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Why Jordan Clarkson’s Future May Not be With the Lakers

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

As the rumors swirl about whether Jordan Clarkson will play for the Philippines this summer, the far more pertinent question, and one which hasn’t gotten as much discussion, is whether the surprising second-round pick for the Los Angeles Lakers can continue to thrive in his current situation.

Last season, he was the man from nowhere, and perhaps the lone bright spot of an otherwise awful Lakers campaign. It started ominously enough when No. 7 pick, Julius Randle, went down with injury for the season after logging just 14 minutes.

Kobe Bryant surpassed Michael Jordan on the scoring list, started the 30,000-point, 6,000-rebound, 6,000-assist club — then got injured again.

And the Lakers stank like a thousand rotting fruit infested by a million feasting maggots. It was a special level of awfulness that the historic franchise had never sunk to before. Succinctly put: Worst. Season. Ever.

But there was one aspect of it that wasn’t eyeball-gouging, vomit-inducingly horrendous, and that was the play of Clarkson. That became truer as the season progressed:

Clarkson didn’t just play more, he played better in the process, as indicated by the fact that not only did his aggregate numbers improve, but his field goal percentage and game score did as well. In fact, according to NBA.com, his 11.9 Player Impact Estimate (PIE) was the third-best among rookies once he settled in as the full-time starter.

Similarly, per RealGM.com, his Player Efficiency Rating of 18.7 trailed only Nikola Mirotic and Nerlens Noel among rookies who played 10 games and averaged 10 minutes after the break. His 51.2 effective field goal percentage was notably more efficient than other shot creators such as Andrew Wiggins (45.2 percent) or Zach LaVine (48.8).

Rather than ride their surprising success story into the next season, though, the Lakers surprisingly chose to select D’Angelo Russell at the point-guard position, prompting questions of whether the rookie and the sophomore would play in the backcourt together.

During the Summer League, the duo got a chance to show their wares. Being generous, their performance was a little short of what fans were hoping to see, and it had some wondering if the duo would be able to succeed together. But such proclamations are short-sighted.  Josh Martin of Bleacher Report wrote that most scouts were still hopeful the two could work out:

It was an inauspicious showing amid an altogether unsatisfactory stint at summer league for the Lakers’ presumptive backcourt of the future. But as poorly as that pair played at times in Sin City, those who observed the most rudimentary glimpses of what’s to come in L.A. had (mostly) positive things to say about Russell and Clarkson.

“I think they’ll fit well together,” said one scout in attendance who works for an independent scouting service. “They can both shoot, pass and dribble. They can play both positions and split duties. They just need time to develop.”

The operative words there being “time” and “together.”

With Kobe returning, he’ll eat into a big chunk of minutes, but that was to be expected. Then the offseason happened, and the Lakers chose to ink Lou Williams — another guard — to a three-year, $21 million contract. And that’s where things get befuddling as Clarkson looks like he’s now the fourth guard on the depth chart, so that “time together” is problematic.

There’s absolutely no chance that the Lakers make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. What’s concerning is that they’re trying to be better than they should be. They have a top-three protected pick, and they’re just barely good enough not to be one of the three worst teams in the league.

That’s what makes the whole “strategy” (I use the term loosely) of the Lakers’ front office this summer so perplexing. If they’re building for the future, they should’ve committed to that, and not inked players who were going to take minutes away from promising youngsters.

If they were trying to win one more time for Bryant, they should’ve pulled a trigger on the alleged DeMarcus Cousins trade and tried to figure out a way to get him.

But all this in-between nonsense is just making sure they’re not going to be able to do either. And the end result may mean that Clarkson hits restricted free agency next summer unhappy with his future with the Lakers and a wandering eye. Clarkson has a bright future in the NBA, but it might not be in Los Angeles.

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