UNIVERSAL CITY — The Los Angeles Lakers have their fans as excited for their games to start as Harry Potter fans waiting for the latest book or movie in the series. The team’s 4-3 start, featuring the upset of the season so far in their win over the Golden State Warriors, has featured improved play on both ends on the floor.
More importantly, the Lakers are fun again.
The team appears to be enjoying life as much as their rabid fanbase. This much is clear as shooting guard Jordan Clarkson makes his way through Universal Studios with an entourage and two lucky fans who won the opportunity to spend a few hours in the park with him though Delta’s DreamHunt.
Clarkson (a well-known theme park junkie) is in his element here. He dances through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the melody of the Hogwarts Frog Choir and takes swigs from a Butter Beer, giving off the air of contentment of a man totally enjoying his position in life.
"Last year, it was a tough season,” Clarkson told Silver Screen and Roll. “This year we're having fun, going out there and just playing like we're kids out in the park, playing free. It's just a whole new vibe."
That new vibe being a good one wasn’t necessarily a guarantee. The Lakers are rolling currently, but they weren’t projected to be a good team this season, and losing doesn’t create a breeding ground for positivity.
There was also the possibility for Clarkson to chafe at being asked to come off of the bench before even playing a regular season game under the new four-year, $50 million contract he signed over the offseason. Not every player would have accepted what could be seen as a demotion from a new coach without so much as a peep, but the shift came easily for Clarkson.
"I'm comfortable with it. I feel like it's helping our team,” Clarkson said. “It's a sacrifice I had to make for us to win games and be competitive. I think we have one of the best benches in the league, and that gives our team a big boost. We lead the league in scoring off the bench right now, so it's a cool thing that we've embraced."
Clarkson says the decision came out of a simple conversation with Walton, and it’s hard to argue the move hasn’t helped the team. In addition to allowing Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell unbridled dominance over the ball with the first unit, it’s made the Clarkson the fulcrum of the Lakers’ bench scoring attack. It’s a role he’s flourished in, scoring 14.1 points per game off the pine on a career-high 45.7 percent shooting.
The team has also won four of their first seven games after not getting their fourth win until Game 18 a season ago. Does that level of success make it easier to embrace a bench role?
"For sure,” says Clarkson. “Because if we was losing then that means it isn't working.”
It’s not only been working, but it’s been fun to watch the team mix-and-match lineups on their way to an unexpectedly hot start. The victories and fun-and-gun style of play has started to gain the Lakers more fans nationally and has reinvigorated the local die-hards, but the team is still not as immediately recognizable in public as they were during their championship years.
Aside from a few fans taking pictures or the man in a Kobe Bryant Lower Merion high school jersey snapping a photo while telling Clarkson he should be starting, the Lakers’ third-highest paid player is able to move through the park with just a single security guard as part of his retinue. The 6’5, athletic guard is tall, but not so exceptionally so as to scream to non-NBA fans “professional basketball player,” and he’s able to take selfies with the contest winner and a Dora the Explorer mascot with little fanfare.
This seems to be the way he likes it, even if he can’t help but get a little rambunctious and photobomb an unsuspecting couple who seem to have no idea that they just got a picture many Lakers fans (including the guy in the Kobe jersey mentioned above) would beg for.
“They probably just thought I was somebody that worked in the park," shrugs Clarkson.
If the Lakers continue to grow at their current pace, Clarkson won’t be able to sneak through Universal Studios so easily in the future, but that’s a concern for another day.
For now, after a year as part of the circus that was the Kobe Bryant Retirement Tour™, Clarkson is just happy for the chance for the Lakers youth movement to create their own vibe.
“Kobe deserved everything he got last year because of all the work, all the championships, all that grind he put in,” Clarkson said. “We're just creating our own space now."
All quotes obtained firsthand, and all stats per NBA.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here and listen to Clarkson’s interview on the show below), and you can follow him on Twitter at@hmfaigen.