"Yeah, his numbers look nice, but is he a looter in a riot?"
The preceding question was the second most frequent starting point of the discussion surrounding the ascent of Jordan Clarkson last season, being just narrowly edged out by "Wait, the Wizards sold him for how much in cash?" The question was inevitable. NBA history is littered with the names of guys who put up big numbers on bad teams simply because someone had to score, assist, or rebound. Now, much of the discussion centers on how Clarkson must prove he is the real deal, that he can produce on a good (or at least better) team.
The only potential problem with this is the way we value NBA production. With the infusion of talent the Los Angeles Lakers experienced during the offseason, it seems unlikely Clarkson will get quite as many opportunities as he did while averaging 16.7 points, 5.4 assists, and 4.6 rebounds after the All-Star break. Clarkson's usage rate over that period was 24.4, which, if it was prorated over the entire NBA season, would have put him just behind Chris Paul's 24.8.
With the additions of rookie D'Angelo Russell and free agent Lou Williams, combined with the return of Kobe Bryant (who posted a monstrous 34.3 usage rate in 2014), Clarkson getting to use 24.4 percent of the Lakers' possessions probably is not going to happen. Instead of looking for Clarkson to improve upon his raw per game numbers from a season ago, the focus should be on the sophomore guard's efficiency.
There is reason to hope Clarkson can have success by this metric. He shot an impressive 47.9 percent from the field post All-Star Break even while being force-fed possessions, oftentimes the only creator on the floor for a moribund Lakers squad. Even more impressively, Clarkson somehow shot nearly 60 percent at the rim on a team that was 25th in three-point attempts, meaning he still finished well around the basket even with a notable lack of spacing, His shot chart is impressive for any player in the role he took on through the end of the season:
Clarkson also was very good in the dying art of the mid-range game (shooting 46.2 percent, per NBA.com), as Sport's Illustrated's Rob Mahoney expertly covered, including this encouraging stat:
The calculus is different for Clarkson. While operating out of the high pick-and-roll last season, Clarkson made an impressive 50.7% of his jumpers off the dribble, per Synergy Sports, the majority of which came within the three-point arc. What should be an empty, inefficient attempt doesn't have to be when a player tailors his game to creating it and most defenses systemically oblige him.
While Clarkson will see less raw opportunities for these types of shots in '15-16, there is no reason that he could not maintain or even improve his efficiency in such areas now that he is not the primary focus of defenses geared towards stopping him.
The main shooting number Clarkson will need to focus on improving is his three-point percentage, a sub-par 31.3 percent in his rookie season. With the ball in his hands less as the shooting guard, Clarkson will get his fair share of spot-up opportunities this season. This will be a large change from his rookie year, in which Clarkson was only assisted on 34.5 percent of his field goals, being forced to create the rest for himself. This is the next key phase in Clarkson's development: if he can turn himself into a three-point shooting threat, then the Lakers have a really special player on their hands. A lot of that evaluation will come down to if Clarkson can knock down the increased amount open and assisted threes he'll be seeing, especially with Russell's prolific passing.
One last offensive area Clarkson may be able to improve is his turnovers. Clarkson was not a typical turnover prone rookie last season by any means. His post All-Star break assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3 would have ranked him 36th in the NBA if prorated over the entire season, just ahead of the San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker and right behind fellow rookie Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics. But still, with the benefit of lessened attention, Clarkson should look to cut down on the 10.3 percent of the time he did turn the ball over, even if it is only a small improvement.
On the defensive side of things, if Lakers head coach Byron Scott decides to play Clarkson alongside both Bryant and Russell to start games, Clarkson will have to improve. Defensive rating isn't a perfect statistic, but Clarkson's individual rating of 109.3 was worse than the team's average of 107.3 (both numbers taken from after the All-Star break). Some of that has to do with playing against starters, but it also has to be affected by Clarkson knowing he had to save some energy for the offensive end of the floor. With more shot creators on the Lakers in 2015, and a year of NBA experience under his belt, Clarkson should be able to improve on defense in his sophomore campaign if he sets his mind to it.
So while Clarkson could still be in for a breakout season, we may have to look at the way we measure that breakout. It won't be in looking for big scoring games and high raw box score stats. It will be looking for small improvements in the margins, an uptick in three-point percentage here, and a small drop in turnovers there. If Clarkson can manage to tick a couple of these boxes, then his season will be a clear success