Can Jordan Clarkson Lead the Lakers Back to the Playoffs in 2015-16?
The Los Angeles Lakers’ fanbase is getting restless.
For two years in a row, they have watched the postseason from the sidelines. Having missed out on the playoffs only seven times in their 67 year storied history, they are itching to get back in the Larry O’Brien Trophy chase.
Even with our top rated offseason this past summer, the Lakers do not appear ready to rejoin the championship hunt in 2015-16. In the ultra competitive and highly-talented Western Conference, the Lakers are still a few years away. Do not tell their fans that, though.
Despite coming off the worst season in franchise history, the Lakers are brimming with optimism. After the rookie performance of Jordan Clarkson, who can blame them? Let’s take a look back at the wild ride that was Clarkson’s first season and delve into what we can expect from him in 2015-16.
Clarkson's First Campaign
Clarkson entered the league as the 46th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, not exactly prime prospect territory. Unsurprisingly, he started the season fourth on the Lakers’ point guard depth chart behind Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin, and Ronnie Price.
Despite all the poor play and losses piling up, Clarkson still only averaged 11.8 minutes per game through the Lakers’ first 43 games. Then on January 21, superstar Kobe Bryant destroyed his rotator cuff. After ruling Bryant out for the remainder of the season, the Lakers turned to Clarkson. With a 12-31 record, what was there to lose?
So on January 23, after multiple trips to the D-League and plenty of DNP-Coach's Decision filling up his game log, Clarkson finally got his chance.
A 1-10 start through his first 11 starts did not deter coach Byron Scott from leaving the former Missouri Tiger in the starting lineup. Over his final 25 games, Clarkson gave Laker fans something to get excited about, even as they struggled to find their way into the W column. Putting up 17.0 points, 5.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds on .469 field goal shooting over his final 25 games not only earned the 22-year-old Rookie of the Month honors for the month of March but also helped vault him to the NBA’s All-Rookie team despite starting only 38 games in 2014-15.
Clarkson’s average points and assists in his final 38 games, all starts, put him in elite company. Chris Paul, John Wall, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving are some of the select few point guards who have averaged over 15.8 points and 5.0 assists per game their rookie season, like Clarkson did over the final three months of the season, via basketball-reference.com.
While one of the top rookies last year, Clarkson’s -1.5 nERD rating, which indicates how many games above or below .500 a player would make an average team during the course of an 82-game season, ranked him 93rd among all NBA players. Not so impressive.
But when you factor the players that Clarkson was on the court with the most were Ryan Kelly (-3.6 nERD), Wayne Ellington (-4.8), and Wesley Johnson (-5.9) you get a whole other appreciation of how bad the Lakers were last season and, in turn, how good Clarkson can be. In fact, if you compare Clarkson with Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, the Lakers’ rookie comes out on top in all vital categories, including nERD.
But even though Clarkson performed admirably as the team's point guard, he isn't the team's clear-cut point guard of the future.
Clarkson's New Challenge
The 2015-16 season brings new challenges for Clarkson. The 6’5” guard may find himself in a new position: shooting guard.
With the selection of point guard D'Angelo Russell with the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, Clarkson may find himself playing the two spot more times than not. While he does carry some experience on the wing, Clarkson was the Lakers primary ball handler and point guard for the overwhelming majority of his time on the court last season.
For this season and beyond, Russell makes more sense to run the point as he owns superior ball handling skills and court vision akin to a natural point guard. Clarkson, on the other hand, is by far a better shooter than a distributor.
While no starting lineup has been announced, coach Scott’s willingness to move Bryant up a spot to small forward or even power forward, highlights the desire to play Clarkson and Russell together in the backcourt. The Lakers organization hopes the duo will be their backcourt for the next decade. The development of the pair, along with 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle, will be the real test of a successful season.
With Russell and Clarkson’s length and Bryant’s versatility, the three seem like logical choices for the starting lineup. Add in reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Louis Williams, and Nick Young to the mix and the on-court combo possibilities are endless. That is not even counting Clarkson’s former college teammate Jabari Brown and 2015 second round pick Anthony Brown. Both are capable of playing their way into the rotation, especially if Bryant’s minutes are restricted, as rumored.
No matter with whom Scott decides to trot out Clarkson, one thing is for sure. The sophomore guard better get used to playing off the ball. Besides Russell, Clarkson will be battling with Williams and Young and their plus 26 percent usage rates for shot attempts and touches. That is not to mention the Black Mamba himself. As always, Bryant will require the ball in his hands a great portion of the time he is on the court as well.
Getting the chance to play along alongside Bryant, something he did not get to do much of his rookie year, could also speed up the maturation of Clarkson’s game, as the second-year player won't be the focal point for the defense. Off the court, the second-year player will get to learn from the notorious work ethic of the 20-year veteran.
While Clarkson and Bryant have both talked up the Lakers' playoff chances this season, in all reality they are staring at a third straight season at home come playoff time. But fear not, Purple and Gold nation. With the trio of Russell, Randle, and Clarkson leading the way, the basketball future in Tinseltown is bright. So while the wins may be few and far between this year, sit back and revel in the ever expanding highlight reel of Jordan Clarkson. I will even provide you with the first clip: