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Jordan Clarkson Has Been Everything the Jazz Need

Utah is 10-0 since it traded for the former Cavalier. His off-ball aggression has been the perfect fit for a team on the verge of contender status.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My lasting memory of Jordan Clarkson is from Game 1 of the 2018 Finals. The broadcast focuses on him practicing catch-and-shoot 3s during pregame warm-ups. Clarkson is the only Cavalier onscreen, so it’s impossible to miss him fumbling the ball on a routine shot attempt:

I remember this moment so vividly because it was emblematic of LeBron James’s final postseason in Cleveland. It was just a mistake, and not even one made in-game, but the botched shot came from Clarkson, the 97th guard circulated into the mess that was the Cavs roster. Another unreliable teammate. But while that moment represents the obstacles surrounding LeBron, it wasn’t symbolic of Clarkson, who at 25 still had much more to give.

Cleveland traded Clarkson to Utah on December 23, after he’d become an adored member of the bench in the years after LeBron. The Jazz have not lost since Clarkson arrived—10 games, 10 wins. He’s filled the backcourt gap left by Mike Conley (out since December 2 with a hamstring injury), functioning as a backup off-guard for Donovan Mitchell’s new primary ball-handling role and linking well with Rudy Gobert. Most Clarkson of all, he’s scoring. You’ve probably seen the heavily circulated stat from a couple of weeks ago: Clarkson dropped 20 points off the bench in his third game with the team, a number no Jazz reserve had reached all season. And just like that, the Clarksonaissance has arrived.

In 2018, I wrote of a shot-happy Clarkson, “Perhaps in the years to come, we’ll grow fond of Clarkson’s irrational confidence the way we have with Dion Waiters or Nick Young. But this postseason, he’s missing what makes those two so delightful: To become a heat check guy, there at first must be fire.” He’s averaging 15 points in 25.6 minutes with the Jazz. Part of that is from sheer fury and successful drives to the basket; part is deep shooting. Because of the small sample size of 10 games, his 3-point numbers (33.9 percent from the perimeter) don’t quite reflect how much he brings as a spot-up shooter. There have already been a handful of 1-for-5 performances in Utah, but the combination of Clarkson’s specialized ability to catch and shoot and Utah’s need for that offensive approach is a good one.

During Clarkson’s first game with the Jazz, he was already eager to show that he could be The Guy. “The shot clock was under four and he was calling for it! He wanted the ball to create a shot,” Joe Ingles told The Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s what we need. We needed someone like that.” Especially with Quin Synder’s famously intricate playbook, having that immediate confidence is a relief for the offense. (I don’t mean this as a slight to Conley, although he has struggled to acclimate this season.)

Hesitation has never been Clarkson’s shortcoming. Neither has health, which isn’t the first or second thing I’d think of while considering fit for a team searching for some cheap, pre-trade-deadline bench relief. Though for the Jazz, it makes sense following years of Dante Exum devastation. “So there’s a health performance piece that we can just plug him in and he can start absorbing minutes,” said VP Dennis Lindsey, “hopefully very quickly.”

Even Clarkson’s defense, which he hasn’t been known for in the past (he’s improved over the years, though knowing that requires catching the post-LeBron Cavs on a nightly basis), hasn’t thrown off the Jazz or failed to meet their high standards—though the numbers, because of the aforementioned small sample size and his time spent on the second unit, aren’t wonderful at the moment. Unbreakable defense has long been Utah’s identity; shooting shot after shot no matter the stat line is Clarkson’s. It used to be his punch line, now it’s part of the reason a playoff team is learning to live up to its potential. During a season filled with redemption arcs, Clarkson’s could end up the most heartwarming of all.