MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As he spoke about taking another giant step in a long path toward greatness, Lakers rookie guard Jordan Clarkson kept hearing something that became louder and louder.
Clarkson’s phone would not stop making noise, a stream of text messages pouring into his inbox with the same rapid-fire pace as he showed with his scoring only moments earlier. The Lakers may have suffered a 97-90 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday at FedEx Forum. But that soon become an afterthought for reasons beyond the Lakers (16-45) remaining with the NBA’s fourth-worst record and maintaining high chances to secure that coveted top-five pick.
Clarkson also posted a career-high 25 points on 12-of-18 shooting and six assists and outperformed Memphis guard Mike Conley (12 points on 4-of-9 shooting and six assists). That prompted plenty of friends and family members eager to share with him their rave reviews. As indicated by the endless ping sounds on Clarkson’s phone, his performance sparked many to give their two thumbs up. The attention made Clarkson sheepish.
“I’m never satisfied,” Clarkson said. “I want to continue to keep working and continue to get better. I’m trying to do great things and continue to do well.”
It makes sense Clarkson would feel that way.
It explains why Clarkson has grown quickly from the Lakers’ No. 46 draft pick that barely cracked into the rotation as the Lakers’ starting point guard for the past 18 games. It explains how Clarkson emerged this past week with games in Charlotte, Miami and Memphis where he averaged 18 points. It explains how Clarkson has perfected his speed, athleticism and scoring that leave both Lakers coach Byron Scott and teammates raving about him. As Lakers guard Jeremy Lin said, “He wants to be great.”
“Only 10 games ago, he wasn’t doing this,” Lakers veteran forward Carlos Boozer said. “And 10 games from now, he’ll be even better. You have to keep watching him grow.”
Yet, as Clarkson has discovered this week, his growth still leaves him a few inches short.
He missed two potential game-tying three-pointers in the final two minutes in a loss to Charlotte. Clarkson tried to write a different ending in Miami. But on top of posting only 10 points on a 3-of-11 clip, he missed another late-game three-pointer. In Memphis, Clarkson committed a turnover and drew his sixth foul on Conley as the Lakers trailed, 93-89, with 13.1 seconds remaining.
“He’s learning he can play in this league at a very high level,” Scott said of Clarkson. “But he’s also learning the last three or four minutes of the game is where he has to be at his best.”
Clarkson received that painful lesson in the form of Memphis forward Tony Allen, whom Kobe Bryant has called the best defender who ever guarded him. Clarkson had breezed his way against the Grizzlies by scoring 23 points on a 11-of-15 clip midway through the third quarter. Clarkson earlier had showed off his scoring streak with a two-handed fast-break dunk and endless pull-up jumpers. But once Allen defended Clarkson in the fourth quarter, the Lakers rookie scored only two more points on a 1-of-3 clip.
Scott argued, “Jordan should look at that as a very good positive because Tony is a lock-down defender.” After all, Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph watched Clarkson excel and then dismissively asked former teammate and Lakers forward Ed Davis’ “Who’s he?” But it was also a sign that once the Grizzlies granted Clarkson some respect, his weaknesses became exposed.
“Tony, one of the best defenders in the league, got physical a little bit and put pressure on me,” Clarkson said. “I was trying to get to my stuff. But he took me off my rhythm a little bit.”
Clarkson’s tendency to get into his stuff partly explains why his rhythm turned off. Boozer reported telling Clarkson, “You can’t go one-on-one against Tony. You got to use pick and rolls and come off screens.” But after breezing through most of his opponents with his driving, his speed and his athleticism, Clarkson hoped he could outwill Allen.
“MVPS in this league like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have trouble with Tony Allen,” Boozer said. “But he’ll learn and get better. That’s a great experience for him too to go against a defender like that.”
Yet, Boozer pointed to something else he envisioned will become what he called Clarkson’s “biggest learning curve.”
Though Clarkson collected a team-leading six assists, his crafty playmaking often came at the expense of crisp ball movement. Through 18 games as a starter, it has become clear that Clarkson has placed a higher priority on scoring (14.4 points per game) than setting teammates up (four assists per game).
“He’s a scorer. That’s what he is and what he has always been. So it’s tough to turn him into necessarily a passer,” Lin said of Clarkson. “That doesn’t mean he can’t pass it. There are lot of great guards who are really great scorers. That’s what Jordan is. He’s a really great scorer. But because he’s a great scorer, he will demand a lot of attention. From there, it’s just about making the right read.”
It seems safe to presume that the endless streams of text messages did not involve those criticisms. They likely centered on Clarkson’s highlight reels against Memphis: his career-night in scoring, his thunderous dunk, his countless pull-up jumpers and his unmatched speed. But amid a brief moment when the text messages stopped, Clarkson sounded aware of the negatives surrounding him.
Yet, Clarkson vowed he will make adjustments with the same ferocity he has made in proving himself in the past month that he belongs in the NBA.
“It’s just making the right play,” Clarkson said. “Sometimes I’m missing guys. But I’ll continue to progress and keep watching stuff and watching other guards around the league as well. I’ll continue to work.”
So even with the endless text messages Clarkson received telling him how great he is, he did not immediately pick up his phone to read them all. Clarkson seems determined about wanting more.
“There’s a whole lot more left in that young man,” Scott said. “We’re obviously very happy with the way that he’s played.”
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