Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson has a counterpoint game. While the broader trends of the league encourage guards to drive headlong to the rim or launch up three-pointers at will, Clarkson has carved out an immediate, intentional niche from midrange. In doing so, the 23-year-old works as something of an exploit. Modern NBA defenses are built to take away specific kinds of shots. Clarkson operates in a way that mines that give and take, stepping into the wide open midrange shots that many defenses naturally concede.
"It’s all two points," Clarkson said. "Getting there and getting to those spots is definitely an emphasis because I think they’re easy shots for me."
The majority of NBA teams now guard pick-and-rolls with some variation of a "drop" scheme—in which the big man defending the screener hangs back around the foul line—specifically because the midrange pull-up is a hard shot to hit consistently. It can be rushed. It can be crowded. By default it returns fewer points per possession than a three-point jumper or an attempt from the restricted area, which is why those spaces on the floor are now defensive priorities.
The calculus is different for Clarkson. While operating out of the high pick-and-roll last season, Clarkson made an impressive 50.7% of his jumpers off the dribble, per Synergy Sports, the majority of which came within the three-point arc. What should be an empty, inefficient attempt doesn't have to be when a player tailors his game to creating it and most defenses systemically oblige him.
"[Lakers assistant Thomas Scott] wanted me to master everything under the three-point line in terms of being able to shoot my floaters, pull-up jump shots off screens, and stuff like that," Clarkson said. "Towards the end of the year, I really saw all that stuff play in and come together."
The way that Clarkson works the pick-and-roll also mitigates risk. Clarkson is, at this point, more of a scorer than distributor. He immediately gauges the defense for potential lanes to the rim, though most often Clarkson will settle comfortably into a jumper just a few steps inside the screen. Few drives are forced. Few daring passes are attempted. Clarkson keeps things simple and functional, and as a result turns the ball over just 1.1% of the time while running the pick-and-roll in this space.
The beauty of Clarkson's game is that he can essentially access these kinds of midrange attempts whenever he wants. Beyond the now-standard concessions of the defense, Clarkson—who is listed at 6'5"—stands three to four inches taller than his average positional counterpart. A pull-up jumper is available to him even as his defender scrambles back into the play, whether via step-back or a quick trigger before the opponent can react.
"I’m quicker than a lot of guys and at the same time, I’m really athletic and able to get off the ground," Clarkson said. "When I get into those areas, most of the time I try to get into my spot and go straight up. It’s an easy shot for me. Being that I play point guard, there aren’t a lot of guys who are 6'5" and long at my position, so it’s always an advantage."
Whether Clarkson still primarily plays the point next season remains to be seen, given that the Lakers just used the No. 2 overall pick on playmaker D'Angelo Russell. Regardless, he's likely to have less control over the offense as a result of sharing the backcourt with either Russell, Kobe Bryant, or Lou Williams—all of whom will play a creative role.
Clarkson can find his shots without initiating the offense on every possession, as he's shown in lineups opposite Russell at the Las Vegas Summer League. The nature of the Lakers' backcourt rotation, however, could make it more difficult for Clarkson to pursue midrange jumpers with the same abandon. The pull-up jumpers that Clarkson attempts are often quick looks on possessions where no other player touches the ball. That might not fly now that the Lakers are healthier and better equipped to create offense, no matter how successful Clarkson was on those shots last season.
It will be even more important in the coming year for Clarkson to find the balance of his offensive game. Already he's a specialist of sorts, with a single NBA skill that opponents will gradually respect and adjust to. The next part of Clarkson's progression will come in making the right plays after forcing defensive commitment—the process of turning a single skill into a mechanism to open up the offense.
"I still feel like I have a lot of room to grow in terms of that area," Clarkson said. "That’s just going to [come] with time. I’ve always been one of those kids that would be aggressive and attack the rim and look for creases to score. With that, you just come along with learning experience and knowledge of the game.
"A lot of it is film work, just putting all that stuff you watched on film onto the court. That’s with a chair being your screener or, if you’ve got a group of guys coming with you, you work off their screens. Then, when you get into pick-up or playing, you use all those things. That’s really what it is at the end of the day, so you can get the reads."
This is a process that cannot be rushed or forced. Some young guards see the game open up for them as they study and practice the reads that Clarkson described. Others put in the work but never fully absorb its messages. Playmaking instincts can be honed but not taught; if any willing guard could see the floor with full clarity, passers like Chris Paul and John Wall wouldn't be so exceptional. In reality, those elite playmakers are separated by how they experience the game as much as how they produce within it.
Clarkson is a player of a different mold looking to advance on his own terms. He hasn't yet shown extraordinary vision but doesn't have to, given that he's driven to score in ways that some guards are not. The skill, the size, and the athleticism are all there—as are the maturity and composure. What Clarkson searches for is the same end that eludes all young players: A means to bring all their talent to harmony with the demands of the game and the needs of the team.
"I watch a lot of players in the league," Clarkson said. "I watch a lot of Russell Westbrook, James [Harden], all those kind of combo guards that had the ball in their hands and make plays. At the end of the day, I’m trying to become my own player. If I’ve gotta take something from each guy, then I’m gonna do that."