The lucrative four-year, $50 million deal represents the Lakers’ long-term optimism on Jordan Clarkson’s trajectory. He quickly established himself as a steal when the Lakers selected him with the 46th pick in the 2014 NBA draft. He attacked the basket with ease. He won most conditioning drills in practice. He showed up to put in a full day of work without much fanfare.
But even as Clarkson has shown steady growth entering his third NBA season, Lakers coach Luke Walton outlined something specific that will make Clarkson’s ascension even more noticeable once training camp begins on Sept. 27.
“I think he can take his biggest strides by embracing the challenge of being a solid defender in this league,” Walton said in a recent interview with Southern California News Group. “The big thing for him in becoming a better basketball player and us as a team is the way he gets after it on defense.”
Walton echoed something former Lakers coach Byron Scott expressed following the 2015-16 season. Despite Clarkson increasing his scoring average from 11.9 points per game his rookie season to 15.5 points in his second year, Scott warned Clarkson would play fewer minutes if he did not improve on defense. With the Lakers ranking 26th out of 30 NBA teams in total points allowed (106.9), Clarkson represented one of many Lakers’ perimeter players that suffered from both lacking support and risky gambling on one-on-one defense.
The Lakers may have changed coaching staffs. But they haven’t changed their message on Clarkson, who spent most of his exit interview with Scott and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak dissecting his defense.
“A couple of times I’ve seen it this summer where he gets after the ball. Because of his quickness, he disrupts the players,” Walton said. “That’s going to be more of a mindset thing with him. He can be a very solid defender because of the way he can move out there on the court.”
Walton sounded optimistic Clarkson can fulfill that job description because of his other habits. Walton called Clarkson “an extremely hard worker” that has entailed arriving to the Lakers’ practice facility early in the morning and additional instruction with his personal trainer, Drew Hanlen. Walton praised Clarkson for being “always positive” with his enthusiasm for work and easygoing personality. Walton also did not find it surprising Clarkson cracked double-digits last season for 27 consecutive games despite sharing the ball with other playmakers, including Kobe Bryant, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle.
“He plays like he practices. He doesn’t go through the motions on anything,” Walton said. “When you have somebody who can shoot and get to the rim like he can, it makes it very hard to guard him. He never stops. It’s what you want on your team. Offensively, what he can do at a young age, I think he is going to continue to get better with the way he works. He’ll be just fine on that end of the court.”
Will Clarkson be fine on the other end of the court? Walton did not waste any time calling for Clarkson to do so, knowing both team and individual success could significantly depend on it.