James Harden’s Major Role Change Puts Nets On Championship Path

First, Jordan Clarkson spent the beginning of his NBA career playing with and learning from Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Since then, the Utah Jazz guard has become intent on pursuing a path that sounds both familiar and foreign to his two former star teammates.

a person standing in front of a crowd: Jordan Clarkson (top) is averaging a career-high 17.4 points a game and is the leading candidate to win Sixth Man of the Year, which was won last season by Montrezl Harrell (right). © Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Spor Jordan Clarkson (top) is averaging a career-high 17.4 points a game and is the leading candidate to win Sixth Man of the Year, which was won last season by Montrezl Harrell (right).

Just like when both Bryant and James won multiple NBA titles, Clarkson’s main source of motivation points toward collecting championship hardware. Unlike when Bryant and James both won Finals and regular-season MVP awards, Clarkson’s other source of motivation points toward becoming the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.

“If we’re winning games and we’re doing that, I’ll be rewarded for that,” Clarkson told USA TODAY Sports. “I feel like this is that time and that moment where I’ve impacted the game.”

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Still, Clarkson stressed that “my main goal is trying to win games and a championship.” That could happen in three months.  The Jazz (42-15) enter Monday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers (35-22) with the NBA’s best record because they have three All-Stars in one of the NBA’s most dynamic point guards (Donovan Mitchell), one of the league’s best rim protectors (Rudy Gobert) and one of the league’s most underrated players (Mike Conley). The Jazz also has a seven-year head coach that has fostered both continuity and innovation (Quin Snyder).

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But they do not fully account for why Utah has ranked third in total offense (117.0 points per game), first in 3-point shooting (43.1%) and third in points allowed (107.6). Some of that also points to Clarkson, who has led the NBA in bench scoring (17.2) during his seventh NBA season and second in Utah.

With the Jazz's three All-Stars sidelined in Saturday's loss to the Lakers, Clarkson scored 27 points as a starter and made a 3-pointer to give the Jazz a 110-108 lead with 9.2 seconds left. But Clarkson missed a potential game winner with one second remaining in regulation, and the Lakers prevailed in overtime. Usually, though, Clarkson thrives as a secondary scorer. 

Kobe Bryant, Jordan Clarkson sitting in chairs: Jordan Clarkson was teammates with Kobe Bryant during his first two seasons in the NBA and described playing with Bryant as a “blessing” because he provided honest criticism, consistent work habits and willingly shared tips." © Rich Pedroncelli, AP Jordan Clarkson was teammates with Kobe Bryant during his first two seasons in the NBA and described playing with Bryant as a “blessing” because he provided honest criticism, consistent work habits and willingly shared tips."

If the Sixth Man of the Year award comes and I don’t get it, I don’t need the validation because my teammates, coaching staff and a lot of my peers gave me that,” Clarkson said. “They’re telling me, ‘I respect what you do’ and all of that. So, I know that goes a long way as well. But it’s definitely something I want to get accomplished one of these years. Hopefully it’s this year.”

And if not? Although he has remained mindful of maximizing his role and potential earnings, Clarkson seems intent on emulating Manu Ginóbili, Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford.

All of those players carved out long and valued NBA careers on playoff-contending teams by both embracing and excelling in sixth-man roles. Ginóbili (one), Williams (three) and Crawford (three) have combined to win seven of the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year awards in the past 13 years.

“I definitely look at those guys as guys that paved the way and made it cool for this role to be what it is,” Clarkson said. “I’m just trying to continue that legacy, and have that impact that a sixth man has for a team.”

The Jazz have already seen that impact since acquiring Clarkson from Cleveland on Dec. 2019 for Dante Exum and two second-round picks. Last season, Clarkson ranked fifth for most reserve points in Jazz history (15.6). This season, Clarkson ranks third in most reserve points in Jazz history behind Thurl Bailey in 1987-88 (19.6) and 1988-89 (19.3).  Beyond Clarkson’s statistical contributions, the Jazz have also credited Clarkson for his growth mindset and amenable personality needed to accept a sixth-man role.

“He’s someone that’s really a pleasure to coach,” Snyder said of Clarkson. “He’s a unique person in his ability to really connect and relate with everyone. There’s an authenticity about Jordan that is unique.”

What Clarkson learned from Bryant and James

That is partly because Clarkson grew up appreciating both NBA stars and role players.

Clarkson spent his childhood in San Antonio where he often visited a hotel both to see his stepmother (Janie) work as an events manager and to receive autographs from NBA players that frequented the lobby before and after Spurs games. Then, Clarkson equally enjoyed watching players of all statures, including Bryant and Ginobili.

So after the Lakers selected Clarkson at No. 46 in the 2014 NBA Draft, he harbored both humility with accepting any role and determination toward carving his path as an aggressive scorer. But as the Lakers spent the 2015-16 season both celebrating Bryant’s final year and developing their young roster that included D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Clarkson, Bryant either showed nostalgia during his farewell tour or frustration with the team’s losing. So after a regular-season loss in Portland, Bryant chewed out his younger teammates over their attitude, work habits and decision making.

“I remember him just really getting upset,” Clarkson said. “You’ve seen him come out of his skin and grill us a little bit. But from that point on, I felt all of us had a different look at everything with what we wanted to do. That’s probably, in terms of development, a little wake-up call.”

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Clarkson described playing with Bryant as a “blessing” because he provided honest criticism, consistent work habits and willingly shared tips. They stayed close enough that Clarkson worked out at Bryant’s training academy last year shortly before his passing. The Lakers liked Clarkson enough with his play and how he accepted a reserve role following his first two seasons to grant him a four-year, $50 million extension. So much that former Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson often predicted Clarkson would win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. But through the following three years, the Lakers broke up their young roster to create enough cap space to sign James as a free agent

Ironically, the Lakers dealt Clarkson and Nance to Cleveland for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a 2018 first-round pick in a move that allowed them to play with James for the second half of the 2017-18 season. Then, Clarkson marveled at how James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith maintain consistent work habits and preach the importance of not taking any possessions off. But as Cleveland advanced to an NBA Finals sweep to Golden State, Clarkson averaged only 4.7 points while shooting 30.1% from the field and 23.9% from 3-point range.

“I struggled with the shot selection and stuff like that. In the playoffs, it changes a little bit with defenses tightening up and every little thing is put under the microscope,” Clarkson said. “So I got to cut my game down and get real sharp. It was a good process for me to go through.”

How Clarkson has thrived with the Jazz

So after acquiring Clarkson shortly after the next season, the Jazz welcomed Clarkson’s aggressive style of play while refining his decision making.

“It’s been important to me that you give him the freedom and the opportunity to be who he is. But that also doesn’t mean he can’t be better and more efficient,” Snyder said. “He can be more impactful in many ways.”

To become more efficient, Clarkson has followed through on the Jazz’s feedback to concentrate in two areas.

One, Clarkson has taken more of his shots from 3-point range (58.2%) than from 2-point range (41.8%). In past years, Clarkson prioritized mid-range shots over 3-point attempts. Consider the breakdown among 2-point and 3-point attempts in 2014-15 (78.6%, 21.4%), 2015-16 (68.6%, 31.4%), 2016-17 (65.3%, 34.7%), 2017-18 (65.1%, 34.9%), 2018-19 (61.9%, 38.1%) and 2019-20 (52.4%, 47.6%). Overall, Clarkson has led the NBA among reserves in made 3-pointers (159).

Two, Clarkson has also traded those reduced mid-range jumpers for looks at the rim. Out of all of his field-goal attempts, Clarkson takes 32.4% of them within 10 feet. In related news, Clarkson has led the NBA in free-throw percentage (94.6%), which remains on pace for the fourth-best free-throw percentage in league history. Overall, Clarkson believes, "I’m coming into my own now.”

“I’m still learning, but Coach is giving me the freedom to do that,” Clarkson said. “I know my role as well as everybody else on this team knows their role. So it makes it a lot easier. I know the style of play that we want to play. I know sometimes the shots look a little crazy when I’m taking them early in the shot clock and stuff like that. But we’re trying to play at such a fast pace and trying to get points, get to the rim and make plays.”

Not everything has gone Clarkson’s way.

He recently missed four straight games because of a right ankle sprain.  He also said that doctors discovered he had “a small crack in my shooting hand” in early March before deciding he still could play through it. Though he declined to attribute his injuries to his recent play, Clarkson’s shooting had regressed from February (43.4% overall, 35.6% from 3) to March (35.4%, 29.3% from 3).

More importantly, Clarkson admitted experiencing some “dark days” in the past year related to Bryant’s passing, the coronavirus pandemic and last month’s plane scare that left Clarkson and other players telling family members their final goodbyes.

“I got to know myself and find myself in terms of who I am as a person and who I want to be,” Clarkson said. “So I didn’t look at it as bad, but it was. It was a tough year. But it’s definitely a year where all of us got stronger and got a closer bond with our family and people were able to talk.”

Clarkson kept that mindset despite the Jazz squandering a 3-1 series lead to Denver in last year’s playoffs. Despite the Jazz’s shortcomings, Clarkson remained intent on re-signing with the team on a four-year, $52 million deal because “we have a lot of fight” as well as his “fit.”

“The bubble was not your ideal situation, but I feel like I came out of that really well and got to really bond with my teammates. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to come back here and keep continuing to this process with this team on trying to win something,” Clarkson said.

The Jazz’s chances could hinge on other factors. Can the Lakers field a healthy James and Anthony Davis? Can the LA Clippers develop consistent chemistry with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? Can the Phoenix Suns continue to grow with Chris Paul and Devin Booker? But Clarkson likes the Jazz’s chances.

“We just have to really lock in defensively knowing that teams do have other superstar players,” Clarkson said. “The West is tough. But I think we have a good shot at doing that and locking in on that end. That’s going to help us take that next step to get to where we want to go.”

All of which might lead to Clarkson collecting his first of possibly many Sixth Man of the Year awards.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Pelicans forward Zion Williamson finishes a lob with a one-handed slam earlier this season against the Suns.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After learning from Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Jordan Clarkson thriving as Jazz sixth man

After learning from Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Jordan Clarkson thriving as Jazz sixth man
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