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The Strength of the Pack is the Wolf

East's Top-Scoring Reserve Looks to Expand His Game
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

The Strength of the Pack
is the Wolf

East's Top-Scoring Reserve Looks to Expand His Game

When you’ve been labeled “a wolf” by your head coach, it’s a tough nickname to live down.

Jordan Clarkson just flashes a shy smile and looks away when he’s confronted with his new nom de guerre. But he knows that his game fits the lupine bill – and he’ll be ready to bark at the moon when the regular season rolls around in exactly two weeks.

The origin story unfolded on just the third day of Training Camp. With rookie Dylan Windler on the shelf through the preseason, Coach John Beilein made the decision to move Clarkson over to play some 3 when he goes with a small backcourt.

”You've got to have a wolf mentality as a small forward in some of the things we do,” praised Beilein. “There's not a better wolf on the team than Jordan Clarkson. He's huntin'. And we need a hunter at that position.”

The Clarkson experiment worked well in the Cavs preseason opener against San Lorenzo. Although Clarkson seemed even less concerned about the position label than his head coach.

”I’m just out there, trying to play-make and score – that’s my job,” smiled the sixth-year man. “Three, two, one, four, over in the corner, up top, back screens, (I’m just) getting the ball and finding a way to impact the game.”

Clarkson has made an impact on the game from almost the minute he arrived via a trade with the Lakers at the 2018 Trade Deadline – arriving alongside Larry Nance Jr., with Cleveland surrendering Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas and a 2018 first rounder that turned out to be Moritz Wagner.

In his first game with the Cavs after the deal – a blowout win over the Celtics on the day they retired Paul Pierce’s jersey – Clarkson scored 17 points, going 7-of-11 from the floor, including 3-of-4 from long-range. And he’s barely slowed down since.

Jordan Clarkson established himself as one of the top sixth men in the history of the Cavs franchise.
Photo: David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

In his first full season with Cleveland, Clarkson was outstanding from start to finish – leading all Eastern Conference reserves in scoring, netting 72 games in double-figures and missing just a single contest in a season in which the squad was consumed by the injury bug.

Clarkson put his name on the map last year, but he’s been the model of consistency for some time now. Over his last four seasons, the 46th overall pick of the 2014 Draft has averaged 15.2 points and 81 games played. He averages double-figure scoring in every arena in the league.

And he’s ready to pick up where he left off.

”I did a lot of similar stuff to what I did last summer in terms of working out on the court, my diet,” said Clarkson. “I feel like last year I was in the best shape I've been in since I've been in the NBA. So, this summer I did a lot of similar stuff.”

If Clarkson plans to fulfill Coach Beilein’s vision for him, he’ll take even more pounding than he takes running through screens as a 2-guard – and that’ll mean more time in the weight room. But through his first five NBA seasons, his durability is unquestioned.

"You know, since my rookie year, I've been kind of put in a box that I'm just a scorer – and I can do that, too – but it's just about finding a balance."

Jordan Clarkson, on becoming more versatile this season

”The year before last year – well, actually, all my years before I came here – I wasn't really big on the weight room,” said Clarkson. “So just being able to get in the weight room, trying to convert my body and just be able to take that beating and be ready to bounce back and to have my muscles intact for that. It's always about being able to bounce back because you've got to be able to do that on a consistent basis. And the weight room really helps me with that.”

Only the Clippers’ Lou Williams – the NBA’s three-time and reigning Sixth Man of the Year – scored more points (1,485) than Clarkson last year, with the former Tulane standout becoming just the 19th player in NBA history to score more than 1,300 points off the bench in a season.

Clarkson was also the major reason Cleveland ranked 6th in the league in bench scoring, averaging a franchise-record 42.6 points per game. In a triple-overtime thriller against Brooklyn just before the All-Star Break, Clarkson notched a career-best 42 points – drilling a season-high seven bombs in the loss.

It was the most points scored by a reserve in franchise history (topping Phil Hubbard’s 37), the first 40-point night of his career and the most by any Cavalier last season. In another game against the Nets, he became the first Cavs reserve to net at least 20 points and 10 boards in less than 30 minutes off the bench since 2014.

Overall, Clarkson averaged a career-best 16.8 points – 3rd best among all NBA bench players – topping the 20-point plateau on 25 occasions.

After his career year, Clarkson didn’t take his foot off the gas this summer and looks to add some new tools to his repertoire this season.

”(This year), just to try to score with less dribbles – being able to play off the ball, being able to play off the catch; catching and driving immediately or making a play for my teammates,” listed Clarkson. “With the new system that coach is putting in, it gives me a lot more opportunity to make plays in terms of getting other guys shots instead of just me scoring.”

Aside from moving over to play some 3, Clarkson wants to prove that he’s more than just a scorer.

”I think it's a good system we've got in place, and I feel like I'm going to be able to succeed, because I can pass the ball – I think I've proven that,” said Clarkson, adding: “You know, since my rookie year, I've been kind of put in a box that I'm just a scorer – and I can do that, too – but it's just about finding a balance.”

Last year, Clarkson etched his name into franchise history – eclipsing the great Campy Russell as the all-time single-season leader in points off the bench. But he still came up just short against arguably the greatest sixth man in team history – Hot Rod Williams – who averaged 16.87 points per in 1989-90 compared to Clarkson’s 16.84 this past year.

The lithe swingman also sees some of last season’s success as an extension of his outstanding play in the Asian Games in August of last year, suiting up for the Philippines for the first time. (His mother is of half-Filipino descent and Jordan holds dual citizenship.) Clarkson scored at least 20 points in each game and led the Philippines to its best finish in 16 years.

”The (international) game is really different, the physicality is different, you don't get as many calls,” said Clarkson. The game is just totally different. You really have to be able to play without the ball and really rely on your teammates to get you shots because they're clogging the paint.

”I think it really helps your development, to be honest with you -- just on how to play and how to get open without the ball.”

Still just 27 years of age, Clarkson finds himself as one of the young squad’s seasoned vets. And he’ll have a chance to pass down some NBA wisdom to Cleveland’s collection of youngbloods.

”I’m probably more like an older brother; I wouldn't say 'a mentor' because I'm still learning too,” said Clarkson. “But definitely like an older brother, especially like for Darius, even though he's already got a really good feel for the game. He and I have talked about where he wants me to be on the floor and where he wants to be. We want this to be successful for him and successful for me.”

Coach Beilein would love a few more wolves like Clarkson in his pack. But for now, he’s got an alpha male who’s ready to start hunting right where he left off last year.

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