The Jordan Clarkson-Black Mamba Bond

Not that anyone wants to relive the Dwight Howard year, but in those depressing months before Kobe Bryant decided to hell with it and he took over the offense, there was a lot of talk about Kobe’s unwillingness to pass the leadership torch to Howard so the Lakers would be Howard’s team. It was ridiculously funny, and myopic on every level, to even suggest the non-serious, always goofy Howard, who believed leadership was something given and not earned, was going to be big man on campus because of Kobe’s benevolence. Howard soon found out a Tim Duncan moment was not on the horizon in the L.A. of his dreams. That it took an Achilles injury, not Dwight Howard, to wrestle the leadership mantle away from Bryant’s clinched fingers was a fitting end to their broken partnership that couldn’t last through the summer.

It’s always been a question of trust for Bryant. Trust on his end is the reward for a work ethic demonstrated on the other end. Trust is an answer to a Kobe Bryant question: are you tough? Do you have heart? For all he has put into the organization and his career, Bryant wanted the Lakers cared for and nurtured in a similarly aggressive methodology, by a person who doesn’t quit, doesn’t have fear, isn’t apprehensive about the extraordinary expectations, and doesn’t look at basketball, God forbid, as a punchline to a joke.

So in that vein, Jordan Clarkson was everything Dwight Howard was not. Clarkson had a huge chip on his shoulder from being passed over in the first round of the 2014 draft and Kobe related to that, to having being dismissed, and then, having to earn it. In Clarkson’s second year, it was pretty amazing. What Bryant didn’t/wouldn’t give Howard because he didn’t trust him, he happily gave Jordan Clarkson.

He mentored Clarkson and prepared Clarkson for life without him, repeating the lessons over and over until Clarkson knew it by heart. He was so used to it, Kobe admitted Clarkson told him, “I know”, every time Bryant had one more piece of advice or pointed out a mistake. The I know wasn’t one of those eye-rolling, bored, stop with the lectures I know. It was the I know of, you taught me. Now it’s up to me to make it count.

Kobe Bryant was never an entitled player. He was drafted out of high school but the critics were never satisfied he’d have a career that warranted him kicking college to the curb. He influenced Tracy McGrady to come out the next year. When stardom hit in 2000, he still had his doubters. They said he shot the ball too much, he was selfish, he didn’t play in the system. Why so many contested shots when easier shots were available? Once Shaq left, it was generally believed Kobe would never win another title.

Jordan Clarkson had his share of doubters too. He transferred from Tulsa to Missouri, was downgraded in the draft because scouts thought he didn’t have a position. He wasn’t a good enough shooter and he didn’t have innate point guard skills. The scouts did acknowledge he had explosive speed. Doc Rivers had been a presence in Clarkson’s life from his childhood in San Antonio but Rivers passed on him in the draft too. Seemingly unnoticed was Clarkson’s work ethic. His ambition is driven, in part, by resentment of what happened on draft night. He watches the draft often as a way to remind himself where he is now, how far he has come, and the wealth of excellence left to be accomplished.  His teacher, Kobe Bryant, said of Clarkson that he wants to be great.

“I like to be in the shadows. I kind of just like to go about my business, just come out here, improve and stay out of the way. I’m fine with my role.” (Jordan Clarkson)

Particularly when that role had Kobe Bryant constantly in his ear. It meant that Bryant, who only trusted the talented hard workers who pull themselves out of adversity, believed Clarkson was the one. Clarkson wasn’t scared of Bryant nor was he intimidated.

In 2014, after the Kobe shoulder injury, Clarkson met up with Kobe at a prearranged time. Kobe was hearing a lot about Clarkson when he was AWOL from the team after surgery. Kobe was a little interested in all the Clarkson hype and did one of those Kobe meet me at some godawful hour when most people are just getting out of bed things he does to test a young player’s resolve. But when Kobe opened the door to the El Segundo training facility, Clarkson was already there shooting jumpers. Since then, Kobe began pulling Clarkson aside. Some of his advice was hilarious like when he told Clarkson to go to the hole, not like he was “light skinned.” Some of it was deadly serious, about Clarkson losing his man on defensive assignments. All of it was about aggression and how to take the game, how to own it. Bryant was a happy teacher on a Sunday afternoon when Clarkson had his best game of the year on a national stage against the Warriors.

Once, Brian Shaw told a Kobe Bryant story.  Shaw was fishing in Santa Barbara and invited Bryant along. Bryant was a no-show but did call Shaw to see what he caught. Shaw told him. He caught some baby sharks. Bryant asked, what did he do with them and Shaw said he threw them back in. “You didn’t kill them, why not?” Bryant was horrified at his friend’s passive empathy. As Shaw was telling the story, he laughed.  “Kobe didn’t understand throwing anything back. If you catch it, you kill it.”

And this is what cemented his bond with Clarkson. Because on the court, Clarkson tries to kill it. He has a gritty toughness that Kobe understands and celebrates. The Kobe tutoring was something Clarkson didn’t mind either. He understood the days were becoming shorter and shorter and his new teacher was about to retire from this life.

“He (Clarkson) takes everything you tell him and he really tries to put it to work. He’s one of those kids that when you jump on him, he doesn’t sulk about it. He doesn’t go into a shell. He takes it like a professional.” (Bryon Scott to the L.A. Times)

After three and a half seasons, Jordan Clarkson has made the most of his tutorial. He started 138 NBA games. He came off the bench for 135 NBA games. His speed is elite. He broke ankles. He dribble penetrated and left defenders watching. He passed it out for three. He did a blow by for a dunk. He drained a fadeaway.  He is a second round pick the Lakers bought from the Wizards who should have been a first round pick for just about anybody.  That motivates him to excel, the idea that teams thought Glenn Robinson III, Jerami Grant, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris,  C.J. Wilcox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, P.J. Hairston, Shabazz Napier, Rodney Hood, Nik Stauskas were better.

With less than 5 minutes in the game, Jordan Clarkson shoots 46%. He has a career high PER in 2017-18 of 17.1. This season, he has played 49% at point guard and 48% at shooting guard; he is a true combo guard. It is the first time in his career he had such evenly divided loyalties.

He has played with Kobe Bryant. Now he will play with LeBron James. He was coached by Lakers champ Byron Scott. Now he will be coached by Lakers champ Ty Lue.

But at the end of the day, Jordan Clarkson is Jordan Clarkson, the player who everyone passed on in 2014. Revenge is sweet in 2018.


photo via llananba