Since D’Angelo Russell was drafted, there have been a lot of people who have questioned his role in the future of the Lakers franchise. This, combined with the fact that Jordan Clarkson had a very strong rookie campaign, had many people wondering why Clarkson doesn’t get any of the shine. It is fair to question that, since Clarkson did a lot with a shell of an NBA team and got the 1st rookie team nod in 2014-2015.
The thing is, Russell was better than Clarkson last year. Even with his inconsistent play and maturity issues, Russell ran the show as best he could with the little that he had. There were a lot of turnovers and rookie mistakes that came with it, but Russell showed a lot of poise being the floor general of the team and gave us all glimpses of how bright of a star he can be.
Clarkson did show plenty of improvement. He worked on his jumpshot which allowed him to fit more as a shooting guard next to Russell. He handled the ball a lot less and showed promising signs as a combo guard. At this point, however, Jordan is more of a shooting guard than a point guard.
Last year, Clarkson played 96% of the time at shooting guard and only 3% at the point guard spot. It should come as no surprise that his per 30 in turnovers went down from 2.3 to 1.9 from his first to second year. His points per game, however, were roughly the same. He had plenty of success in his transition to the two spot. His assist total also dropped as a shooting guard since they handle the ball a lot less. Which is fine. It is the responsibility of the point guard to handle the playmaking aspect.
The job of a shooting guard is easy: score points, be able to consistently shoot from the 3 point line, and play decent defense.
Jordan has improved in 2 of those aspects. The last one is still up in the air. Clarkson has played atrocious defense his first 2 seasons. He would get constantly beat and would look lost on that end. Sure, there are plenty of elite guards in the league, but he has the ability to play solid to even good defense which is exactly what we have seen in the preseason.
Clarkson is now much more active, generating deflections and not getting beat by everyone. His improvement can’t be denied. To what extent, however, still remains to be seen. A sample size of more than a couple preseason games would be ideal to get a better picture of where he is on defense. He is trending upwards and shows development in an area that everyone hoped he would improve.
Which brings me to the reason that Russell should be considered the best player on the team. Clarkson has improved every year. He has made strides to prove all his doubters wrong and to make every team that passed on him in the first round of the 2014 draft regret that decision. Yet, Russell is the guy. For better or worse, by hook or by crook, Russell is the best player. He is in charge of leading 4 other guys onto the court and making sure the ball is always moving and points are being put up.
He runs the show. He has to create offense for others. He is an elite pick and roll guard that more often than not will make the right read and find the open man. He gets to his spots on the floor and can stroke it from pretty deep.
Most people see all of this and wonder what it is that people don’t like about him. That would be the turnovers. Russell averaged 3.1 turnovers and 4.2 assists if he played 36 minutes. The 3.1 turnovers are obviously not ideal. Yet people seem to forget that mistakes come with having the ball so much. Eventually mistakes will be made. Last year, Russell had to create something out of nothing often. Players wouldn’t move much off the ball and it would lead to the offense becoming stagnant, which often caused Russell to have to force the issue.
Last year, Russell committed a total of 196 turnovers. Out of those, 93 were bad passes, 75 were because he lost the ball, and 28 other types of turnovers were charged to him. His handle was loose in the second half of the season, but it has gotten tighter and has manged to control it as he now knows how the defense reacts. Most of those bad passes were the results of rookie mistakes and passes that he just shouldn’t make.
The point is, even with his flaws, Russell is the face of the team and undoubtedly the best player. He may or may not surpass Clarkson’s point total, but he affects the game in ways that Clarkson just can’t. Russell has the vision and playmaking ability that Jordan wishes he had. That’s not to say that Clarkson can’t pass. He can. Russell just adds an extra layer that allows the offense to go to heights few players have reached. Not to mention that Russell has shown he can take steps to become a leader in the locker room. As a rookie last season, he couldn’t fully take control of the locker room and he didn’t do himself any favors with the Snapchat scandal. He is now the man. Luke has given him the team and is “all in” on Russell.
To say that Russell is a bust for the mistakes he has made both on and off the court is downright stupid. It is ignorant of the circumstances he was dealing with and denies his natural skills, skills that will develop. The moment they do, a superstar will be born.
Clarkson is a crucial part of the Lakers future. He provides a spark off the bench or a scoring guard when he starts. He will continue to improve if his work ethic is any sign. Yet to look at only the faults of Russell and the strengths of Clarkson to judge both players is wrong. There is more to a player being the best on the team than putting up points and showing their athleticism in the fast break. It is about leading, playmaking, controlling the game, and reading the court. These are the areas where D’Angelo trumps Clarkson. Not to mention the fact that Russell can also score in bunches.
Even with his improvements, Clarkson’s ceiling is still considerably lower than Ingram’s, Russell’s, and even Randle’s. The reason that the attention goes to Russell is because Clarkson is almost at his ceiling. With Russell and Ingram, there is so much more potential in their game. They have skills that only a few players possess, which is what makes them so special. It was why they were drafted so high. To say that Russell is not the best player on the Lakers right now, and will be in the future, is delusional.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference*