Jordan Clarkson Does It the Byron Way

It came and went, the one year anniversary. No one made note of January 23rd, 2015. It was the day Jordan Clarkson, the rookie, became Jordan Clarkson, the Laker, in his hometown of San Antonio. Twelve months have passed since Jordan Clarkson entered the starting lineup. He played 29 minutes and 20 seconds, in a road game. He scored 11 points. He made 55% of his shots. He made plays for his teammates and to his credit, he would never come off the Lakers bench again, never yanked back and forth by Byron Scott. Jordan Clarkson, the student, and Bryon Scott, the teacher, began their 38 game tutorial just east of downtown San Antonio in the winter of 2015.

From then to now, has anything changed for the team? Not really. The Lakers have regressed. They have remained pathetically helpless and have carried over their sorrow into this season, winning 18% of their games. They don’t help one another on the court to make each other’s lives easier. They have no size and not much post-up skill in the front court and can’t shoot a lick in the paint. They are weak at the rim. They don’t move the ball from side to side, no sharing. But Jordan Clarkson, the second round pick? He is the best player the Lakers have.

When the Lakers bought Jordan Clarkson from the Washington Wizards in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft, there were certain things repeated over and over again. He was athletic. He could get to the rim and finish. He couldn’t shoot. When the Lakers drafted D’Angelo Russell in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft, there were certain things repeated over and over again. He could pass. He could score. He is not an athlete.

Clarkson’s expectations were exaggerated after his 2014 summer league performance in which he seemingly blew by everybody and had chemistry with Julius Randle. The scouts were right about his speed. And his shooting wasn’t as bad as was predicted. He just needed gym work. But it was clear in the summer league, Clarkson had something else going for him that would forever keep him out of Byron Scott’s doghouse. He was Byron Scott at 22, if Byron Scott had killer speed.

Jordan has all of Scott’s toughness and chip on the shoulder anger, and aggression and work ethic. He plays hard every minute of every game which doesn’t mean he is flawless but he lays it all on the line. He plays like a second round pick still trying to tell the league they made a mistake.

There is a story about Kobe Bryant and Jordan Clarkson. After Bryant’s shoulder surgery last year that propelled Clarkson into a starter’s role, Bryant remained in a cave-like absentia. The Lakers day-to-day activities were no longer on his agenda. But he had been hearing some interesting things about Jordan Clarkson, about his work ethic, about his drive and his will. People were telling Bryant he should watch this kid, he has that something. It piqued Bryant’s interest. He only judges how hard you work at your craft, how much you are willing to sacrifice, do you care? Is perfectionism a part of your character? So, in a Kobe being Kobe way, he arranged a meeting with Clarkson one spring morning. Kobe couldn’t shoot because of his shoulder but that’s not what the meeting was about anyway. The meeting was about Clarkson’s dedication and commitment, and if what was being said was true. It was one of those Kobe Bryant tests.

So there Clarkson was at the appointed Kobe Bryant time slot. Five o’clock in the morning. And that’s when Kobe knew Jordan Clarkson was really a Laker, born in his own image. Kobe walked through the door and Clarkson was already shooting hoops. He had arrived before Kobe Bryant had.

A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so that you can be what you have always known you can be. (Tom Landry)

It was easy for Byron Scott, the decision. Jordan Clarkson shared the same intangibles as Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul. He had a gritty approach to the way he practiced and played. He was mentally tough, replaying in his head: second round pick, second round pick, second round pick. Clarkson showed resiliency. He took all of Byron’s crap without a blink, he listened and he listened and he adapted and he listened some more. He learned from it. He didn’t personalize it. None of it changed him. When he made his first start against San Antonio and when he played his last game against Sacramento, the only thing different was experience. He learned to control his speed. He learned where the defenders were coming from. He learned pace.  There were a lot of losses and 9 wins and Jordan Clarkson, the afterthought, was developing into a quality NBA combo guard.

Rarely did you hear Scott call Clarkson out in the media. Rarely did he criticize him publicly. If Jordan didn’t shoot the ball particularly well or didn’t make the right play, Scott would only say, “it wasn’t his best game but he’s still learning. That’s part of his development.” It wasn’t an excuse per se but an understanding there was a bigger picture here, that Clarkson was a NBA rookie trying to learn the toughest position.

With D’Angelo Russell, none of that applies. Scott has been on Russell about everything. He doesn’t play hard all of the time. He isn’t running the offense. He isn’t making players better. He’s trying to be a hero out there. He turns the ball over on a simple pass. Or, he turns the ball over on a highlight pass. Scott has never come right out and said Russell is arrogant without having accomplished anything to be arrogant about, that he has the sort of entitled confidence of the talented, but he implies it with every Russell criticism, criticism Clarkson never, ever received out in the open.

There is a reason, however unfair it may be. Russell is nothing like Scott. He doesn’t have his gritty persona. He is not a hard ass. Failure has not been his recent companion. When Scott was traded to the Lakers, he was hated for replacing Norm Nixon, a beloved teammate. Scott had to prove himself. When Kobe was traded to the Lakers, he was 17 years old. The first guard to skip college. He had to prove himself. When Clarkson came to the Lakers, he was a second round pick. He had to prove himself. When Russell was drafted by the Lakers, he was their Kobe-heir. He didn’t have to prove himself. The Lakers already anointed him. He was a star.

There is no way around it. D’Angelo Russell is 19 years old, soon to be 20. He acts his age. He is not driven the way Clarkson and Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul were driven at similar stages in their careers. He is not a perfectionist nor is he a sadist like a young Kobe Bryant, working out at Palisades High School at three in the morning. On off days, Russell may chill with Roy Hibbert and play paintball. On off days, Clarkson is in the gym. On off days, Bryant was perfecting footwork. D’Angelo Russell has a different personality than Jordan Clarkson and Kobe Bryant. Coaching him has to be different.

It’s not what you are capable of, it’s what you are willing to endure (Orrin Woodward)

Jordan Clarkson tells a story about the NBA draft. He has watched it over and over again. He has watched it so many times, he can repeat every word without being prompted. He has watched the third hour, when his name is called, announced 46th. He has replayed just that part, just that name: Jordan Clarkson. Jordan Clarkson. Jordan Clarkson. The 46th pick. He knows who was number 45: Dwight Powell. He knows who was number 44: Markel Brown. He knows who was number 43: Walter Tavares. He knows how many guards were taken before him. Andrew Wiggins. Dante Exum. Marcus Smart. Nik Stauskas. Zach LaVine. James Young. Tyler Ennis. Jordan Adams. P.J. Hairston. Bogdan Bogdonavic. C.J. Wilcox. Joe Harris. Spencer Dinwiddle. Nick Johnson. Markel Brown. And then he feels it all again, the same disappointment and anger and frustration.

Playing the tape over and over again, rewinding it, reliving his worst basketball moment, resuscitates his reality. He can never, ever stop. He can never, ever quit. He has to keep on pushing.

This summer Clarkson is expected to be the recipient of a huge pay day. The number amount is unclear but everyone is in agreement he’ll probably get overpaid. He is the Lakers best player at the moment. He is their most skilled. He can be counted on in all four quarters. He is unselfish but knows when to go and get his. He may never be a 20 point scorer in the league but he’ll drop 15-18 and shoot 45%. His 3-point shooting still needs work but he saved Jim Buss and the Lakers front office from looking more idiotic.

Jordan Clarkson had benefits that D’Angelo Russell doesn’t have. Clarkson’s first year ended with Clarkson overachieving on his promise. But look at who he was playing with. He could pass to Jordan Hill and expect him to finish. He had Ed Davis putting back misses. He had Wesley Johnson’s athleticism on the wing. Clarkson was a rookie surrounded by veterans.

Russell is a rookie, surrounded by rookies. Of course, it’s not going to look very pretty. Of course, he is going to struggle. Clarkson’s teammates made him look very good. Russell’s teammates make him look ordinary at times, and very young.

Rookie Ups and Downs Points FG% 3-Point % PER
D’Angelo Russell 12.0 41.2% 33.0% 12.9

After the Bulls loss, when Russell appeared more casual than usual, he admitted his play wasn’t up to what he believes he is capable of.

“Personally, for me, lackadaisical turnovers, I take the blame for a little bit of that. I’ve just got to be better. I’ve never really played point guard in my life. I went to college. I was a basketball player and I played every position. I got to this level and point guard was just thrown at me, so it’s something you’ve got to adjust to. It’s the hardest position in this league. I’d rather it be hard now than later.”

Hard now for Jordan Clarkson was last January when it was all new. He made it through the season and then worked hard over the summer only to be rewarded with a Mitch Kupchak reversal of fortune. No more veterans as his teammates. He suits up next to a lot of rookies who don’t know the NBA game. But Clarkson, already confident, already aware of what this contract year was about, hasn’t let his young sidekicks get in his way.

Then and Now Points FG% 3-Point % PER
Jordan Clarkson, Rookie 11.9 44.8% 31.4% 16.9
Jordan Clarkson, Second Year 15.2 43.7% 33.1% 14.2

Because we live in the moment and dream about the future, the obvious cannot be ignored. Jordan Clarkson is the Lakers best player. That may not always be the case going forward. For the Lakers to fulfill the Jim Buss prediction, it can’t be this way a year from now. But here, at the end of January, one year later, it is the truth about Jordan Clarkson. He saw an opportunity. He took advantage. He made it work for him.  And the Lakers are going to reward him for his toughness, dedication, athleticism and Bryon Scott intangibles on July 1st.

photo via llananba