SAN ANTONIO — Nearly 90 minutes awaited before tipoff, and the Lakers’ locker room seemed chatty.
Lakers forward Nick Young bantered with teammates as always. A few other players talked about Kobe Bryant’s debilitating right shoulder injury. Some openly wondered how Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak would handle the upcoming Feb. 19 trade deadline.
Amid all that noise, Lakers rookie guard Jordan Clarkson sat by his locker tuning it all out. Instead, Clarkson opened up a laptop computer and watched endless clips of the San Antonio Spurs. Lakers coach Byron Scott had informed Clarkson following Friday’s morning shootaround he would make his first career start in his hometown, no less. So Clarkson did not want to leave any stone unturned.
“I want to be great and be one of the best guys in the league,” Clarkson said. “Hopefully that happens. I’m trying to be solid right now.”
Clarkson made that one small step. The Lakers’ 99-85 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday at AT&T Center may have marked the team’s seventh consecutive loss. The latest defeat may have ensured the Lakers with a 12-32 mark, the NBA’s fourth-worst record. Clarkson may have allowed his childhood idol Tony Parker to post 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting and four assists in 22 minutes. But Clarkson represented the Lakers’ lone bright spot, 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting, four assists and one turnover in a career-high 29 minutes offering promising images of a player both high on potential and work ethic.
“I’m very happy with the way Jordan played,” Scott said. “It looked like he was very poised. The moment wasn’t too big for him.”
Scott maintained Clarkson’s start had nothing to do with Bryant’s absence. So much that Scott said that he “really planned on starting Jordan with Kobe.” After all, Scott had hinted at lineup changes earlier this week as part of his pledge to reevaluate his personnel after every 20 games.
“We want to see if this kid can play in this league,” Scott said. “We feel he can. But he needs some time and needs some experience. He needs to be on that floor. We haven’t scrapped the season and said, ‘Let’s develop the young guys.’ We’re still trying to win basketball games. That’s the bottom line. But in that time alone, we want to see some guys play different positions and different rotations and different combinations.”
Regardless of Scott’s explanation, it remains up for debate whether the Lakers have become more geared toward ensuring they keep their top-five protected pick stemmed from the Steve Nash trade. Or if the Lakers have put more emphasis on development over wins. Or both. After all, the Lakers’ eighth different lineup that featured Clarkson, Wayne Ellington (shooting guard), Ryan Kelly (small forward), Jordan Hill (power forward) and Robert Sacre (center) only had played together before during Thursday’s practice.
But there is no debate on how much the Lakers hope the rest of this season ensures meaningful growth for Clarkson. The Lakers paid the Washington Wizards around $1.8 million to secure the rights to their 46th pick in the 2014 NBA draft to select Clarkson. The Lakers, including Scott, became intrigued with Clarkson’s play in Summer League where he showed promising aggressiveness, speed and athleticism as a combo guard. Yet, with the Lakers hoping to overachieve even with a roster limited with talent and injuries, Clarkson only averaged 5.1 points and .9 assists per game in 13 minutes through 22 appearances.
“I want to see him in a bigger role,” Scott said of Clarkson. “We have to find out if he can play. I think he can and believe he can. But I need him to have some extended minutes in an extended role for an extended period of time to really get a good idea if he can or not.”
Before Clarkson seized that opportunity, Scott provided specific instructions to him.
“I’ll let you call the plays,” Scott recalled telling Clarkson beforehand. “Just run the offense and run the show. Take your time, be patient and have some fun out there.”
Clarkson sure had fun.
After the Spurs opened the game with nine unanswered points, Clarkson scored the Lakers’ first four points by showing two distinctly different skillsets. Clarkson created enough space to can a 19-foot jumper. On the next possession, Clarkson drove into traffic, switched hands and finished with a left-handed layup.
Throughout the game, Clarkson would demonstrate what Scott called “that burst.” Clarkson storms off the starting block with the speed of a track runner. Clarkson revs up his motor in the same fashion a race car driver accelerates his engine. Yet, Scott instructed Clarkson to show off three gears that showcases his playmaking at a quarter speed, half speed and full on throttle.
It appeared Clarkson handled the manual shift just fine.
On one play, Clarkson drove baseline and weaved around a wave of San Antonio defenders before converting inside the paint. On another, Sacre and Clarkson ran a high pick-and-roll before Clarkson drove toward the basket, navigated traffic and made a reverse layup. Clarkson sprinted into the lane before throwing a no-look pass to Carlos Boozer for an open shot. Clarkson led a fastbreak that entailed driving past three Spurs defenders, making a layup and hitting the ensuing free throw.
“I always say the pace that you play out there, I can do a better job of controlling that. Now I just have to work on getting guys into spots and getting what we want in the half-court offense,” Clarkson said. “I feel like it’s coming along. I feel like it’s only going to get better.”
Yet, Clarkson showcased enough already to draw rave reviews. Lakers guard Ronnie Price, who lost his starting spot in favor of Clarkson, called the Lakers’ rookie a “certified pro” and predicted he “has a long career ahead of him.”
“Very poised for a rookie,” Price said. “I’m a fan. I love his game. He knows I love his game.”
Not bad for a player who played in front of 10-15 friends and family members after once starring as a three-year letter winner at Wagner High School in San Antonio.
“It means a lot,” Clarkson said. “Hopefully I’m in the league for 10-15 years and I can look back and say my first start was at home.”
Yet, Clarkson refused to tell anyone, not even his parents, that he would start. Clarkson maintained he “wanted to surprise them,” but he also wanted to limit all the distractions ranging from prolonged conversations and additional ticket requests.
That focus also applied to Clarkson’s pre-game ritual where he declined basking in locker room bantering in favor of squeezing in a few extra moments to prepare for his big night. As Scott said afterwards, “He wants to be good. So he puts the time in.”
And for one game, the investment paid off.
“I’m just going to come back and go to work the next day,” Clarkson said. “If I get another opportunity, I’m just going to play hard and try to do the same thing and put together a good game and get a win.”