COLUMBIA — Good luck convincing Missouri junior point guard Jordan Clarkson that Missouri’s exhibition wins against Oklahoma City and Central Missouri don’t matter.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Clarkson struggled the last time he suited up for a college basketball game before transferring to Missouri. He shot three of 11 from the field and committed seven turnovers for Tulsa, which lost in triple overtime during the opening round of the 2012 Conference USA Tournament.
Since that bitter defeat, which ended Tulsa’s season and marked the end of coach Doug Wojcik’s tenure, 610 days will have passed before Clarkson steps on the floor Friday for the Missouri’s regular-season opener against Southeastern Louisiana.
“I didn’t have a good game,” Clarkson said when asked about that loss to Marshall, “but these last (exhibition) games have been meaningful to me. It won’t be a change for me next Friday.”
When he decided to leave Tulsa after Wojcik was fired, Clarkson knew he’d have to sit out a season because of NCAA transfer rules. He just didn’t realize how taxing 20 months without games would be.
“I don’t think he thought it would be as difficult as it ended up being,” Jordan’s father, Michael, said by phone from San Antonio. “I called him often just to reinforce the positives for him. … I just tried to encourage him and told him to be as tough as he could and work as hard as he could with his teammates.”
Tigers senior Earnest Ross, a transfer from Auburn who sat out the 2011-12 season, can relate.
“When you’re sitting out for so long, that’s all you can think about is the next time you’re going to step out on the court,” Ross said.
Watching the guys you swap sweat with at every practice endure heartbreak hurts too — like watching Missouri falter late against LSU and Texas A&M or lose its first game of the NCAA Tournament against Colorado State.
“The toughest days were watching some of those losses, sitting in a room by yourself and watching the game,” Clarkson said, “knowing you couldn’t be out there to help your team.”
A new challenge awaits Clarkson — playing point guard.
During his career at Tulsa, Clarkson, who averaged 16.5 points with 3.9 assists and 2.5 rebounds as a sophomore, primarily played shooting guard.
Last season, Clarkson gleaned all he could every practice by battling former Tigers point guard Phil Pressey, who now plays for the Boston Celtics.
“Phil was one of the best point guards in college basketball and going against him every day helped me, just trying to keep up with him,” Clarkson said. “He had a big role in my progression, pushing me every day.”
Of course, Clarkson, 6 feet 5, is a different player than Pressey.
For starters, he’s six inches taller and uses that wingspan as a weapon defensively, but Clarkson’s also a more polished scorer.
His biggest challenge will be striking a balance between getting his teammates involved, which is among the point guard’s biggest responsibilities, while still shouldering a substantial scoring load.
“He can still score, and we’ve got to get him to be more assertive in that area,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. “He’s kind of taken playing point guard to heart, which is good. But even when he’s on the ball, I want him still being in attack mode and still being aggressive. It’s going to take time and it’s something that can be very difficult, finding that right balance.”
Ironically, it’s that year off that might prove to be Clarkson’s best asset in making the adjustment.
“He was actually studying the game as he sat out and not necessarily watching the ball go through the hoop, but more or less watching the rhythms players that he was going to play with the following year,” Michael Clarkson said. “It helped him understand the different sets Coach Haith ran and really get a feel for the entire program — the players themselves and the coaching philosophies. You really don’t understand the game until you have to sit and watch.”
That might be especially true for Clarkson, who didn’t take up basketball competitively until ninth grade.
He logged a lot of hours in the gym during the last year and a half — refining his jumper and improving his finishing at the rim, becoming a smoother ball-handler and working on his passing — but the strides he made in understanding the game are likely to pay the biggest dividends.
“Basically, you become a coach almost and you learn to coach yourself when you are forced to sit out,” said Clarkson, who jumped onto the NBA radar with a star turn at Chris Paul’s CP3 Elite Guard Camp last summer. “That really helped me expand my game. I understand better where my spots are to score and where I’m supposed to be defensively.”
Now, playing at a higher level and surrounded by a stronger supporting cast, Clarkson is eager to show all that he’s learned.
“People know he can score the ball, but really it’s about finding good shots and working within the team concept like Coach Haith asks,” Ross said. “We’ve got other scorers on this team, so hopefully that takes some pressure off of him, knowing he doesn’t have to force shots or put up tough shots.”
Leaving Tulsa wasn’t an easy decision — “Jordan is a very loyal person,” his father said — but Jordan is eager to prove it was the right decision.
“At Tulsa, he was the No. 1 option,” Michael Clarkson said. “However, now he’s in a position where he knows he has a higher caliber of players around him, so I think that relieves some of the pressure. I’ll probably see him smile more this year than I’ve seen him smile the past two seasons.”
If all goes according to plan, Jordan Clarkson will give Missouri fans plenty of reason to smile as well.
“I’m not worried about points or anything like that,” he said. “I just want to win. That’s one of the main reasons I came here was to win. Missouri has got a strong tradition, and I’m going to put everything on the line every game. We want to win the SEC title, get to the tournament and get past that first round. We want to try to make some noise.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.