SALT LAKE CITY — The court opened up, leaving Jordan Clarkson with enough room to make a statement regarding something that has bothered him all year.
Clarkson has remained motivated that concerns about his shooting accuracy sent his draft stock plummeting last summer to the second round. So as he saw Utah rookie guard Dante Exum in his peripheral view, Clarkson revved up his engine. He threw down a one-handed dunk that may end up on a poster someday. Clarkson then zeroed in on a Lakers fan sitting in the fourth row behind the basket. He flexed his muscles and then gave a salute.
“I play with emotions all the time,” Clarkson said following the Lakers’ 100-97 victory over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday at EnergySolutions Arena. “I wanted to pressure the ball. I told coach I would get one on that play. I went for it and it happens. It’s crazy how things fall together.”
It sure is crazy how things fall together.
Clarkson would post a career-high 22 points on 10-of-16 shooting, three assists, two steals and two turnovers in 34 minutes. Meanwhile, Exum would only contribute three points on a 1-of-2 clip, three assists, two turnovers and three fouls. While this box score might seem meaningless in an otherwise forgettable game between two teams destined for the NBA draft lottery, the symbolism seemed too obvious.
The Jazz drafted Exum fifth overall in last year’s draft, a player that intrigued the Lakers for many reasons including his playmaking and relationship with Kobe Bryant stemmed from sharing the same agent (Rob Pelinka). The Lakers could not fill their needs at the point guard slot since Boston selected Marcus Smart with the sixth pick. So the Lakers used their seventh selection on Kentucky forward Julius Randle, the nation’s consensus top big man after posting a nation-leading 24 double doubles. Yet, the Lakers did not hesitate in sending the Washington Wizards $1.8 million for their 46th pick, which they used to nab Clarkson.
“I play with emotions all the time,” Clarkson said. “If I go against someone drafted higher than me, it’s one of those things that I carry it with me.”
That revelation should not be surprising.
Shortly after the Lakers drafted him, Clarkson revealed on a conference call that a team should have selected earlier. After all, his agent and various mock drafts pegged him as a mid first-round pick. Clarkson had averaged 17.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in one season with Missouri after transferring from Tulsa following his sophomore season. Yet, Clarkson shot better than 38.5 percent from the field only once in his last nine games with Missouri.
All of which gave Clarkson fuel to burn against Utah. He dove for loose balls. Clarkson made a pull-up jumper over Exum early in the third quarter. Clarkson defended Exum tighter than the small pink backpack he still has to wear as part of his rookie duties. That prompted Scott to observe afterwards that Clarkson “took the challenge.”
“That’s a great way to use as motivation,” Scott said. “But you can only use it for so long. But I’m glad he’s using it because he’s doing a heck of a job right now.”
Yet, it seems his fuel has also burned elsewhere.
Seven months after his apparent draft snub, Clarkson replied with playful sarcasm on where he thinks he should have been selected.
“I’m a second round pick, the 46th pick,” Clarkson said, smiling. “That’s where I was supposed to go. I’m just trying to prove people wrong.”
But Clarkson is also trying to prove the Lakers right for selecting him, arguing with a sense of irony that this turned out to be the perfect fit. After all, Clarkson believes he benefited through a unique set of circumstances.
He did not receive immediate playing time, forcing him to earn respect from coaches and teammates with his practice habits and how he observed games from the sideline. Once Bryant became sidelined with a season-ending injury to his right shoulder six weeks ago, Scott then thrust Clarkson into the starting rotation in hopes to expedite his development.
Since then, Clarkson has averaged 13.6 points, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 turnovers through 13 games. The Lakers believe he has struck a better balance in maintaining his aggressiveness, while becoming a better playmaker. They have also seen him temper his speed by showing better awareness on when to shift gears.
“I can relate,” Lakers guard Jeremy Lin said. “That was my biggest thing, always charging into the paint. He’s just going to continue to grow. This experience is so valuable. So he’ll be fine as long as he continues to work at it and continues to make adjustments.”
That apparently includes perfecting his latest highlight reel. Scott called Clarkson’s dunk “all right” and “pretty good,” and appeared hesitant to offer too much praise. Though Lin called Clarkson’s slam “awesome,” Lin joked that Clarkson appeared to overthink his celebration and needed to rely on his “gut instinct.”
But for one night, Clarkson already offered a perfect rebuttal for all the teams that passed on him in the draft. He answered with everything on the court, including a dunk over a draft prospect selected ahead of him.
“I’m just me,” Clarkson said. “I want to be great. I want to be as great as I can be. I’ll continue to put the work in and be aggressive.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter and on Facebook. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org