would have justifiably gotten a similar reaction. If you finished by informing that fan that Clarkson would be the player causing endless consternation for Lakers tank advocates by winning a critical game against Philadelphia and putting up a line that a Lakers rookie hasn't done since Jerry West and Elgin Baylor did so over a half-century ago, you probably should have been committed.
Yet here we are, with arguably the second or third best player so far in the 2014 NBA Draft. We'll talk another time about how Mitch Kupchak has quietly done quite a decent job assembling the undercurrents of a young core -- Ryan Kelly, Tarik Black, Jabari Brown, Randle, and Clarkson, namely -- this season and last despite starting with nothing in 2013, but at the moment, Clarkson is probably due an honor that a Laker hasn't received since Kobe Bryant and Travis Knight did so in 1997: All-Rookie team. In fact, Clarkson likely deserves what no Laker has done since Eddie Jones in being selected to first team All-Rookie.
To offer some context for this, here are the top 15 rookies, ranked by PER:
Clarkson has a slight disadvantage in raw win shares because it's a counting statistic and he's played fewer games than most of the list -- for instance, if one uses win shares per 48 minutes, he's fifth in this list behind Mirotic, Noel, Black, and Nurkic and basically dead even with Smart -- but it's helpful here since it accounts for defense and illuminates some of the players that would be shortchanged by PER such as Noel and Smart. It also indicates that there's a fairly clear top tier of this class in Mirotic and Noel, who will be joined by the Rookie of the Year presumptive in Wiggins even if the statistics here aren't quite as kind to him as the national narrative is.
That gives us Clarkson, Nurkic, Payton, and Smart angling for the remaining two spots on the first team. With all respect to how loved Black is by win shares, there's practically no chance he's remotely in contention for at least the first team as far as practical concerns go. Anyhow, Nurkic has the issue of his PER being largely buoyed by his impressive rebounding, and nearly all of the love he gets from win shares is on the defensive end. He's otherwise a rather poor offensive player, as his 48.9 TS% points to, and he plays a much smaller role in Denver than the three guards do on their respective teams at the moment. A similar complaint could be leveled against Smart, who is arguably the best defensive player in this class along with Noel, but he has been a walking disaster on offense ever since his hot three-point shooting died down.
Smart very well might still deserve a spot on the back of his defense, but at the moment, his offense is in the sink and Payton and Clarkson are on the upswing, both putting up some impressive numbers as of late. Should Smart finish stronger and improve his offensive numbers, this could be quite a different consideration. At any rate, that gives us a first team of Mirotic, Noel, Wiggins, Payton, and Clarkson, quite a different set of players on this list than most imagined at the start of the year. And regardless of whether Clarkson ultimately makes it to the first team, it's quite the accomplishment for the only player in that bunch who wasn't selected in the first round -- and if we discount Mirotic, the top ten -- to be even mentioned in this discussion.
As a final note, one could also make a strong case for Black getting onto the second team. If we presume Smart and Nurkic land on the second team by default, that leaves us with a motley assortment of players to go through and Black runs laps around the remaining field whether using PER or win shares. A few can also likely be removed from consideration: McDaniels has unfortunately been buried on the bench since being traded to Houston, Gordon hasn't yet played 40 games in this season, and Hood has a similar problem of only having 43 games under his belt despite mounting a late charge this season. Of the remaining bunch, Black, Galloway, and Bogdanovic are likely the most deserving, but it's quite the crapshoot at this juncture. Zach LaVine of all people could get a nod despite lackluster statistics (10.02 PER, -1.1 win shares) because he's the most recognizable name there.
In any case, as the mere fact this discussion exists alludes to, Kupchak has been quietly decent at gathering serviceable players in the second round and beyond as of late -- as to the surprise of no one except Byron, Kelly actually looks competent if he plays at his natural position -- and it bodes well for the Lakers since they'll have multiple selections this upcoming draft. Tanking considerations notwithstanding, the Lakers were once utterly bereft of hope this season when Randle went down and Clarkson went a long way towards restoring that faith.
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