Sunday, March 1, 2015

The future is now for Clarkson, Lakers

Jordan Clarkson is listed at 185 pounds, which is super nice of whoever comes up these sort of things.

On the court against the spidery Michael Carter-Williams on Friday, it looked as though the Bucks' point guard could wrap his 6-foot-8 wingspan around the Lakers' guard and touch his own shoulders. Among a particularly hairy starting lineup of Carlos Boozer, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre, the just-about-baby-faced rookie seemed no more than half of his 22 years.
Jordan Clarkson is listed at 185 pounds, which is super nice of whoever comes up these sort of things....

There's something innocent about the Missouri product. Hopeful even. And amid a season that has seen Kobe Bryant sidelined by injury (again), as many wins as championships lining Jeanie Buss' office window, and a commitment to black alternate jerseys with sleeves, hope, in any form, is greeted with an MCW-sized bear hug.

Three straight wins will certainly lift spirits. Especially when said rookie -- the only one left standing of the team's two-man 2014 draft class -- leads the team in scoring two games in a row.

A fourth-quarter surge from Ellington, in which the journeyman guard rectified an 0-for-6 start with all 14 of his points, ultimately toppled the Milwaukee Bucks, 101-93, and lifted the Lakers to their second three-game winning streak of the season. But it's Clarkson's game-high 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting and 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, one game after scoring a career-high 20, that will linger long after Staples Center goes cold and quiet in a season destined to finish without a trip to the postseason for a second straight year.

"I'm just feeling more comfortable," said Clarkson, who after the game sported a T-shirt with the mug shot of a young Elvis Presley.

As banal as that sounds, that's important.

The Lakers have historically relied on their big, swinging legacy rather than the draft, often leveraging all those sunny days, all those titles and all those Hall of Famers to great effect; this is the same franchise that less than three years ago turned Andrew Bynum and a few party favors into Dwight Howard, then the best center on the planet. Their mixed opinions on analytics may be to their determent, but even quants concede there are inherent advantages sewn into those purple and gold jerseys. "I don't know that the Lakers need to be at the forefront of analytics usage," one analytics official told ESPN's Baxter Holmes, before noting the advantages even a big-market team can glean from those spreadsheets.

But as one of five teams with a loss column already north of 40, it behooves the Lakers to turn to the future. Even if Clarkson, the 46th overall pick last June, isn't in the long-term plans, developing seedlings like him could ultimately produce the type of young assets that can be flipped for the next big-money superstar in the team's long lineage.

Byron Scott, in his own way, appears to agree.

When asked what the biggest difference has been for Clarkson since the beginning of the season, the Lakers' coach replied, "Yeah, playing."

He's not wrong. After seeing his playing time yo-yo throughout the first three months of the season, Clarkson has averaged 27.1 minutes during February. And while Scott kept the rookie out of crunch time against the Bucks, he has stuck with him in the starting lineup, even as Jeremy Lin has averaged a team-best 16.3 points and shot 50 percent since the All-Star break.

"He's playing much better now," Scott said. "He's playing with better pace, he's not as frantic out there as he was earlier in the season. He's reading the defenses better, even though he still has a lot to learn. Defensively, he's gotten better and he's still got a long way to go. [But] his overall game has improved from training camp to this particular point."

The production from said court time, outside of the past two games, won’t exactly blow you away: Clarkson is averaging 13.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game in February while shooting 45 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3. His PER on the season is a solid 14.95, his true shooting percentage a nice 51.

But it's something. And in a season like this one, something is more than enough.