The Los Angeles Lakers are a young and struggling team, tied for the worst record in the NBA’s Western Conference. Rookie point guard Lonzo Ball is playing poorly, and his outspoken father, Lavar, is a never ending distraction. The team’s most important concern is whether it will be able to use legacy and location to lure the best free agents, including LeBron James, this offseason.
Former Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson, however, has not been one of the things Lakers coach Luke Walton has had to worry about. In his fourth year with the franchise, Clarkson is a steady performer and a veteran for a team that has few of either. After years of roster reshuffling, Clarkson is tied with former Kentucky forward Julius Randle as the longest-tenured Laker on the roster.
“Let’s get out of here,” second-year forward Brandon Ingram said to Clarkson near the end of an afternoon shoot-around last week, right before the two performed an elaborate handshake.
“You warmed up already?” Walton said wryly while looking at Clarkson, who was a few feet away on a courtside seat. It was around noon, and the Lakers were set to play the Rockets, one of the NBA’s best teams.
“Yeah,” Clarkson told his coach. “Mental. My wheels — they’ve got to be ready for six o’clock.”
Clarkson is having arguably the best season of his career, and he’s doing so with a new, well-defined role: He’s the Lakers’ sixth man.
Clarkson was a starter for all of his second year in the NBA and during portions of the other ones, including the final 16 games of last season. This year, Ball, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft, is starting in front of him, but is struggling. Clarkson is shooting a career-best 45.1 percent from the field and scoring 14.2 points per game while averaging a career-low 23.1 minutes.
“You’ve got to be secure in yourself to accept that role,” Walton said. “It’s normally not a role that’s easily accepted.”
Clarkson, who transferred to Missouri from Tulsa and averaged 17.5 points per game during his one season with the Tigers (2013-14), said he doesn’t mind coming off the bench. He said the only adjustment required is making sure he is able to get into an offensive rhythm quickly. Walton will keep Clarkson on the floor if he is scoring.
The greater challenge for Clarkson, an easygoing 25-year-old, is to be a mentor for younger Lakers. He said he prefers to “lay back and chill.”
“I’m still young,” Clarkson said. “I haven’t been around the league that long where I can live off information and experience. It’s only my fourth year.”
But Walton believes players respond well to men like Clarkson, a second-round pick who spent time in the NBA’s Development League before establishing himself as a professional. Walton, in his second year as head coach of the Lakers, also thinks helping young players will be “good for his growth.”
“I don’t think it’s his natural being,” Walton said. “He challenges himself to get better. This is something that’s not a skill-set as far as shooting, dribbling, passing, but it’s an important role to play. He knows that’s part of the responsibility.”
Clarkson might not get the chance to be in this role for much longer, though.
During the 2016 offseason, he signed a four-year, $50 million contract. He is an obvious candidate for the Lakers to trade as they seek to clear up cap space and sign marquee free agents.
Asked whether trade rumors distracted him, Clarkson, who still thinks of himself as a young player, gave a veteran answer.
“There’s a bank in every city.”