When the Los Angeles Lakers purchased the No. 46 overall pick from the Washington Wizards in the 2014 NBA draft, nobody had a real reaction. Those types of transactions are rather common, and rarely does it result in a move that has the potential to change the direction of a franchise. Despite playing three seasons of college basketball—two at Tulsa and one more at Missouri—Jordan Clarkson was an unknown commodity, a name that didn’t register with the casual fan of and not the splash the Lakers had been hoping to make during the selection process to begin the offseason.
After all, this wasn’t the type of move this team and their fans have become accustomed to in the history of this storied organization. This is a Lakers ownership group that used to be known for landing stars instead of chasing them, had a history of paying premium for talent instead of shopping in the bargain bin and always enjoyed success in the process.
Oh, have times have changed.
With Kobe Bryant coming off of his third straight serious injury and the Lakers attempting to rebound from their worst season in team history—an embarrassing 21-win campaign where Julius Randle’s (leg) inaugural season was done after just one game—Clarkson, who faced no real expectation to produce before his rookie season began, finds himself as an integral member of the team and possible building block for the Lakers’ uncertain future.
Although Clarkson had to wait (too long) to receive his opportunity to play meaningful minutes on a Lakers team that was fooling itself by overplaying veterans in an attempt to be competitive, the young guard never got down on himself. A gym rat known for pushing himself harder with each passing day, Clarkson even asked Byron Scott, on multiple occasions, to send him to the D-League prior to his NBA breakout in order to prepare him for the moment (via Brian Kotloff, NBADLeague.com).
“I’m focused on always working on my game,” he told NBADLeague.com. “Early in the year, I wasn’t getting much time with the Lakers. Sometimes I would ask Coach to just go let me play. I love to hoop and you can never get better just by sitting on the bench. Going to play in those [D-Fenders] games definitely helped me to work on stuff that I could transfer over when I got time in the League. The game is a little different between the levels, but it helped slow the game down for me and it sped up my process of becoming a good player in this league.”
Once Clarkson finally did get the keys to drive the car, he made sure everyone would remember the name on the back of his Lakers jersey. Over 38 games as a starter, the second-round pick who had previously been without expectations suddenly created them.
Averaging 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.8% shooting, Clarkson was easily Los Angeles’ best player on the floor, even prompting some comparisons to Russell Westbrook when delivering with his most impressive athleticism. By the time April rolled around, the final month of a dark, miserable nightmare of a Lakers season, Clarkson was emerging as the sole and shining bright spot. Finishing his year with the best month of his rookie campaign (19.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.6 steals, 47.7% shooting), Clarkson earned a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team alongside four former first-round selections.
Now, an obvious piece to a puzzle that’s still having its pieces sorted out, the Lakers, the NBA and the entire world will get to have a better understanding of what type of player Clarkson can become. While nothing about what he achieved in his first season should simply be thrown away (Michael Carter-Williams says hello), it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge the fact that Clarkson’s production, at least partially, was a product of the roster and system around him.
Now surrounded by a significantly upgraded cast in Kobe, Randle, No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell and Roy Hibbert, Clarkson will not be serving as a one-man wrecking crew. Instead, he’ll be playing within the context of the game, adjusting to not having the ball in his hands on every possession and finding new ways to grow.
Despite our inclination to size up a body of work when judging a professional athlete’s career, we also have a strange pattern of making declarative projections based on just what’s happened on a year-to-year basis. And those projections, usually centered entirely around on-court factors, almost always overlook and ignore the impact of an off-court situation.
Clarkson, who has dealt with so much changing so quickly around him at every turn ever since starting his NBA career firmly under the intense heat of the Lakers’ spotlight, has already forced many to re-write their unofficial scouting report on him in their very official analysis.
It’s one thing to be the best player on one of the league’s worst teams. It’s entirely another to be a franchise cornerstone. We won’t know who Jordan Clarkson is as an NBA player after this season concludes, but we’ll certainly have a more complete—but still evolving—picture to view.