My Rookie Year

For the majority of my rookie year, I had to lug around a fake baby doll in a pink stroller whenever I was entering and leaving Staples Center. On Christmas Day, in front of a national TV audience, I made the “Not Top 10” on SportsCenter for missing a wide-open layup. Day in and day out at practice, I had to defend Kobe Bryant and received firsthand tutoring.

What I’m saying is, it was a pretty entertaining first year in the league.

Just over a year ago, I was drafted in the second round, 46th overall, by the Lakers. My reaction: Time to prove myself.

Right after that, the Kobe clinic started. It was before the preseason and all the guys were at the gym playing pick-up — just the players. Kobe comes in. Everyone’s choosing their matchups and no one picked up Kobe. Surprise, surprise, right? I was the only one left.

“JC, you got Kobe!” Someone yelled.

It wasn’t even preseason yet, but Kobe was going full speed. Somehow he made it look as if he was just gliding around. I don’t think he had played all summer due to his injury, but he still killed everyone. The first possession, he caught the rock along the baseline and hit a turn-around jumper in my face … a shot I’ve seen him hit literally a thousand times on TV.

“Hey, don’t hurt yourself, young fella,” Kobe uttered to me.

It was one of my “Welcome to the NBA” moments. I experienced a few of those moments during my rookie year. I had the unenviable task of guarding Kobe throughout training camp. There aren’t too many guys who get an opportunity to sit down, talk to Kobe and actually pick his brain, but I was afforded this privilege. It was an incredible learning experience for me, to say the least. For all the stories you hear about Kobe talking trash and demanding a lot from his teammates, on many occasions he’s picked us up, too. He leads by example; however, you don’t hear about that much in the media.

Another one of my “Welcome to the NBA” moments came on Christmas Day against the Chicago Bulls. It was definitely the  thus far. Maybe you remember it because SportsCenter played the clip on loop for a couple of days. Time was winding down in the second quarter and I got a steal but completely missed a wide-open layup.

What’s crazy is people don’t remember when they watch that clip that I went from a highlight reel to a failure so quickly. On the previous play, I had a timely block against Aaron Brooks that went out of bounds. On the very next play, after the timeout, was when my steal and missed layup occurred. Twitter instantly went from “Jordan Clarkson with the great block!” to “Man, he sucks!”

A weird Christmas gift, right?!

I’m not going to lie, that play hurt. We were already having a rough season, and the Christmas Day game was going to be one of our most-viewed games of the year. To have so many people watch me miss such an easy bucket was hard to swallow. Right after the play, I was on the bench and Kobe preached, “It’s basketball. It’s gonna happen. Forget about it.”

That moment stuck with me throughout the year. By spring, you could see how much I had  grown and how comfortable I was compared to my Christmas Day miscue.

It took a lot of work to go from the “Not Top 10” to being selected for the NBA All-Rookie First Team. I used my stints in the D-League last season as an opportunity to improve. When the Lakers sent me down to the D-League, I didn’t view it as a demotion. I accepted it as a challenge. Plus, it meant playing more minutes, which meant growth.

One thing you have to learn as a rookie, unless you’re LeBron James, is you aren’t going to get a lot of minutes right away. It can be hard to get a rhythm going. I didn’t get much playing time at the beginning of the year — from the opener to mid-January, I played in 19 games and averaged something like 11 minutes. After the All-Star break, they just threw me in the starting lineup, and I had to make that transition fast to prove I could play. By the end of the year, I had played in 59 games, started 38 and averaged about 25 minutes. By the later part of the season, I was tasked with starting the game, controlling the tempo and making plays for my teammates and myself.

Not all rookie lessons are learned on the hardwood. There are factors like rookie duties and building team camaraderie. The vets on our team gave me responsibilities for the season. I mentioned that I had to carry the fake baby in a pink stroller whenever I was entering or leaving Staples Center. No reason to go into too much detail about that. But there were other chores, like dropping off uniforms each morning, too. Honestly, we got it kind of easy. The NBA is a fraternity, so it was cool to go through that introduction process. It never felt like punishment or anything. A lot of people on the outside think hazing goes on, but it doesn’t happen. Maybe it was worse in years before.

Aside from the rookie duties, another huge aspect was developing friendships with team veterans. Despite having such an off year for Laker Nation, our unit was still pretty close. Nick Young and Carlos Boozer took me under their wings on the road. There were no internal conflicts that you hear about on some teams when they go through tough times.

The bond wasn’t always about basketball. It was more about us being a family off the court. Sometimes you’ll hear about rookies feeling isolated — you go into your hotel room, order room service and you’re solo. My experience was the complete opposite. Carlos would be like, “Yo, JC, we’re going out to eat. Be downstairs at 7:30.” It wasn’t an invitation, but more like an order. Nick is a big shopper, so he would always let me know when they’d go to the mall. They always kept me in the loop, and that made me feel included as the newest player.

The fans also played a huge role in making me feel accepted. Laker Nation is different from any other fanbase. Sometimes we’d be in Atlanta or somewhere and it felt like there were more Laker jerseys than home jerseys in the crowd. Despite having a losing record, our fans showed love both at home and on the road. Once you’re a Laker, all eyes truly are on you.

If I could speak to the rookies who were just drafted — that was me a year ago — I’d tell them to have an open mind. Don’t let other people’s perceptions affect you too much. You’re a work in progress, not a finished product.  There will be inevitable lows. Don’t let those become what you’re known for. It will be your reactions and ability to adjust that will define how successful your rookie campaign is.

The Lakers are going to surprise people next year. And yes, I’m pretty sure we’re playing again on Christmas Day. I’d like to get a “redo.”

GIF via Lakers Nation