Clarksonaissance: How Jordan Clarkson Rose Up From the Ashes of the 2018 NBA Playoffs
Updated: Jul 14
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
Jordan Clarkson held the ball in his hands while surveying the floor. He tried to attack the basket but was quickly met with two defenders. Instinctively, he passed the ball to an open teammate at the top of the three-point zone.
No, it wasn’t Kevin Love.
It was Poy Erram, a 6-foot-7 center from the Philippines.
Erram did his own Love impersonation and drilled in the three-pointer.
Yes, this wasn’t an NBA game.
It was the Asian Games.
While most of the NBA players were still on vacation, Clarkson was in Jakarta, Indonesia playing serious ball in the summer of 2018.
It was one of those scorching hot days in this tropical country in Southeast Asia. It was a lot hotter inside the Gelora Bung Karno Basketball Hall as Clarkson was already starting to heat up and warm up with his new teammates at Gilas Pilipinas, the national men’s basketball team of the Philippines.
A couple of plays later, Clarkson cut into the basket and caught a pass from his fellow Fil-American guard Stanley Pringle. He tossed up a floater that found the bottom of the net.
The whole arena exploded. Even the other Asian fans in attendance were in awe. There were no “boos”, only “oohs” for his first two points representing his Filipino heritage on the other side of the globe.
Born to a Filipina mother and an American father, Clarkson longed for this moment.
“It was an honor and privilege of a lifetime. He waited patiently for several years for this opportunity to come to reality and he represented his heritage with enormous pride,” Mike Clarkson, Jordan’s father, told otgbasketball.com.
While the continental meet pits the best in Asia, it’s not often you see a player of Clarkson’s caliber. Yao Ming, who watched the game as head of China’s basketball federation, was the last active NBA player with a significant role in his team to play in this tournament.
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Against Yao’s protege 7-foot-1 Zhou Qi, who was supposed to follow his footsteps in Houston but never materialized, Clarkson put on a show.
He went on to torch China - an Asian basketball powerhouse and a perennial Olympics participant - with 28 points in a tough two-point loss. Clarkson almost single-handedly carried a hastily assembled Philippines team despite having only a couple of walk through sessions prior to his much anticipated first game.
“He only spent 30 to 40 minutes (at practice) and he is very fluid with the patterns. That’s an indication of a high intelligence, high IQ (player),” Gilas coach Yeng Guiao told reporters on his first impression with Clarkson.
Never mind if the talent level in Asia was rungs lower than the NBA. Playing for flag and pride always brings out the best competitive nature of players and elevate the level of competition.
It was all Clarkson needed to get his confidence back after going through a personal slump in his first postseason trip in the NBA.
That year, Clarkson was still able to put together a solid regular season despite a sudden mid-season trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers from the Los Angeles Lakers. But he unraveled in the playoffs averaging only 4.7 points on a horrendous 30 percent shooting clip. He slowly lost his spot in the Cavaliers’ rotation and was a healthy scratch in the final two games of the NBA Finals where they got swept by the Golden State Warriors.
If his first taste of NBA Playoffs was hell, the Asian Games served as his purgatory.
Clarkson reconnected with his roots and, in the process, rediscovered his shooting touch. The fire in his game was back. It was lit up by a passionate nation with 100 million hoops-crazy fans rooting for him and their team whose mantra is to play with “Puso” (Heart).
He went on to average 26 points on 39.5 three-point shooting clip, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a steal against only 0.7 turnovers in an almost no-relief job. He was given the keys to a motion offense that opened up the doors not only for his new teammates but also for himself to immerse in a leadership role.
“It was a lot of dribble drive, a lot of movement, ball screens, I will fit right into it,” Clarkson told reporters after he had his first practice with the Philippine team.
Fit in like a glove he did.
Not only did he make an impact on the court but he touched a lot of Filipino hearts with the way he represented them.
“It’s amazing how an ordinary kid can capture the imagination of an entire nation (Philippines). He’s deeply humbled by the unwavering love and support he receives but, trust me, the love affair is reciprocated. As witnessed in the 2018 Asian Games, he harbors an enormous sense of pride for his heritage and knows he represents his fellow countrymen with every rebound, assist and basket he scores,” said Mike reflecting on his son’s Asian Games experience.
Clarkson went to Asia for soul-searching. He returned home with a renewed spirit.
He reported for the 2018-19 NBA Training Camp empowered and ready for a fresh start.
“The benefit (he got from playing in the Asian Games) was he stayed in elite physical condition which enabled him to be prepared both, mentally and physically prior to the start of the NBA training camp,” the elder Clarkson added.
Janie (left) and Mike (right) Clarkson watched Jordan play in the 2018 Asian Games. Photo by Alder Almo
He obliterated the training camp as attested by his teammates.
“I don’t know if he’s really been stopped at practice,” Kyle Korver, his former Cleveland teammate, told Joe Vardon of The Athletic at that time. “He seems to be playing at a different pace.”
Vardon ran a survey among the players in the Cavaliers’ training camp and Clarkson was the hands down choice as the best player.
With LeBron James bolting out of Cleveland and joining the Los Angeles Lakers in the following season, the pressure of playing alongside the best basketball athlete on the planet was gone too. The opportunity was there for Clarkson to come in and contribute heavily for the rebuilding Cavaliers.
He did exactly just like that.
While the team expectedly plummeted in the standings, Clarkson continued his rise. He posted a career-best 16.8-point average on 45/32/84 shooting splits highlighted by a career-high 42-point outburst in an overtime loss to Brooklyn Nets in February 13, 2019.
Clearly, Clarkson was back on track.
Entering this season, the final year of his 50-million four-year deal he originally signed with the Lakers, Clarkson was highly-motivated to keep the momentum going. But the influx of more young guards - rookies Darius Garland and Kevin Porter, Jr. - after the last NBA Draft had left a cast of cloud hovering over Clarkson’s future with the team.
Clarkson though was too busy to worry about that.
Being a second round pick, he always plays with a chip on his shoulder. And he’s always faced adversities but none bigger than what he and his family went through right before he entered the league.
In 2015, Clarkson, already a senior guard, just dropped 28 points against Kentucky, his best game at Missouri, when Mike and his stepmom Janie were in town to discuss an urgent matter that almost derailed his basketball career.
Clarkson’s shoulders and jaw dropped when he learned that his father has Stage 4 carcinoma cancer that had spread up and down the spine.
“Initially, Jordan considered walking away (from the University of Missouri basketball program). He was deeply impacted though he attempted to mask the pain,” Mike said.
It was Tim Fuller, Jordan’s coach at Missouri and a trusted advisor, who kept Clarkson’s head above waters.
“He (Fuller) was primarily responsible for convincing him to stay, earn his degree and finish the season strong. Without his reassuring presence, the odds of Jordan remaining with Mizzou basketball program was slim to none,” Mike added.
Clarkson was visibly affected as his game started to drop and so was his spot in the NBA Draft Boards.
He struggled to grapple with his father’s health condition.
Mike has always been an influential figure in Jordan’s life.
His father is well-loved and respected in their community in San Antonio. Mike worked in the Air Force where he met Jordan’s mother Annette Davis. They got divorced when Jordan was three years old but he maintained a great relationship with both of them.
His father coached youth basketball teams that featured him.
Jordan went on to become a San Antonio High School Player of the Year awardee. At one point, former San Antonio Spur Sean Elliott co-mentored with Mike and he was bringing Jordan to his son’s birthday and even to David Robinson’s house. Jordan met several other NBA players while tagging along with his stepmom who was working in a nearby hotel where NBA road teams usually stay in San Antonio.
It was his father who nurtured his NBA dream. He supported him after he ditched track and field where he was on his way to stardom for the unpredictable sport of basketball.
Jordan Clarkson was an age group champion in Track and Field in San Antonio before shifting his focus to basketball. Close Up 360 Youtube/screenshot
Mike meant so much to him. So the idea of possibly losing his father weighed heavily on Jordan.
“He was my best friend growing up. He shaped me into what I am today,” Jordan said at that time to Los Angeles Times.
“I try not to blame outside stuff for what’s happening on the court. But at that time, there was just a lot of stuff going on. Basketball is not only played physically with skills and stuff. You have to be there mentally, and I feel like towards the second half of that (college) season, I really wasn’t,” Clarkson added.
In his father’s eyes, that life-changing experience for the family hardened Clarkson’s resolve and eventually helped him stay afloat in the NBA despite falling all the way to the second round (46th overall).
“Jordan heard of my bad days at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, but he also learned of my daily determination and will to fight to overcome Stage 4 cancer and one day return to my family. It instilled in him a renewed sense of a “no quit attitude”. Ultimately, he conquered his hurdle too, and was drafted in the NBA,” Mike told otgbasketball.com.
It was at that moment that Jordan’s life was made. The worst times in life will either make or break you. Thanks to his tight-knit family and a solid support system, Jordan emerged as a better person after the ordeal.
During his rookie season with the Lakers, Clarkson founded the JC Cares Foundation which supports underprivileged children and their families through numerous community initiatives from free school supplies to scholarships and in addition supports families ravaged by cancer and funds organizations on the frontlines fighting to find a cure for this “silent killer”.
Clarkson’s generosity has reached Los Angeles, St. Louis, Cleveland, The Hope Lodge in Rochester, his hometown in San Antonio, and in Pampanga, Philippines.
Today, Jordan’s father has been cancer-free for five years.
“Jordan would affirm, our personal (and professional) experiences have brought us even closer together as we’ve traveled this road as a NBA family,” Mike said.
Despite having a new coach and a plethora of guards to compete with for minutes in Cleveland to start this season, Clarkson was still able to carve his usual role as the team’s sixth man. He even slightly improved his averages logging in 14.6 points, on .532% effective field goal shooting, 2.4 assists and 2.4 rebounds despite his playing minutes cut by four minutes compared to previous season.
The Cavaliers’ management never discussed about his future with the team so Clarkson thought he’s very much part of it moving forward.
So it still came as a shock to him and his camp when he got traded just right after his best game of the season - a 33-point explosion versus Memphis in December.
The team’s Twitter account even tweeted a photo of him promoting their game against the Indiana Pacers that night. But as it turned out, he wouldn’t play in that game as he was shipped to the Jazz in exchange for Australian point guard Dante Exum and future second round picks.
Even his teammates were shocked when Clarkson was pulled out right before they warm up.
“Cleveland afforded Jordan the opportunity to experience both playing in the Finals and fighting to rise from the cellar. We were completely blind-sided by the trade to Utah, but in our beliefs, we trust God assigns where He wants you to be,” Mike said.
And it looks like Clarkson and the Jazz are a match made in heaven.
After scoring nine points in 20 minutes off the bench in his Jazz debut without the benefit of even a single practice, he instantly earned his new team’s respect.
“He was aggressive. I loved it,” Jazz rising star Donovan Mitchell told the team’s website after the game. “He learned on the fly, really fast. For him to understand some of the reads and plays we’re running, that’s impressive. Our system, it took me a whole year and a half to learn it. I’m really happy with the way he played. He’s going to be a big piece for us.”
Clarkson was brought in to boost the 29th-ranked bench scoring (26.9 points per game) at that time.
“You can tell he wants it, like there’s a hunger about him. I think he plays with a level of confidence that we need,” Utah coach Quin Snyder added.
The Clarkson effect was suddenly felt in the Jazz next games. It took him only three games to score 20 points which no Jazz bench player has done this season before his arrival. From 18-12 win-loss record, Utah surged in the standings, winning 14 of their last 15 games including 10 straight since the trade.
They are now sitting at second spot, 32-13, just behind the Lakers in the Western Conference.
“We needed to add someone who could go and get a shot,” Dennis Lindsey, the Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations, said when they pulled off the trade. “We could tell Donovan was getting stretched. Bojan was getting stretched.”
Clarkson perfectly fits the bill. He came in and provided that scoring punch off the bench the Jazz were sorely missing.
During this stretch, Utah’s bench scoring climbed to 18th spot with 36.2 points per game, with Clarkson averaging 13.8 points in a team loaded with offensive guns. The Jazz also jumped from 23rd in scoring to no.3 with 117.8-point average with him on board.
The underrated trade has elevated the Jazz to a true contender status, making their once vulnerable bench one of the more potent second units in the NBA.
Clarkson has been a killer in pick and roll, linking well with Rudy Gobert, and has become the perfect backup for Mitchell at the two spot. His 40-percent clip on catch and shoot threes has given a new dimension to the Jazz bench offense. Even his defense, which he isn’t known for but has improved over the last two seasons, has measured to Utah’s standards.
His stellar play has brought his name in the Sixth Man of the Year conversations even to the extent that he’s being compared to Jamal Crawford, a three-time recipient of that award.
“The excuse they used when he was with Cleveland was they were losing. We’ll see how things fall, if he continues on his consistent play. If not, it’ll be pure travesty,” Jordan’s father said.
Clarkson has become the Jazz’s biggest swing-for-fence piece next to Mike Conley in their playoff quest in the West.
Two years since going through hell in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, Clarkson has managed to claw his way back to basketball god’s graces. He has grown a lot as a person both on and off the court as the game has become bigger than him. He’s no longer just playing for himself and family. He’s now playing for a much bigger purpose, carrying the pride of a nation longing for representation in the NBA.
As his next trip to the NBA playoffs beckons, Clarkson appears ready to seize the moment. It remains to be seen where his redemption road will take him but one thing is for sure, he will show up with the lesson he has learned and the confidence he has built in that summer of 2018 and play with a lot of “Puso”.
All stats reflected are updated as of 01/27/20.