By: Michael Taylor
(Video By: Tom Zayas)
Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance, Jr., Brandon Ingram, and Ivica Zubac: this is the order in which Los Angeles has amassed its treasure trove of young talent. For each highlight play, there’s been frustration. For every moment a “Baby Laker” takes a step forward, lumps are taken the next. Development is unique in and of itself, as it brings excitement to those who envision what the future could hold.
The Lakers hold two blue chip prospects in D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram (three if Julius Randle is included). Early on, Zubac looks to be a considerable steal, while high-flyer Larry Nance, Jr. projects a high-end role player, and Tarik Black is banging on the door to be considered as part of the young core.
This year, all the previously mentioned Lakers have made improvements to their game in some form or fashion. Truthfully speaking, I cannot say the same for Jordan Clarkson.
For all the things Jordan Clarkson has going for him (oozes athleticism, height, & length), role stability is not one of them. As a rookie, he entered the league as a point guard, and as a sophomore he was moved to shooting guard, providing solace to Laker fans with his consistent play amid the worst season in Lakers history.
Whatever passing chops he flashed as a rookie are now being posted on milk cartons around Los Angeles.
Even casual fans can see that Clarkson fails to make the simple read here. As he approaches the basket, Pau Gasol has fully committed to him. Tarik Black is so open that Clarkson can almost hand him the ball, yet his eyes are glued to the rim akin to that of a dog to a bone. However, stats tend to often disagree with the eye test, right? Wrong.
Statistically, his 12.6 AST% is the lowest of his career, and his 12.7 TOV% nearly matches it. This leads to a 1.11 AST/TO ratio, which is only higher than Robinson, Black, Zubac, and Mozgov. To paint an even darker picture, that ranks 178th in the NBA, among guards. Conversely, his unwillingness to pass can lead to some terrible shot selection, which is another valid criticism of his 2016-2017 season.
The play ends in a contested step-back three which rightfully annoys Luke Walton. What’s concerning here is Clarkson’s lack of awareness, as reversing the ball would lead to an open Lou three.
There’s an underlying reason as to why Jordan Clarkson’s gunner mentality is a glaring issue. 37.0% (5.5 POSS) of his entire offense comes out of Pick and Rolls, even though he’s only generating .77 Points Per Possession on a 42.6% eFG and turning it over 16.0% of the time. For comparison’s sake, Austin Rivers runs Pick and Rolls on 33.6% of his possessions and generates .92 Points Per Possession on a 50.8% eFG while turning it over 15.7% of the time. Austin Rivers isn’t an elite player, but he’s in the 78th percentile, and Jordan Clarkson is in the 41st percentile. This helps explain why most of Clarkson’s shots (30.5%) come off 3-6 dribbles, and he’s shooting only 47.4% eFG on those shots.
All of this is a fancy way of saying that the play type he runs the most is the play type he is the least efficient at.
He rejects the screen from Randle and does a nice job of putting Damian Lillard on his hip. There’s a split second where Randle has a window for a pocket pass but Clarkson misses it, causing him to take a runner from a poor angle. This play is emblematic of his struggle’s all season.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Hope remains in the form of glimpses.
In the limited plays that Clarkson’s had his head up, taking what the defense gives him, he has shown promise. This turnover (credited to Clarkson) is encouraging in that he makes the correct read. As Gobert commits to Clarkson, he gives it up to Mozgov. While the pass could have been more on the numbers, it’s a pass that Mozgov needs to catch. Not only does Clarkson make the correct read, he’s smart enough to reject the lob over Gobert, which Mozgov is calling for.
As for his shooting, his TS% sits at 52.8, while the league average is around 54%. His 3 Point shooting has not improved, and weirdly enough he’s taking more corner threes than ever this season at 20.7% despite shooting a career-low 26.7%. So, as a below average shooter, what else does he bring?
His TRB% and AST% sit at a career low (5.7 and 12.6 respectively), while his -2.47 Defensive Real-Plus-Minus sits at 79th among PGs. While his effort is lauded (T-26 in loose balls recovered per game at 1.0), it’s often negated due to defensive mistakes attributed to poor judgment and fundamentals.
This brings us to the main issue. Jordan Clarkson doesn’t do anything other than score, and even then, he usually fails to score efficiently.
Around mid-December, Luke Walton showed Jordan Clarkson footage of the end of his 1st campaign and was quoted as saying:
“We kind of just want him to be in attack mode, but be ready to make the right play each time. Sometimes that’s a shot. Sometimes that’s a pass.”
For all intents and purposes, that has not yet happened, and the level at which he shoots with reckless abandon is becoming indefensible.
If there is any silver lining, it is that playing next to Lou Williams poisoned Jordan Clarkson like a cyanide pill. Pete Zayas, the OG, likens Lou to an invasive species that comes in and wrecks shop, but in doing so alters the rest of the ecosystem. The second unit was built around Lou, and it’s hard to argue its effectiveness, especially when the bench was healthy.
Jordan Clarkson is not nearly as efficient, as Lou is a sizzling 60.1 TS% and in the 94th percentile (!!!) in Pick and Rolls. Lou thrives in early offense with a lot of drag screens that free him up for jumpers. He’s adept at rejecting screens and drawing fouls, making him a highly effective scorer, and the same cannot be said for Jordan Clarkson. He doesn’t have near the natural feel for the game that D’Angelo Russell has, nor the craftiness of a 13-year prep-to-pro vet like Lou Williams. Where a more freelance/read and react offense better suits the Russell and Williams, it does not favor Clarkson’s style of play.
The Lakers are coming to a crossroads with Clarkson, and I would argue that change is coming sooner rather than later. There’s reason to believe that Jordan Clarkson can perform better with some immediate changes. He’ll start playing as the backup PG after the Lakers traded Lou Williams to Houston. Trading Lou does a few things: it frees up Russell for more minutes, and in JC’s case, liberates him by giving him the ball and removing a ball stopper from common lineups. These final games could give the Lakers a chance to see if Clarkson can rediscover some of the passing ability he flashed as a rookie.
While I’m very skeptical, I believe he can accomplish this return — to an extent. If he cannot, there should be a serious discussion about moving Clarkson to attain as much talent as possible while his stock is still reasonably high, as hard as that is to say.
At 24, there is a higher chance than fans would like to admit that this is what he is. Or rather, he is what he is going to be. You don’t often see players transform in their mid 20’s, and Clarkson is unlikely to break that mold. However, he does not have to transform as much as return to the rookie form that got him named to the 1st Team All-Rookie team. As someone who was watched Clarkson closely throughout the season, the early returns have not been promising.
Over the past twelve games, his numbers have dropped across the board. He’s posting a 50.6 TS%, 6.4 TRB%, 10.1 AST%, and 16.2 TOV%, leading to a 0.95 AST/TO ratio. As a Lakers fan, perhaps it’d be better stand with the optimist’s view of “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”
His contract is team-friendly at 4 years $50 million, which is roughly around 13.3% of the cap this season, 11.2% next season, and will likely stay around that level for the next two seasons. While his development has stagnated, he’s done it once (the end of his rookie season), so surely he could do it again. For young NBA players progress is not, and will never be, linear, but in the case of Clarkson, at 24 in his 3rd season, his time is running up. In a league where assets have never been more valuable, how he performs on the court from now to the end of the season is as important as ever.
— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) February 21, 2017