It’s not easy to imagine Jordan Clarkson’s confidence being shaken. It’s even more difficult to imagine him not being open and honest and real about, well, anything.

In 2016, heading into Clarkson’s third year in the NBA, newly minted Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton decided to take Clarkson out of the starting lineup and bring him off the bench instead.

Clarkson had just come off a sophomore NBA season in which he played and started in 79 games. Though publicly Clarkson said he was fine with a reserve role, he took the move as a slight, as if his coach didn’t believe in him.

“Luke Walton got the job and he told me that I was going to come off the bench,” Clarkson said. “I kind of took it like, man, he don’t think I’m good enough. So he’s going to play me off the bench, and I’ve got to prove him wrong, like I’ve got to get back in the starting lineup.”

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, and teammate Jordan Clarkson rest on the bench during game against the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Clarkson wasn’t thrilled about coming off the bench when Lakers coach Luke Walton informed him of the decision, but eventually he grew into it. | Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

Clarkson struggled to accept that he wasn’t going to be an NBA starter. He was 23 years old and despite reassurances from his teammates and words of encouragement and wisdom from the likes of Lou Williams, Clarkson didn’t know who he was as a reserve player or what it meant for the rest of his career. He was hardheaded and wasn’t ready to listen or take advice.

On Monday, Clarkson was named the 2020-21 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, the first Utah Jazz player to ever win the award.

The honor comes after Clarkson led the league in bench scoring in his second season with the Jazz and he’s done it all with an immense amount of pride and always with a smile on his face. His confidence seems unending, he is completely unafraid to be himself, and never seems afraid to speak his mind. But it was a journey to get where he is.

The process

It took some time to get used to being a reserve player with the Lakers, but eventually, Clarkson felt like he’d found a way to make a mark on the game.

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“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.”

There was a definite shift in Clarkson’s approach and he started to feel like he was owning his role. Then, when he was traded to the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in the middle of the 2017-18 season, he had to adjust his game even more.

“It was definitely a process. 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.” — Jordan Clarkson

“I needed to learn how to really impact the game in terms of numbers with the shots I was taking,” Clarkson said. “It was like a wake-up call because I didn’t play well in the Finals with Bron, during that whole playoff series. I was kind of out of there mentally. But then I sat down again and scraped it and went back to the drawing board.”

Clarkson had gained a reputation as being a scorer, but mostly in isolation and wasn’t considered a player that worked well within a system. He took a lot of mid-range shots off the dribble and wasn’t respected as a defender or creator.

Cavaliers coach Tyron Lue as well as assistants Larry Drew and Steve Frankoski started to work with Clarkson on making his game more efficient. In the offseasons, Clarkson worked with skills coaches Drew Hanlen and Chris Johnson to refine his game even more.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson walks up the court during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Boston. The Cavs advanced to the NBA Finals that year, but Clarkson wasn’t pleased with his performance. | Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

When Clarkson was again traded in December 2019 to Utah, Jazz coach Quin Snyder made it clear from the beginning what he wanted from Clarkson — no more mid-range shots. Get to the rim, shoot 3s, play defense. Clarkson’s role was defined and clear.

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“A big thing was when I got here coach Quin sat me down and really showed me the shots I was taking,” Clarkson said. “(He showed me) what he saw in me and expected out of me.”

A new beginning

It took less than two weeks for Clarkson to make an impact with the Jazz, fitting in seamlessly, and rewriting the narrative that he was just an iso scorer who couldn’t play within a system.

“I love him, I love him. Write it down. I love him. Sometimes a system needs to be malleable. He’s unselfish, he attacks the rim, he gets to the line. If the system is defense, he’s embraced that, and I think he’ll continue to learn.” — Jazz coach Quin Snyder after Clarkson scored 37 against the Nuggets in 2020

“I love him, I love him. Write it down. I love him,” Snyder said of Clarkson on Jan. 30, 2020 after he dropped 37 points against the Nuggets. “Sometimes a system needs to be malleable. He’s unselfish, he attacks the rim, he gets to the line. If the system is defense, he’s embraced that, and I think he’ll continue to learn.”

Clarkson has continued to shine for the Jazz. He averaged 18.4 points per game, shot 89.6% from the free-throw line and hit 208 3-pointers this season, all career-high marks. And, it’s not just on the offensive end where Clarkson has grown. His steals and deflections are up too, and while he’s not going to be making an All-Defensive team, he’s not someone that can be hunted and picked off on that end as easily as some would think.

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Clarkson has been a huge and important part of this Jazz team that finished the regular season as the No. 1 team in the league. When asked what the best part of all of it has been, his answer was two-fold.

“Winning and building this relationship with my teammates and everybody here,” he said.

Clarkson has been on winning teams before. As he said, he went to the Finals with the Cavaliers, but he didn’t  feel like he had a respected role in that run. He was still young and trying to figure out how to maximize his game while also fitting into the NBA as a reserve player. But with the Jazz, Clarkson feels like he belongs and that what he does makes a difference.

“It’s my first time really being on a winning team and having a piece of it and having a role in it, and this team, it’s just amazing how we bond together,” Clarkson said. “I had it a little in Cleveland. ... But here in Utah with this organization, this team, it’s definitely a different feel. I know that the next man has got my back. And these guys, I’ve been so open with them and transparent, they almost feel like family.” 

That’s why, when Clarkson was presented the Sixth Man of the Year trophy, live on “Inside the NBA” on TNT, by his teammate and fellow Sixth Man of the Year candidate Joe Ingles, it meant that much more.

“It’s my first time really being on a winning team and having a piece of it and having a role in it, and this team, it’s just amazing how we bond together.” — Jordan Clarkson

Role models

Clarkson has had many role models in his seven seasons in the NBA, from teammates like Williams in L.A. and J.R. Smith in Cleveland — both former 6MOY award winners — with Ingles being the most recent. The two have bonded and have spent many off days ... talking about life. While they’re teammates and friends, Clarkson looks up to Ingles and the example he has set.

Ingles too was a starter and has taken on a reserve role with the Jazz and Clarkson has seen the way that Ingles has taken on the role with pride and grace and remains one of the most important pieces on this Jazz team.

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“Him making that sacrifice late in his career, coming off the bench, has helped me a lot,” Clarkson said. “Going out there and not having to fight all the pressures and know everything by myself. So, him presenting me the award was amazing.”

Clarkson thinks back to those days in Los Angeles and still remembers the things that his teammate Williams would say to him. They resonate a little more now. 

But he has to laugh a little when he thinks about fighting the idea of coming off the bench, fighting the advice and encouragement that his teammates were trying to give him, fighting with himself and feeling the need to prove everyone wrong.

It is a little funny if you think about it. Clarkson took on a role he never wanted and has completely flipped the script. He is the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. He’s the best bench player in basketball and he’s doing it on the No. 1 team in the league.