Jordan Clarkson, The Overlooked Laker, Is Ready To Be Seen
An afternoon with Los Angeles' least-recognized young building block.
On a Tuesday in June, a few weeks before the Los Angeles Lakers signed him to a $50 million contract, Jordan Clarkson celebrated his 24th birthday at a generic sports complex in Corona.
It was the second day of his basketball camp, in which kids from elementary school through high school traversed the court wearing gray t-shirts emblazoned with CLARKSON BASKETBALL NEVER STOPS in purple and gold letters. Two banners of Clarkson, clad in his white Missouri Tigers uniform, hang from the gym's far wall.
This, one would think, is not how professional athletes tend to spend their birthdays. The location itself is even odder. Corona is a dusty suburb in Southern California's Inland Empire, 50 miles south of the Staples Center and nearly 70 from Clarkson's home in Marina del Rey. This is not where NBA players go to do community outreach work. That is exactly the point.
"I feel like no guys come out here to this part of town," Clarkson said. "That's why I came here."
He can empathize with being overlooked. When he arrived at Mizzou after his sophomore season–he played his first two years at Tulsa–Clarkson played second fiddle to another transfer, Jabari Brown, a former five-star high school recruit who last played for the Lakers' D-League team. After acquiring Clarkson's draft rights from the Washington Wizards, Los Angeles selected him 46th in 2014, a number that he still rattles off from memory. Clarkson was the Lakers' other rookie that year, behind lottery selection Julius Randle. Then the team drafted D'Angelo Russell the following year with the No. 2 overall pick, and now Clarkson is the team's other young combo guard.
During his rookie season, Clarkson formed one half of the NBA's first Asian-American starting backcourt, but Jeremy Lin's presence dwarfed most acknowledgements of Clarkson being Filipino. Even his recent eight-figure free agency windfall seems a tad insufficient, at least after someone named Tyler Johnson parlayed a dozen half-decent NBA games into an identical four-year, $50 million deal.
All of which is to say that Jordan Clarkson, perennially disregarded, probably ought to get more attention than he does for things that don't include maybe, possibly dating Kendall Jenner. Yes, the holes in his game are easy to ferret out. Efficiency, for starters: Clarkson has yet to crack 45 percent shooting from the field or 35 percent from beyond the three-point line. He's athletic enough to get to the rim yet he attempts less than three free throws a game. He possesses neither Brandon Ingram's ceiling nor Randle's innate understanding of what his position needs and how to provide those things. Clarkson's body lends itself less to the wing than the point, but that's now Russell's domain, who by Clarkson's own admission "might be a little better passer than me."
Some context is required, though. By the third year of a NBA player's career, it's fair to wonder if a player's draft position should matter relative to their on-court production. Even Clarkson himself can't say for certain: One moment, he claims that not being a first-round selection "kind of drives me to this day"; the next, he asserts "that kind of stuff doesn't matter to me, to be honest with you."
That said, it's difficult not to grade on some kind of curve when a player mined from the dregs of the second round racks up 17 points, four rebounds and a steal per 36 minutes, all of which Clarkson did in in 2015-16. He plays both guard positions competently, if neither expertly. He bumped his three-point percentage up from a ghastly 31.4 percent as a rookie to 34.7 percent last year, enough improvement to foster hope that more is coming. If nothing else, it's easy to imagine Clarkson settling in as a Lakers' version of 1980s Detroit supersub Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson, a chainsaw new Los Angeles coach Luke Walton can rev up whenever his second unit needs to spray sparks.
Clarkson predictably salivates at the thought of playing for Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr's former right-hand man, who brings the schemes and sheen he acquired in the Bay Area. But Clarkson said that he's just as eager to continue alongside Randle and Russell. They are cognizant of the mantle they've inherited. They often share dinners, envisioning the next great Lakers teams with themselves at the forefront of a revival. In a way, Walton is no different from them: Young in his profession, but nevertheless tasked with making his mark on a very crowded mural. "I'm excited just to see how we all grow together," Clarkson said.
But perhaps the greatest motivation behind re-signing–behind committing himself to being the most peripheral part of the Lakers' inner-circle, behind remaining overlooked–was Clarkson's disgust at the thought of leaving now. He detests losing, in no small part because he's not used to it. Ask him when, if ever, he has played on a team this unsuccessful, and it takes him several seconds to walk his mind back to his freshman year at Tulsa–when, it should be noted, the Golden Hurricane finished 19-13. Yet defeat, repulsive though it may be, was still preferable to the prospect of the Lakers turning the corner without him.
"You want to bring it back," he said. "That's the reason why you want to stay, because you're here during the bad times and then you want to be here when it's time to be good. I don't want to be the guy to run away from a challenge. That's why I want to stay here. I don't feel like there's pressure but it's definitely something you want to happen. Who wants to lose? Who wants to be a loser?"
There is another goal, too, one that finally would put more eyes on Clarkson: He wants to play for the Filipino national team. He went to the islands once, to get better acquainted with his heritage, and was enthralled with the country's fixation with his sport. "Basketball, the culture of it, they just love it," he said. "You can go anywhere and play anywhere, because they've got courts all over the place." He's held onto the idea for long time, in part out of pragmatism.
"To be honest with you, I didn't feel like there would be enough attention paid to me to even play on the USA team," he says.
Clarkson is probably right: Team USA is stacked, and many great and very, very good NBA players never get called up. But on that afternoon in June, at his camp, on his birthday, things were different. He returned from lunch to find the campers flung across all corners of the gym, playing pickup games or Knockout. Then, whistle pierced the air, and one of the instructors herded them into a seated group. It was time to listen. Clarkson ambled to the front and dozens of heads tilted upwards, their voices silent. All eyes were on him.