Season in Review: Jordan Clarkson

In a new short series for Lakers Outsiders, I will be reviewing all of the young players currently on the Lakers’ roster who project to be part of the team’s future going forward. I’ll be looking at their play in the 2015-16 season as well as predicting how they will fare next year with development and a new coaching staff.

Jordan Clarkson was one of the most consistent parts of an inconsistent season for the Los Angeles Lakers last season. The second-year guard took a step forward from a surprisingly great rookie season, and his consistency was an important way for Clarkson to show that his success in his first year in the league was not simply a case of racking up stats on a terrible team.

Since drafting Clarkson with the 46th overall pick in 2014, the Lakers have essentially been playing with house money. They bought the draft pick from the Washington Wizards and found themselves a gem in the second round, an unlikely scenario, to say the least.

Now that the team has placed other quality young players on its roster, there are questions about Clarkson’s eventual fit with the team. There is no question that he should be on the roster moving forward and the Lakers clearly agree, coming to terms on a four-year $50 million deal soon after free agency began.

However, there are certainly questions about what role Clarkson will be most effective in. Many have pegged him as a future sixth man, a player who can play starter-like minutes but in bench-heavy lineups. Clearly, his scoring ability and decent playmaking can be very useful in such units.

But we should not be so quick to limit the shooting guard to such a role. For one, bench-heavy lineups are becoming a thing of the past. Most teams prefer to keep at least one starter (and often more) in the game at all times. The need for high-usage bench players is becoming very scarce. That may be the reason there seem to not be any suitors for Lou Williams in the trade market despite his clear scoring ability and his steal of a contract.

But more importantly, Clarkson may be able to improve on his game further to become a legitimate starter in the future. Already in his second season, JC improved on a crucial part of his game as he moved from primarily playing as a point guard to being used almost exclusively as a shooting guard.

In his rookie year, Clarkson shot a paltry 31.4% from the three point line. Fast forward to his second year in the league and Clarkson has become an average shooter, hitting at a 34.7% clip. That’s certainly not emblematic of being a marksman from behind the arc, but it is significant growth in only one offseason.

Perhaps more promising is that Clarkson’s numbers were deflated at times due to injury. In an overtime thriller against the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 9th, Clarkson injured his ankle, forcing him to sit out the next two games. When he returned, he was clearly hobbled. Case in point: in his next ten games, Clarkson shot only 12% from three. Removing just that small sample pushes JC to a 37% shooter, a real weapon from behind the arc.

Clarkson’s shooting is certainly aided by natural progression and hard work in the gym. But perhaps the biggest factor in the changes are the quality of shots for the second-year guard.

In 2014-15, only 15.2% of Clarkson’s shots came in catch-and-shoot opportunities, compared to 39.5% of which were pull-up jumpers. In 2015-16, playing mostly as an off guard, the former number improved to 22% while the latter fell to 34.5%.

Similarly, Clarkson’s rookie season saw even more iso-ball than the second year under Byron Scott. The rookie point guard attempted 25.7 of his shots with no dribbles, converting them at a 57.2 effective field goal percentage. But he astonishingly attempted 27.9% of his shots after three to six dribbles (49.7% eFG) and an unbelievable 29.7% of his shots after seven or more dribbles (42.6 eFG).

Even with an iso-centric offense still prevalent in his sophomore season, Clarkson improved on those numbers. 2015-16 saw 31.6% of his shots on zero dribbles (54.6% eFG), 27.6% on three to six dribbles (27.6% eFG), and 19% on seven-plus dribbles (41.8% eFG).

Now imagine how much better those numbers will look as D’Angelo Russell becomes more comfortable leading a team as the lead playmaker and as the Lakers benefit from an improved system and style of play.

Clarkson also added a bit of a floater last season, helping him finish over taller defenders. That will become more important as his shooting opens up the floor for him.

But beyond the scoring from Jordan, there is still plenty of room to improve.

Clarkson’s assist percentage (ratio of teammates’ field goals assisted by him) fell from 23.8% to 13.8% last season. Such a steep drop-off was at least partially attributable to the positional change for Clarkson, but nevertheless, that assist percentage is woefully low,especially for someone who had a 22.8% usage rate.

At his best, Clarkson has shown an ability to pass the ball, especially in pick-and-roll scenarios, in a variety of ways.

Clarkson was able to pull off a Russell-esque move by holding his primary defender on his hip and forcing the help defender to stay in front of him. Then at the proper moment, he threw a shovel pass to Brandon Bass for an easy dunk:

jordan-clarkson-assist-one

On a team with bigs who preferred to pick and pop, Clarkson’s ability to get downhill quickly after a screen and attract two defenders for a long enough time before passing gave plenty of space for opportunities like this:

jordan-clarkson-assist-two

Clarkson was also occasionally able to make the tougher reads. In this situation, he attracted two defenders by exploding towards the rim and when a third came from the weakside to take away his first option (Bass on the roll), Clarkson whipped a pass to Lou Williams in the corner:

jordan-clarkson-assist-three

It’s not the ability that is the issue with Clarkson’s playmaking so much as the pacing. Clarkson has shown he can make NBA-level reads and passes. But he has not been consistent in doing so. Far too often, he drives to the rim out of control. Being able to slow down and read the defense is a skill that Clarkson has to learn. With his scoring ability already great as a second-year player, leveraging that to become a playmaker as well could make him a deadly player.

Clarkson’s defense is another issue entirely. Despite his physical tools, the guard was nothing short of terrible on the defensive end of the floor last season. Some of that can be attributed to a poor defensive team and system. Some of it can also be attributed to a team that lost focus and motivation early on as the season quickly turned into a nightmare.

But even by the Lakers’ standards, Clarkson was disappointing defensively. The Lakers’ defensive rating with their starting shooting guard on the floor was an atrocious 111.5, compared to 105.4 with him off of it. That’s not a perfect statistic by any means, but it goes to show how poorly Clarkson affected the team’s defense as a whole.

Watch Clarkson in last year’s Summer League defending Wolves guard Zach LaVine (the two start on the baseline on the far side of the basket.) Clarkson tries to face-guard LaVine rather than trail him as he comes off screens. In a poor position, Clarkson winds up running into his own teammate, shows no extra effort to get around him, and instead calls for a switch after LaVine had already broken free.

jordan-clarkson-defense-1

Look at Clarkson’s defensive stance here, in a close game with under a minute left. Instead of squaring up on Dwyane Wade while he iso’s, Clarkson leaves his right foot out in front. Wade attacks that foot, easily getting his defender off balance before spinning to open up space for a jumper. At that point, even Russell’s contest is not enough:

jordan-clarkson-defense-2

Later in the same game, with one of 17 wins on the line, Clarkson gets lost on two screens while trying to guard Wade. He expects a switch with Larry Nance, Jr. while the latter doesn’t, then fails to switch onto Joe Johnson when Brandon Bass is screened by Wade. Fortunately for Clarkson, Johnson bricks the shot after a late contest by Julius Randle:

jordan-clarkson-defense-3

A lot of Clarkson’s issues (ball watching, poor stances, lack of communication) can be coached. He has no issues from a physical standpoint. Improving will be a long process and even with better coaching, it’s improbable that he turns into an average defender next season. However, he should be able to take some steps into becoming less of a liability on that end of the floor.

If Clarkson becomes an even average defender, his potential is almost limitless. He has already proven his worth as a key member of the Lakers’ youth movement, but now he has to prove that he can be a consistent player. That starts on defense and includes his playmaking ability.

The good news for Jordan Clarkson is that he has good players around him, now. D’Angelo Russell will take weight off of him as a primary ball handler. Brandon Ingram will take weight off of him as a primary scorer. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will take weight off of him as a defender.

Clarkson will have to adjust to playing a smaller role on offense, a change he already made to a degree last season. As the campaign wore on, Clarkson and Russell developed a great two-man game with each player able to create for the other. 10.9% of the passes received by Clarkson were from Russell, and 14.2% of the passes made by him were to Russell (who shot 44.9% from three in those situations). As that relationship continues to develop and more pieces are added, Clarkson can become a great complementary player.

It’s far too early to pigeonhole Jordan Clarkson into a specific role. Yes, he has the characteristics of a traditional sixth man, but he also has the potential to be more than that. Even as the oldest of the youth movement in Los Angeles, Clarkson is still only 24 years old. While he may not have the star potential of Russell or Ingram, he has the ability to become the key piece in a successful future for this team.

That could certainly happen as he comes off the bench, and if he does, he will have the ability to become one of the best reserves in the league. But it can also happen as a starter, next to a backcourt partner who has taken the reins as the leader of the team. That relationship is ever-growing, but it has already shown potential to be great.

Now it’s up to Clarkson to improve on his limitations and prove his place as a key member of the Lakers’ future.

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