Could added pressure lead to a sophomore slump for Clarkson?

The Los Angeles Lakers arguably got the biggest steal of the 2014 draft in Jordan Clarkson. He had a stellar finish to his rookie season, even earning a nod on the NBA All-Rookie first team. In 38 games as a starter he averaged 15 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Not bad for the 46th overall pick.

It was a busy summer for Clarkson, who not only played in Summer League, but also threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium, played chess with Manny Pacquiao and is now awaiting clearance to play for the Philippines in international play after spending time volunteering both there and at the Special Olympics in Los Angeles.

This upcoming season, the 23-year-old will be entering the year with high expectations from both the team and fans alike. Clarkson offered us a glimpse of hope for the future and possible life after Kobe Bryant. Still, we should ease up a bit on those expectations and be mindful of a possible sophomore slump.

I don’t want to be a downer or a negative Nelly here but there are several factors that may impede Clarkson’s progression with the Lakers. First of all, his numbers were a bit inflated because he was on a bad team and the ball was in his hands a lot due to a lack of healthy bodies; giving him total control of the offense. He was the lone bright spot on a historically bad 61-loss team. This is not Clarkson’s fault by any means; he took full advantage of the opportunity and will look to continue to build on his success.

The first issue as far as Clarkson’s individual production however will be that the Lakers should have more healthy (knock on wood) players this season and therefore more mouths to feed. The injury bug has plagued the Lakers the past few seasons; Kobe and Nick Young are returning from injuries and will surely demand shots. Those two scorers will be a huge part of the offense in 2015 which could limit Clarkson’s attempts.

LA also added additional firepower to the squad in reigning six man of the year Lou Williams. He will be coming off the bench, but Clarkson will likely shift back and forth to the point and play the distributor role with Young and Williams. Both volume scorers are not known to be playmakers, but rather shot makers, i.e. someone will need to create opportunities for them. This will fall on Clarkson and rookie D’Angelo Russell. Sharpshooter Jabari Brown figures to be on the roster as well if his non-guaranteed deal is picked up.

The Lakers will also incorporate Julius Randle and Russell into the offense. Both lottery picks come with high expectations. Just look at Summer League’s record TV and attendance numbers; you think Laker Nation has high hopes? Every ball they touched, every move they made was followed by cheers.

Russell will get every opportunity to showcase his skills alongside Clarkson, which could be good and bad. The duo could form one of the most dynamic back courts if all goes to plan, but if Russell struggles, Clarkson could be moved to point guard full time which could hinder his offense. He would be expected to lead the offense and make sure every player gets plenty of touches. Clarkson excelled in the high pick-and-roll which gave him the freedom to take the open jumper or create for his teammates. Russell and Bryant are ball-dominant players that will take the ball away from Clarkson turning him into an off-the-ball player. Clarkson has the ability to adjust, but can he sustain respectable shooting percentages with a hand in his face? The league knows about him now and will make things more difficult.

As the PG, he would be in charge of keeping the bigs happy and find creative ways to keep them involved. Randle showed great promise in the summer and Clarkson is smart enough to know to feed the 6-foot-9 forward. He brings a lot to the table and his presence down low will be essential for the future of the franchise and building chemistry will be crucial for the young trio.

As the second year man, Clarkson will be looked at as the de facto leader next to Bryant and help the young players’ transition to the NBA as smooth as possible. Clarkson took the initiative in Las Vegas as the veteran star of the summer team. He was very vocal on the court with the young Lakers, directing his troops to the right spots. 

Finally the identity of Clarkson’s position will need to begin to come into focus; is he a point guard or shooting guard? Can he play both? He came into the NBA primarily known as a scorer. As injuries decimated the Lakers, Byron Scott slowly groomed him into a point guard. The fact of the matter is that the athletic combo guard’s role on the team hinges on the development of Russell and the health of Kobe. He’s never played next to a player like Bryant who is notorious for not giving up the ball easily. Kobe has always been the alpha of the team and that likely won’t change this season. Clarkson has also never played with another playmaker of Russell’s caliber. Being on the court at the same time as those two may be overwhelming for Clarkson, and will certainly be a monumental adjustment for the young star.

Personally I think Clarkson will be the shooting guard at the start of the season. We could be looking at a possible starting five of Russell and Clarkson in the backcourt, Bryant on the wing, and Randle and Roy Hibbert rounding up the front court. This mixture of veterans and youth could be the perfect scenario for JC to grow and take the proverbial torch from Bryant, or he may fall short of expectations with the influx of talent at his disposal.

No matter what happens, it’s an exciting time in Laker land, and we could potentially see a future star in the making if the pressure does not burn him out first.

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