LOS ANGELES -- Jordan Clarkson fell just short of history Wednesday, coming three rebounds shy of being the first Los Angeles Lakers rookie to record a triple-double since some guy named Magic Johnson, who nabbed seven during the 1979-80 season.
It would've been another fine notch in the belt for the athletic combo guard out of Missouri, but Clarkson said he wasn't even aware that he was near a triple-double until he checked out late in the Lakers’ 113-92 loss to New Orleans.
"Kobe [Bryant] told me, ‘You missed it by three,'" said Clarkson, who finished with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and, most impressively, just one turnover in 31 minutes.
More and more, Clarkson has become the lone bright spot in a lost Lakers season, the one (healthy) player in purple and gold who is really worth the price of admission, that Lakers fans are excited to see while also rooting for their team to lose in order to help its draft lottery position.
And with every game, Clarkson seems to show more upside, more promise, whether it’s scoring a career-high 30 points while going toe-to-toe with Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, or performances such as Wednesday, when Clarkson posted 11 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds in the first quarter alone.
Still, Lakers coach Byron Scott tempers his praise of Clarkson, whose rapid rise has placed him in discussion for a spot on the NBA’s 2014-15 All-Rookie first team.
“I still want him to continue to show me something, which he’s doing, but I don’t want to go overboard,” Scott said. “I’m sure he has very high expectations of himself, but, again, I've got to take it step by step.
“He’s had a great rookie year. Let’s see how the summer goes and training camp goes, and let’s see how the season goes next year. I want to keep everything in perspective when it comes to Jordan Clarkson. Obviously, he’s shown that he can play in this league.”
Entering Wednesday, Clarkson had averaged 14.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in 30 starts. His player efficiency rating was 15.98, the second best among rookies (Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic's is 18.08) and just above league average. But over Clarkson's past five games, he has averaged 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game.
Scott said he’s also noticed that Clarkson brings a certain fire to each game, one stoked by the fact that Clarkson was a second-round pick, drafted 48th overall.
“He’s a kid that’s trying to prove himself every single night, so he has a toughness about him, mentally as well as physically,” Scott said. “That helps him do some of the things that he’s been able to do this year. He keeps looking at everybody who was drafted in front of him. He keeps looking at this stuff that he was hearing and reading -- he was supposed to be in the first round and he dropped late to the second. All those things are motivating factors for him.”
As he prepared to leave the Lakers’ locker room Wednesday, Clarkson was approached by a reporter and asked if he could, in fact, name all the point guards/combo guards taken ahead of him in the 2014 draft -- and name them all in order.
The inquiring reporter held a notebook listing the players drafted in order and told Clarkson that he would receive no hints, but it quickly became apparent that Clarkson didn't need any help.
“Exum,” Clarkson said after a short pause.
Yes, Dante Exum, drafted fifth overall by Utah.
Marcus Smart, drafted sixth by Boston.
Elfrid Payton, drafted 10th overall by Philadelphia, then traded to Orlando.
There was some debate about whether the next player was in fact a point guard, but Clarkson named him nonetheless: “Zach.”
Zach LaVine, drafted 13th overall by Minnesota.
Tyler Ennis, drafted 18th by Phoenix.
Shabazz Napier, drafted 24th by Charlotte, then traded to Miami.
And the final point guard taken before Clarkson in the 2014 draft? He knew.
Yes, Spencer Dinwiddie, drafted 38th overall by Detroit.
And eight picks later, Washington picked Clarkson, then traded his rights to the Lakers for cash, but, as he illustrated, the names of those who went before him are burned into his memory. They won’t be fading anytime soon.
“It’s just in the back of my head, knowing I have to perform,” Clarkson said. “I just want to prove people wrong. That’s always been the drive for me.”
He recalled draft night, when he was passed over again and again.
“Of course I was mad, but I was happy at the same time to even get an opportunity to play in this league,” Clarkson said. “Coming to this organization was a blessing. But I kept it in the back of my head. That just pushed me through summer league and pushed me through this year. Next year it’s going to be the same thing.”
It might seem like being drafted low put a chip on his shoulder, but he said that chip has always been there.
“I always feel like I've been the underdog," Clarkson said. "Maybe because I’m from San Antonio or something. I’m not from overseas or something crazy. It’s just one of those things.”
Clarkson was told that there’s a basketball team in San Antonio that has often been overlooked too, even though that team isn't too bad. So maybe it’s a regional thing.
“I don’t know what it is, man,” he said with a laugh.
Of course, the situation has been ideal for Clarkson. On a team with nothing to play for, he's been able to earn tons of minutes and play through mistakes. The bigger question is how he'd fare on a contender with a much stronger core around him.
"You can always sit there and wonder with other guys around him, how good can he be?" Scott asked. "If he continues to approve at this rapid rate, how good can he be? Nobody has a crystal ball to really figure all that out. But in Jordan’s case, I think he’s shown enough to let us know that he can be a hell of a player in this league for a long time."
Indeed, at this point, Clarkson is no longer being overlooked. And he has more than shown that he belongs in the NBA. Now, he’s showing that he might deserve more than just a spot on a roster. He’s showing everyone around the league, and especially the Lakers, that he might, in fact, be something special.