L.A.

Could Jordan Clarkson be a cornerstone player for Lakers?

Photo Credit: Robyn Beck / Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Lakers jumped into the second round of last year’s draft by acquiring the 46th overall pick from the Washington Wizards for $1.8 million to select Jordan Clarkson, it was a clear indication how much they valued the former Missouri guard.

It was evident at the point that the 22-year-old would be in the team’s future plans, especially with Steve Nash entering the last year of his contract and Jeremy Lin also set to become a free agent in 2015.  However, it wasn’t expected for him to be the position he is currently in as the Lakers’ starting point guard.

Lakers general Manager Mitch Kupchak had originally classified Clarkson as being a “ball-handling guard” that he had expected to be”gone [in the] mid-first round.” But for whatever reason he fell significantly in the draft, and it paved way to an opportunity for the team to snag him.

That said, what has transpired this season wasn’t anticipated and has worked greatly in favor of Clarkson in his first season in the NBA. Since being named the Lakers’ starting point guard in January, he has progressed significantly in his development as a player through the bumps and bruises along the way.

In 31 games as a starter, the 22-year-old is averaging a team-leading 15 points per game along with 4.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 0.8 steals. What has happened this time is that Clarkson has become more of a player that’s seen as a point guard than  just a combo guard because of his improved passing ability.

This addition to his game played a major part of him being named the Western Conference rookie of the month for March, which made him the first ever Laker to earn that award. In 16 games played last month, he averaged a team-leading 15.8 points on 45.2 percent shooting along with 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds.

This also included reaching double figures scoring 14 times (four 20-plus point performances), 10 games of at least five assists, and recording his first career double-double.

It appears that it doesn’t stop there for Clarkson as he has taken his game to another level over the past six contests. He is averaging 21.9 points on 55 percent shooting from the field, including 43 percent from 3-point range, to go with 6.4 assists, and 5.6 rebounds.This includes back-to-back double-doubles of points and assists, scoring over 20 points four times, and recording a career-best 30 points against Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

He has also become a viable Rookie of the Year candidate over the past three months as he ranks third among rookies in points per game (10.9), field goal percentage (.447), free throw percentage (.828), fifth in assists per game (3.1), and 13th in rebounds per game (3.1).

In Scott’s eyes the rookie has shown that he possesses the necessary mental and physical fortitude that a great point guard has, but the coach also gave recognition to his seemingly innate ability to step up to the challenge against a premier opposing counterpart.

This was the case in the Lakers’ last game on Friday night against the Portland Trail Blazers with a matchup with two-time All-Star Damian Lillard. Clarkson outscored his counterpart 27 to 20, and he almost brought his team back into the game twice as he scored 12 points in the final three minutes in the second quarter, and had eight points during the same time frame in the third quarter.

“I thought he took the challenge like he has all season long. He single-handedly got us back in the game in the second quarter,” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said. “He’s a guy that has that mental and physical toughness that we’re talking about. He plays with a little bit of a chip and I though that’s what he did in the second quarter to get us back in the game. I thought he did that in the third quarter as well.”

Scott was equally impressed with Clarkson’s growing vocal leadership role on the team, and stated that quality is key for playing his position.

“He was even more so tonight, which is good because he is growing in that aspect as well,” Scott said. “Most great point guards in this league are very vocal. They’re natural born leaders. I think Jordan has that in him as well, so he is trying to hold guys accountable for what they are supposed to do when they don’t do it. I keep seeing things from him every game or every couple of games where he is showing me a little more growth as a basketball player, and that is exciting.”

What Clarkson has proven more than anything to his head coach since becoming the team’s starting point guard is that he certainly belongs in the NBA, and is in the team’s plans for next season.

“I think he has proven that he can definitely play in this league. No doubt about that,” Scott said. “Let’s add some pieces around him and let’s see what happen, but he can he can definitely play in this league. I think he has proven that from January when he first started to this present day. We feel he is going to continue to get better as a point guard in this league.”

Despite all the promising potential and growth as a player this season, Scott still hasn’t committed to the idea of Clarkson being the team’s starting point guard next year because what could possibly unfold in the offseason. The team could be eyeing potential free agents Rajon Rondo and Goran Dragic, who are both said to have interest in joining the Lakers.

“I think the thing right now with him is that we know he is going to be on our team next year,” Scott said. “We have to add pieces, there’s no doubt about that. I don’t think we necessarily say we’re building around him, but we have to add pieces with him and that’s the biggest thing right now.”

However, Clarkson’s progress has “definitely” made Scott contemplate the notion that the 22-year-old could be the team’s long-term answer, but with so much influx in the offseason it’s not something he can decide at this moment in time.

“It depends on who that point (guard) is,” Scott said. “Again, we still got to still build a roster to answer all those questions. You’re asking me stuff that might happen in the next two to three months from now or even later, but I do know this that kid is going to be on our team next year.”

Although Scott is not completely on board with that premise, Clarkson will have the rest of the season to further his development, and possibly strengthen his case for the starting point guard job next season.

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Bob Garcia IV

Bob Garcia IV is a sports journalist from Southern California. He's currently the Los Angeles Lakers beat writer for Sports Out West. He's also currently a sports freelance writer for Sports Uncut. He's also the beat writer for LA Rams Report for Scout.com, which is a website dedicated to covering the Rams. Lastly, he was a reporter for the award-winning newspaper, The Daily Sundial, at California State University, Northridge. You can follow him on Twitter, @BGarcia90.
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