The Great Mambino
Over the first 18 games of the season, Jordan Clarkson looked like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. In this third season, the former second-rounder was locked in, pouring in over 15 PPG on 46 percent shooting and 34 percent from downtown. He dropped 18 or more points ten times, almost entirely off the bench. To the fan watching every day, he looked confident within the Lakers’ new offense, and appeared to be one of the most competent of all the young players.
But over the next 17 games? Not so much. His FG% is down to 41 percent, 3P% to 33 percent and PPG to 13.1. It might seem like just a slight downturn in performance, but the eye test paints a more significant picture. Clarkson looks out of sync with the offense he started off melding with so well, forcing shots from the perimeter and looking generally tenuous with his possessions.
Do you see a difference with Clarkson of late? if so, why? If not, why would there be that conception out there? What is his role on this team going forward?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what has hurt Clarkson in the latter stretch. We know it's not about role - Lakers head coach Luke Walton has gone out of his way to maintain lineup balance by keeping the second unit together. We also know it's not about opportunity, as Clarkson has had ample chances to pick up for his injured teammates.
In fact, Clarkson's minutes have been stable (28 MPG in December matches what he averaged in November), but his play hasn't been. Looking at his individual performances, some of Clarkson's best games have been in that stretch (like 25 against Charlotte). But he followed that up with a 4 point, 2-10 stinker. His last five games read like a rollercoaster - 12, 5, 18, 4, and 25.
At this point, I think it comes down to confidence and reps - Walton and his staff need to reinforce the importance of shot selection and flow within the offense. Reviewing game tape, nuts and bolts. Let's just hope Clarkson can get back on track.
Yes, I do see a difference. Clarkson at his best was a secondary ball handler that could play both on the ball and off the ball adeptly while making great decisions. As of recent, he has developed a "tunnel vision", not reacting properly to the defense being played against him and forcing the issue. When Clarkson was moved to the bench, it's very possible that he fell into the "bench scorer" mentality where he wants to make his impact felt in whatever minutes he is given. Like any pro athlete, he's proud, and when he was moved to the bench it would be natural that he would want to have an impact felt every time he's on the floor.
Moving forward, I do think that the team needs more playmaking from him. All of the young players - D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance, Jr. - are being developed to be able to be effective both on and off ball and Jordan needs to come back to what made him such an effective player since he was drafted. Long-term, with a player like Lou Williams and/or Nick Young off the roster, I envision that Jordan Clarkson will be tasked with leading the second units, but his playmaking certainly has to improve to make this a reality.
I don't see it as Clarkson falling off from his solid start; the entire team has fallen off the cliff together. No parachute. Clarkson is an interesting piece in the young core because of how far along he is as an NBA player early in his professional career, in part because he was a three-year college player. It also didn't hurt that the second half of his rookie season was essentially open field for him.
The idea that he's "fallen" off can only stem from an overestimation of his talents. He continues to scream sixth man, first guard off the bench to me the more I watch him play, which is a bit of a problem for the Lakers right now.
He's not nearly as effective as Williams, but would be best suited in that kind of role. Nearly everything Jordan can do, Lou can do better. The best chance for Clarkson to set himself apart from every guard on the Lakers would be to take on the mantle as the team's disruptive defender, but he's only been that in tiny spurts here and there. Until he can do that, he'll continue to look like a lesser version of Sweet Lou.
Much like the Lakers as a whole, Clarkson's season started off better than anticipated, but has since regressed into what more reasonable expectations might have suggested. On the whole, though, Clarkson is shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from three, right in line with his career averages. I don't think Clarkson is necessarily playing worse - rather, the situations he has been placed in have differed.
The Lakers' starting lineup hasn't been good all season, but it particularly cratered when D'Angelo Russell got hurt, and thus forced the Clarkson/Williams-led bench unit to chase exceptionally large deficits. Further, once Jose Calderon and Nick Young also went down, Clarkson had to chase his shot even more, sometimes as a starter.
If the Lakers can regain some consistency with their rotations, Clarkson's play should improve correspondingly. The newly-rejiggered bench unit of Clarkson, Williams, Ingram, and Robinson along with Deng or Young has had promising early returns - Young's unit in particular is outscoring opponents by 27.5 points per 100 possessions (albeit in an exceedingly small sample size). This combination allows Clarkson the ability to play off the ball next to Williams and Ingram, which should be his primary role going forward.
I still think Clarkson has a bright future as a sixth man/microwave scorer for the Lakers, one who can close games depending on the matchup, and this stretch has done nothing to change that. As the team once again trends upward, so too should Clarkson.
I think the discussion surrounding Clarkson is much ado about mostly nothing. He’s still fairly young and surrounded by an up-and-down, even-younger team that will more likely highlight individual shortcomings than help cover up for them when slumps occur.
That said, I’d definitely like to see some semblance of creativity for others return to his game, but fear it won’t until he feels he is consistently producing at a level he’s comfortable with. In other words, he’s leaning on his scoring to get him out of a shooting slump when he’d probably be better served trying to overcome this disappointing stretch by other means.
Again, though, this thinking can be attributed to youth and discomfort with his role (he’s on his fourth role in three years, basically). So, as the year progresses and the team around starts playing at a more consistent level, I expect to see Clarkson as a part of the solution, not a further hindrance to progress.
The biggest issue with Clarkson is that his game has devolved in pretty much every aspect, to the point that he's basically a gunner brings little value outside of scoring right now. The decline of his court vision from his rookie year has been well-documented, but the caveats trotted out last season explaining away his difficulties on Byron Scott's antiquated offensive system and the sheer, gravity-defying pull of Kobe Bryant's massive usage rate have mostly been proven as inadequate to explain his struggles here.
Clarkson once rounded the corner on pick-and-rolls surveying the floor, changing speeds when appropriate, and ultimately probing for either an open teammate or a chance to score. That's all but a thing of the past, as Clarkson now rushes at breakneck speeds into the teeth of the defense sending a prayer that something good will result from his recklessness. We can perhaps point to the surprising passing bona fides of Lou Williams or Luke Walton's attempt to use Brandon Ingram as a point forward as a new set of caveats, but altogether, Clarkson is increasingly looking like who he is in this respect.
Clarkson also came into the year with a newfound focus on defense, aggressively enacting ball denial attempts with his athleticism and he was no doubt a big part of the bench's incredible run to start the season. This improvement has largely gone by the wayside, as his overall instincts have never been great here, so any lessening of his effort means a significant reduction in his effectiveness.
Sans defense, playmaking, and (thus far) outside shooting, Clarkson doesn't really provide much else beyond relatively inefficient scoring, as he's dependent on mid-range pull-ups and doesn't get to the line enough to reverse the efficiency problems that come as a result. Some games he'll post relatively efficient scoring performances but it's telling that this is the main barometer we're looking at in gauging how he's doing -- again, the value he provides outside of scoring is simply too limited.
So, what's to be done? Clarkson is 24 and this is far more likely to be the kind of player he ends up being than basically any of the other young players on the roster. Luke perhaps could attempt to reverse his dearth of court vision by putting more onus on him to initiate the offense (taking the load off Ingram here would probably be a good move) but we're in a pretty precarious position with Clarkson, since the player he currently is simply isn't someone that's all that valuable to the construction of a good team.
His deal is certainly cheap enough in light of the new cap that keeping him around is worth it, but of all the Lakers' young players, Clarkson is definitely the most fungible. Yours truly isn't quite at the point where dealing Clarkson for pieces that better fit the current core becomes a preferable option, although that seems like the inevitable conclusion of this saga barring Clarkson repairing his deficiencies.
What do you think is up with Jordan Clarkson? Let us know in the comments below!