Down in the dark cellar that the Los Angeles Lakers spent the majority of their season in, one man stood as the light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn't Julius Randle, as many had hoped. It wasn't Kobe Bryant, who once again was forced to the sidelines through most of the season. It was a rookie guard Mitch Kupchak acquired for only cash considerations. Jordan Clarkson put up arguably the best rookie season in Lakers' modern history, exploding onto the scene once he became a starter just before the All-Star break.
Clarkson didn't have the type of name recognition, or hype, that players like Marcus Smart or Dante Exum had headed into the draft. It appeared that wasn't going to change as the season progressed and Clarkson was served a hefty dose of DNP-CDs. Jordan's season can essentially be split into two sections -- before starting, and after starting. Clarkson's first start was Jan. 23 and he lined up with the front five from that point until the season finale, which he missed with an ankle injury. What he did in those 38 starts, though, puts him in lofty rookie guard company.
Players like Chris Paul, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Reggie Theus and Michael Carter-Williams pepper a list of rookie guards that averaged at least 16 points and 5 assists per game, via Basketball-Reference. That's what Clarkson sustained from the moment he became the Lakers' starting point guard. Suddenly, Los Angeles has an emerging player handpicked through the draft. Suddenly, questions pop up whether the franchise should use their top-five pick on one of the two lusty point guards in D'Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay, should they be in position to land either of them. What really matters, though, is the Lakers struck oil and finally have a talent all their own to work with. A little cautious optimism and perspective could go a long way in making the most of it, though.
It's hard to take away a real understanding of how good a player is and how he affects his teammates, especially one like Clarkson, who was allowed a great amount of freedom on a bad Lakers team. Post All-Star, the Lakers were actually outscored 5.7 points per 100 possessions when Jordan was on the floor, according to NBA.com. The offense stayed roughly the same, but the defense suffered during Clarkson's minutes. This isn't to pin the issues on Jordan, but to show how skewed the Lakers' efficiency ratings were as one of the worst teams in the NBA. It's near impossible to look at Clarkson's impact under that scope.
Let's go to the books, then, where the Lakers will finally have some breathing room this summer. Clarkson's salary is an affordable $845,059 for the '15-'16 season, and he'll be a restricted free agent with the Lakers heading into the summer of '16 once the team offers him a qualifying offer worth $1.2 million. Jordan Clarkson is a cost-controlled talent at a position the Lakers have searched far and wide to find answers for. That alone makes it a winning situation for the Lakers.
That winning situation doesn't come without some complication, though. If the best move available for the Lakers is to add another point guard to their roster -- whether through the draft, free agency, or trade -- the emergence of Clarkson should not deter them. The Lakers need talent beyond the starting lineup, and having a one-two punch of Jordan and either Russell or Mudiay could make for a devastating combination. Further, the Lakers could play a combination of the guards together, which could be a productive way to monitor Kobe Bryant's minutes next season.
The Lakers need talent at every position, including the bench. The purple and gold are heading into an unknown era and Clarkson excites because, for the first time in a long time, the team drafted a player that unquestionably belongs in the rotation. Should he be the undisputed starting point guard going forward, though? Clarkson has deservedly received what seems like endless praise, including a great breakdown from our very own Ben Rosales on why he should be a first team All-Rookie selection, but that doesn't mean the Lakers should go all-in just because the first card they were dealt was a face card. There are a plethora of scenarios that can play out still, and the Lakers have real options in front of them.
If Clarkson is the real deal, he'll continue proving it on the court. The Lakers can confidently take the next step in integrating Jordan into their rebuild once he consistently does so. Maybe that role will be as an electric sixth man. Maybe he'll be the lead point guard for the Lakers over the next decade. Maybe he'll look even better once the Lakers get their act together. Maybe he'll start next to someone not named Kobe Bryant, and maybe they'll become a dual-threat backcourt that blazes a new future.
It's easy to be intoxicated by the bright side after being caught in the muck of Lakerdom over the last few seasons, but it's fair to ask about things going the other way. Maybe Clarkson doesn't build on this season. Maybe he struggles to play off-ball with Kobe back, or any additional backcourt talent brought in. Maybe the holes in his game are exposed and exploited once teams actually hone in on him.
Heck, maybe Jordan Clarkson's value to the Lakers isn't as a player, but as a trade chip. Clarkson's outstanding play pushes him into territory not often uncovered by this team. He's an actual asset on the market, and if you really want to get weird, the Lakers' cabinet is stocked with tradable goods. Let your imagination run wild and maybe it's Clarkson's sophomore season that makes that top-five talent point guard an expandable, high-value trade asset.
That's to say, despite how much we've seen and want to believe, there's still no telling where Jordan Clarkson's future is heading. The signs are there, evident immediately when watching him play. His great length and explosive speed. His ability to sink off-the-dribble jumpers coming off of screens. His affinity in attacking the rim. All of these aspects of his game make him a worthwhile investment for the Lakers, and if he continues improving how effective he is in those areas, he'll be a dynamic threat in the NBA. We're all on a journey into the unknown, and it's exciting to consider the possibilities.
In the depths of this ugly season the team actually crushed coal to turn it into a diamond before it was all said and done. For that alone, Jordan Clarkson was far and away the best thing about the 2014-2015 Lakers.