From 6th man to leader: The emergence of Jordan Clarkson

Published January 18, 2023, 8:00 PMLei Macaranas
Lei Macaranas

Jordan Clarkson accepting his role as a starter and leader is one of the reasons the Utah Jazz have been successful this season.

In what was expected to be a rebuilding season for the Utah Jazz, Filipino-American Jordan Clarkson embraced his role as the starting point guard and has turned the team into a title contender. 

After the departure of franchise cornerstones Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz are currently ranked 10th in the West with a 22-24 record. Only midway through the season, they have a good chance of entering the playoffs because of their blazing synergy, and one of the reasons for that is the newly embraced role of Clarkson as a leader and starting point guard. 

Coming off the bench

Before he was entrusted as a starter in Coach Will Hardy’s lineup, Clarkson wasn’t playing in the All-Star caliber that he is in right now. In 2016, coming into his third year in the NBA, then new Los Angeles Lakers Coach Luke Walton opted to take Clarkson out of the starting lineup and play him off the bench instead. 

The move to a reserve role was deemed by Clarkson as a huge demotion, and he struggled to accept the fact that he was no longer a starter. It took some time for him to get used to being a bench player with the Lakers but he eventually found a way to contribute on the floor. 

“It was definitely a process,” Clarkson said. “I just said, this is who I’m going to be. I’m just going to come in here, I’m going to impact the game with the minutes that are given to me, I’m going to play my role and, and I’m going to do it well.”

After getting traded to the Jazz from the Cavaliers, Clarkson managed to integrate more moves in his skill set. He used to be a player who was more comfortable shooting in isolation but under Coach Quin Snyder and his style centered on team effort, the Fil-Am guard now executes more 3-pointers and pick-and-rolls. 

With his newfound sense of playmaking, he averaged 18.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 26.7 minutes in 68 games for the 2020-2021 season, allowing him to receive the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award. 

Establishing new era

Now that the Jazz are in the post-Mitchell era, the team has been surprisingly impressive even though people saw this year as a tanking season for them. You see, the Jazz traded their star players away for future draft picks in some kind of a five-year rebuild—accepting their destiny of losing, and hoping to lose enough games just to get high lottery picks in the coming drafts. 

However, they are able to fill up the win column because they’ve been efficient playing as a team. Because they are able to share the ball, Utah has been averaging six to seven more assists per game than they did in the previous season. They now have the most evenly distributed scoring in the league, occasionally reaching 120 points with no one scoring more than 20, but having seven or eight players score in double figures.

In a team full of young players, Utah has been able to stay in playoff contention not only because of incredible synergy, but also because of Clarkson’s ability to lead the neophytes. 

Similar to what he did with Gilas Pilipinas during the fourth window of the FIBA World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers, Clarkson has been teaching the young Jazz, particularly breakthrough sensation Lauri Markkanen, the lessons he acquired from ex-teammates Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Lou Williams.

“I want to still give back to the young guys on my team now. Being around Kobe and Bron, there’s been much of vets I’ve been around in the NBA, you know Lou Williams, guys like that. It’s kinda pushing me to a leadership role in my ninth year in the league. Just seeing how they handled it and kinda doing the same,” he said.

Clarkson now believes that coming off the bench for the past seasons has given him the experience and knowledge he needs to become a leader in the team. “I came off the bench for maybe four of five years in my career, I think I was ready for this opportunity to come out here and really show what I can do offensively make plays, score the ball, defend and do everything around the court and be a leader for this team. I think I’m really showing that in the early months of this year.”

In his fourth season with the Jazz, he is now a flourishing starting guard with a career-high average of 20.7 points, 4.5 assists, and 3.9 rebounds in 32 minutes of playing time in 43 games. 

When asked about the biggest reason for his spectacular numbers, he owes it a lot to translating his experience into his games. 

“Just picking my spots throughout the game. For me being aggressive in scoring, knowing what time is and being aggressive to make plays for my teammates. That’s the biggest thing for me throughout this whole year. I think through my past experiences, it’s preparing me for this moment and I’m just trying to keep the team better,” he said.

Clarkson is now aiming to propel Utah in the West before the All-Star break as they attempt to reach the postseason with their new roster.