There was a point, after the winter’s NBA trade deadline, at which guard Jordan Clarkson could scan the Utah locker room and count himself as one of just three players on the team with a birth date from 1992 or earlier. There was big man Kelly Olynyk. And there was Utah’s supreme veteran, 36-year-old Rudy Gay.
These were the only players remaining on the Jazz roster over 30. Clarkson, who had spent much of his early career scraping and fighting for a role—and becoming one of the top sixth-man scorers in the league in doing so, winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2021—could now look around and say that not only was he one of the top stars on the team, but that he was now old.
OK, he did not go that far.
“I’m still young, man,” he said, laughing.
But it has been a wild ride in the past year, as Utah went from a perennial contender (one that unswervingly flopped in the postseason) to a rebuilding bunch following the trade of stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. There was a presumption in front offices around the NBA that Clarkson would join them on the transaction wire, and rumors had Clarkson linked to a trade to the Lakers, the team that drafted him.
A deal never happened. Instead, Clarkson took on a bigger role, averaging a career-high 20.8 points in 61 games, all as a starter. His profile was raised, and he was among the players prominently playing host at All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City in February, which included an endorsement deal with the new lemon-lime Pepsi drink, Starry.
During the year, Clarkson nearly helped Utah all the way to a shot at the postseason, and only an injury-addled finish (they lost nine of their final 11 games) prevented the Jazz from a serious run. But Clarkson was well aware of the trade chatter.
“You know, for me, I know what it is—it’s the business,” Clarkson told Heavy Sports. “And, you know, I’ve been a part of this business for a long time now, I guess. Nine years, about to go on to 10 after this next. You know, I’m willing to, you know, do whatever is asked of me.”
Clarkson Learned to Lead From Kobe Bryant
Ask around the league, and there are varying views on Clarkson, who is a top-notch scorer though he has had ups-and-downs as a 3-point shooter (33.8% this season, which is also his career average) and as a defender. But one of the storylines for Utah was not only whether the team would trade Clarkson, but whether the Jazz could get Clarkson to sign an extension—he has a $14.2 million player option for next season and can become a free agent this summer.
Clarkson could not come to an agreement with the Jazz, and the best bet is that he will opt out of the final year of his deal so that he can become a free agent. He could, then, become one of the more telling cases about the free-agent market this summer.
“There are teams that will look at him and say, ‘That is exactly what we need,’” one Eastern Conference executive told Heavy Sports. “Reliable scorer, smart player, bench or starter, good in the locker room, good presence. The Lakers really wanted to see if they could shake him free there. But Utah would rather get him to a new deal and if they are going to move him, do it later on when they have a little more leverage. You don’t have much leverage trading a free agent. I would not be surprised to see the Lakers make another run.
“But a lot of teams are gonna say, ‘He’s 30 and he is a high-volume scorer and doesn’t play good defense.’ That is the problem for Clarkson, because most of the teams who are going to say that about him are the ones with cap space, the ones that could actually give him a good contract.”
Considering the wall of free agents the Lakers are dealing with, a run at Clarkson would not be easy. But he did spend his first two-and-a-half seasons with L.A., a second-round pick in the 2014 draft that also brought Julius Randle to the Lakers.
Importantly, he was mentored in those days by Kobe Bryant, who took a shine to Clarkson because he was a low pick who outworked the flashier, higher draft picks on the L.A. roster. Clarkson would work with Bryant during the summer, and says the confidence he shows in his scoring ability can be traced directly back to Bryant.
“He always told me to shoot it,” Clarkson said. “In our first game, he told me not to be scared, to go out and shoot. I shot it like 10 times in the first few minutes. Biggest thing was seeing him put in work in practice. It was just him being great, on the floor and then in practice and as a teammate, bringing everybody together getting on us. That was, you know, us getting cussed out in the locker room by him, too. But that was OK, it was just bringing the energy out of us, always, he was just a great leader in that in that matter.”
Clarkson, for all his value as an experienced scorer, also adds value in taking the lessons from Bryant and bringing them to younger players. That will be a factor in his potential free agency.
It is unlikely, another executive said, that Clarkson will get much more on a per-year basis than what he has coming in the option year, $14 million. But it I an opportunity for Clarkson to get a last bit of long-term security as he heads into his mid-30s.
“Something like three years and $40 million or $45 million, I would expect,” the executive said. “But who is giving it to him besides the Jazz? I don’t know if he is getting that from a team like Toronto or Orlando or Oklahoma City, someone who is rebuilding. But he could wind up there with Utah, and then he becomes a very tradeable asset for you at the deadline next year.”
Clarkson Open to Remaining in Utah
Clarkson, for his part, has not pushed for a trade away from the Jazz, even when it most looked like Utah was headed toward a complete tear-down. He is popular within the organization, and in four seasons, has made a significant impact.
“I love Utah,” he said. “But I mean, it’s a business. I understand it. It is nothing for us to pack up and enjoy another experience anywhere. But the biggest thing for us is, you know, the love and support that I felt here, Utah, it has been amazing. And that probably is the biggest thing that would have hurt just leaving, because all the relationships and stuff that we built.”
His time in Utah may not be up, of course. Even with the emphasis on youth from the team and Clarkson’s impending free agency, there is still a strong possibility that he stays in Utah for next season and beyond. As the Jazz rebuild, after all, they will want veteran players to help set the atmosphere within the team, and Clarkson is prominent in doing so.
He is a big part of the reason that the Jazz did not tank completely this year, despite their tank-worthy trades. It is why the Jazz had high asking prices for the three remaining veterans, Clarkson, Gay and Olynyk, and ultimately did not trade the trio despite what the executive called, “a lot of real good offers.”
Maybe the Jazz’s outlook will change in the summer. Maybe Clarkson will re-sign with the Jazz and be traded. Maybe he will just sign elsewhere. But he’s open to staying to Utah and continuing to build what the team started with its 37-45 record this season, continue to share his experience.
“For us we’re not going out there to lose I think you saw that from the beginning of the year, the reason why we was like No. 1 in the West at the start of the year. There is a good future here. We got Lauri (Markkanen), an All-Star on our team, we have some good young players. The best thing for us is keep it going, and, you know, just creating the culture.”