LOS ANGELES — The Lakers had finally hit a point in the season where victories do not matter.
No, the Lakers insist they are not tanking so they can salvage their top-3 protected pick. They still consider wins important to establish productive habits. Yet as the losses have continued piling up, the Lakers have put higher and higher value in developing their younger players even to the extent it might cost them some victories.
For Jordan Clarkson’s rookie season, that meant he would go from a seldom-used bench player to a definitive starting point guard. For his second season, that meant Clarkson kept his starting spot while having more minutes.
As for his third season? Clarkson learned before the Lakers’ 118-116 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday at Staples Center that Luke Walton’s decision to sit veteran guard Nick Young did not mean he would start. That honor instead went to David Nwaba, who had just signed a second 10-day contract after the undrafted guard from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo spent the past year with the Lakers’ Development League affiliate.
“I agree with it,” Clarkson said, “and I’m ready to take it in stride.”
Clarkson agreed with it because of Walton’s thought process.
“I wanted to keep him on the ball and play a lot of those minutes as a primary ball handler,” Walton said. “That wouldn’t be the case in the starting group.”
And as a result, Clarkson matched a career-high in points (30) on 10-of-16 shooting and posted a season-high in assists (eight) in 34 minutes off the bench.
Clarkson attacked the basket as he usually does. But he also set up plays for others when he faced a suffocating Sixers defense. Walton also observed that Clarkson looked to the sideline and apologized over the few times he had still took contested shots.
“I’m trying to find that balance again,” Clarkson said. “I’ve been thrown into different roles each and every year. So coming off the bench, coach got me in a role wjhere I can have the ball and do somethings with it. I try to get my teammates shot and continue to make plays.”
Clarkson admitted it has “been a slow process” as he has watched film and learned on the fly. The Lakers have been reluctant to pair Clarkson with starting point guard D’Angelo Russell because both players mostly operate as ball-handling guards. Though the Lakers valued Lou Williams for his team-leading 18.6 points on 44.4 percent shooting, they traded him to Houston for reasons beyond a first-round pick and Corey Brewer.
The Lakers were aware that Williams’ presence did not always make Clarkson feel comfortable on the floor. Walton noted that Clarkson “has a scoring mentality,” while relying on Williams to become a playmaker.
“Because the opportunities are so much more,” Walton said, “he’s done a nice job of relaxing and making the right play instead of thinking, ‘I need to get my shot.'”
Now that Clarkson has a better shot at having a bigger role, he added some encouraging words after admitting his initial learning curve.
Said Clarkson: “It’s coming along, though.”