Can Jordan Clarkson go from the No. 46 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft to a member of the NBA’s All-Rookie team?
That didn’t need a second thought earlier in the season, when Clarkson was averaging only 11 minutes per game in October, November and December.
But since being thrust into the starting lineup on Jan. 29 at San Antonio – his hometown, incidentally – Clarkson has quickly improved as his minutes have risen by the month.
“He’s done a hell of a job learning our offense and really learning what he can do on both ends of the floor,” said Lakers head coach Byron Scott. “Each week he’s added a little something extra. His work ethic is fantastic; he’s a guy that wants to be good, and he works his butt off.
“I think he is one of the top rookies in the league this year. To me, there’s no doubt he’s in that top five.”
Clarkson’s All-Rookie case got a boost on Friday, when he was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March. The 22-year-old unseated Andrew Wiggins, the likely Rookie of the Year honoree, who had won the previous four monthly honors out West. His confidence is growing.
“The speed, the pace and the physicality of the game are a lot different from college, but the more time I get, I’m becoming more comfortable,” said Clarkson on Time Warner Cable SportsNet. “I’ve just kept pressing. I knew that it was a process and my time would come if I worked hard every day.”
His best all-around game came March 30 at Philadelphia, when he joined Stephen Curry, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook as the only players in the NBA this season to record a game of at least 26 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and three steals.
The Missouri product had been even better in his last seven games (before a rough outing against Chris Paul and a screen/roll trapping Clippers team on Sunday), averaging 21.9 points on 55.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.3 percent from 3-point range, plus 6.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals.
The Lakers rookie that many would have pegged for a spot on the All-Rookie team wasn’t Clarkson, of course, but No. 7 overall pick Julius Randle, whose season ended with a broken leg in his first NBA game.
But when asked about his fellow rookie, Randle was insightful.
“I’m a big fan of guys’ mindsets, and Jordan doesn’t back down from anybody,” said Randle. “Jordan’s always in attack mode, and I love playing with guys like that because that’s kind of the same nature I have. And I feed off that. I think guys that have that same mindset kind of feed off of each other.
“So what he’s doing right now honestly and truly doesn’t surprise me at all. You obviously see every day at the end of practice: He’s always putting work in, and he just waited his turn.”
One caveat to Clarkson’s case: players like Wiggins, Nikola Mirotic, Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton have been productive all season, while Clarkson played behind Jeremy Lin and Ronnie Price until late January. But his recent hot streak has his season-long numbers looking pretty good alongside the rest of the rookies. He’s managed to lead all rookies except big man Noel in field goal percentage, while also keeping his turnovers low for a guard seeing so much of the ball.
Clarkson has played some of his best basketball late in games. He twice made game-winning plays at Minnesota (an offensive rebound and two free throws) and Philadelphia (buzzer-beating layup) last week.
“When the game’s on the line he’s not afraid of the moment,” Scott said. “You can see the confidence in the fourth quarter. He feels like he can make a shot; he can get to the basket; he can make the free throws. That’s something where you either have that or you don’t. Jordan’s one of those guys that doesn’t mind the moment.”
But Clarkson, who’s more of a combo guard than a classic point or shooting guard, has much to learn. Scott wants him to start by watching more film on CP3, the all-star he used to coach in New Orleans.
“Chris has probably seven different speeds, and Jordan has probably two or three at the most,” said Scott. “So if he can get to the point where he can continue to change speeds like he’s doing and see the way he’s starting to see it — where it’s slowed down — then I think he has a chance to be a special player, because he has athleticism.
“He’s got to get stronger because he’s young. But what I’ve seen from day one is a willingness to get better and a willingness to work and take criticism and use that as a positive to work on and develop his game.”
Scott said Clarkson is starting to see plays before they happen, a sign that the game is slowing down for him.
“Two weeks ago the guy would be open (and) by the time he saw it the window was closed,” he explained. “Now the game is slowing down where he’s starting to see it, so he’s able to make those reads a lot better.”
Whether or not Clarkson makes the All-Rookie First Team*, he has already established himself as a player the Lakers value moving forward.
*The last time non-first rounders were named to the All-Rookie First Team was in 2010-11: Landry Fields (39th overall); and Gary Neal (undrafted).
“There’s always a silver lining,” Scott concluded. “We know this hasn’t been the type of season that we wanted. But in the midst of all this, we found a little bit of a diamond in the rough in Jordan Clarkson — a kid that has big-time upside and potential. And if he continues to work the way he’s been working, the game is going to get easier for him.”