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Jordan Clarkson is playing like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Lakers

Through three games, Jordan Clarkson has arguably been the Lakers’ best player. Is Clarkson finally back?

Los Angeles Lakers v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Jordan Clarkson is finally starting to resemble the player fans were hoping he’d be entering his fourth year in the NBA after struggling to contribute in a sustainable, meaningful way with the Los Angeles Lakers over the past two seasons. His bench presence to start the year can’t be ignored.

Clarkson is second among bench players in points per game (19.7) and total points (59), only trailing Sacramento Kings’ rookie De’Aaron Fox, who has contributed a total 60 points through four games. Sure, it’s through three games, but that’s the direction you want to see him trending.

While that’s not too far off from the point total he had at this time last season (41), he’s doing it at a more efficient rate. In fact, Clarkson has never been more productive with his time on the floor.

Clarkson is the only player in the league averaging more than 19 points per game while averaging less than 22 minutes per game, meaning he’s averaging 0.90 points every minute he’s on the floor. To put that into perspective, only Stephen Curry (0.92) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (0.95) have averaged more points per minute through three games or more this season. That’s really good.

Jordan has also been locked in from behind the arc, shooting 50 percent from deep on 4.7 three-points attempts per game. Realistically, that’s going to drop as the season goes on, but it’s a far cry from the 22.2 percent from outside he was shooting at this point last season.

However, scoring has never been the issue with Clarkson. In each of his four seasons in the NBA, Clarkson has never averaged less than 10 points per game. Even in what was his worst year shooting from the field since his rookie season, Clarkson averaged 14.7 points per game off the bench last season, which was still the second-highest in the league.

Unfortunately, his averages don’t reflect the impact he had on the team last season. The Lakers had a net rating of -8.6 when Clarkson was on the floor and a net rating of -4.3 when he was on the bench. As bad as the Lakers were last season, they weren’t as bad when Clarkson was playing.

Not only was he a liability on defense, but his decision making on the offensive end was consistently frustrating, particularly his shot selection. Clarkson struggled to shoot above league average from just about everywhere last season, but especially from the paint, where he attempted the majority of his shots last season:

Clarkson is as good as anyone in the league at getting to the basket, but finishing isn’t always his strong suit. Ideally, this is when he kicks the ball out to an open shooter or cutting player. While Clarkson was seemingly immune to this last season, he has shown progress as a playmaker early on this year.

During the Lakers’ 27-4 run against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, Clarkson played a crucial part both as a scorer and a facilitator, dropping dimes like this one to Kyle Kuzma... :

... and this one to Randle, following a crazy smart advance pass by rookie Josh Hart:

Clarkson looks like a completely different player this year, and it has everything to do with the fact that for the first time in career, he knows what’s expected of him.

In a span of just three years, Clarkson went from being the Lakers’ starting point guard, to being the Lakers’ starting shooting guard, to being a spark plug off the bench. Now in his second season under head coach Luke Walton, Clarkson seems to be settling into his bench role.

“Just knowing my role, knowing what I got to do when I come off the bench in terms of being aggressive, being a playmaker and scoring the ball for us,” Clarkson said via Bill Oram of the OC Register.

Clarkson is under contract with the Lakers through the 2019-20 season after signing a four-year, $50 million deal to stay in Los Angeles last summer, but there’s reason to be skeptical about his future with the team regardless of his production.

The new front office, led by president of basketball operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, have made it clear they intend to have room for two max players next summer. As it stands, they only have room for one, even if (read: when) they release the cap holds on upcoming free agents Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez and Julius Randle.

In order to reach that number — roughly $60 million — the Lakers are going to have to trade a player or two, and they’re “confident” they can move Clarkson for cap space “if needed,” according to Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus.

However, in the same report, Pincus offers an alternative to trading Clarkson, should the Lakers find he’s too valuable of a piece to let go of, but it involves the Luol-Deng sized obstacle of dumping a bad contract.

“Removing Deng could open the door for Los Angeles to either keep Clarkson (under contract at $12.5 million for 2018-19), Randle (who has a cap hold of $12.4 million as a restricted free agent next summer) or free agents in Lopez or Caldwell-Pope,” Pincus said.

Moving Deng and the $54 million he’s owed over the next three seasons will be no small feat, and it will likely come at the expense of one of the Lakers’ young players the same way it did this summer when the Lakers traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets.

While that player was originally thought to have been Clarkson, a breakout season from JC could change the Lakers’ plans for next summer, particularly with Randle, who hits restricted free agency after this season.

Whatever the case may be, here’s to hoping Jordan’s hot start isn’t just a fluke, for the team’s sake and his own.

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