Ask any Utah Jazz fan, or any Jazz player for that matter, and there is a clear front-runner to win this season’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, and his name is Jordan Clarkson.

The early-season hype around Clarkson for the end-of-season honor is not just coming internally or because Jazz fans are wearing blinders, willingly shielding themselves from the accomplishments of others around the league; Clarkson is legitimately favored to be the 2020-21 Sixth Man of the Year, and it is not by accident.

“If that happens I’ll be grateful and blessed. Definitely it was one of my goals going into this year, to go get that and play that role.” — Jordan Clarkson on possibility of winning Sixth Man award

“If that happens I’ll be grateful and blessed,” Clarkson said. “Definitely it was one of my goals going into this year, to go get that and play that role.” 

Clarkson, in his seventh year in the league, entered the week averaging career-highs in nearly every category; points (17.4 points per game), rebounds (4.4), 3-point attempts (7.2), 3-point percentage (40.9%), field goal percentage (48.6%) and free-throw percentage (96%).

Of all bench players in the league who have played at least 10 games and average at least 15 minutes per game, Clarkson is scoring at the highest rate.

“His reputation has been just as a scorer but he’s making the right plays, playing defense, chasing guys around,” All-Star teammate Donovan Mitchell said. “We look at him as a microwave that never really turns off, and then on top of that he’s doing it on both ends of the floor, communicating, making the extra pass. ... he’s doing it in many different ways, outside of just scoring.” 

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Not only is he playing the best basketball of his career and putting up efficient numbers, Clarkson is also taking efficient shots. The evolution of his game started last season in Cleveland when a member of the staff approached him about cleaning up his shot selection.

“I took a lot of the tough 2s out of my game. I feel like that’s the biggest adjustment for me,” Clarkson said. “Just trying to find a high percentage shot, take the 3 when I’m open and getting to the paint and trying to make plays when it’s there.”

After arriving in Utah, coach Quin Snyder and the rest of the Jazz coaching staff have reinforced the importance of being aggressive from beyond the arc and making plays in the paint rather than taking low-efficiency shots, a far cry from the early days of his career when the mid-range was a point of emphasis.

Take a look at these shot charts:

The first is from the 2017-18 season when 28% of Clarkson’s shots were taken between 10 feet away from the rim and just inside the 3-point line. The second picture is from last season when that number dropped to just 11%.

This season, through the first 16 games, the only long 2 that Clarkson had taken that was outside the paint was a single missed shot when his toe was on the 3-point line. That’s it.

“He’s really just becoming more and more efficient, and the other thing is he’s really committed to defending,” Snyder said. “He’s got a lot of pride on defense, and as good as he is offensively at creating his shot, I think he’s got an awareness of the players around him and he’s been a willing passer.”

Clarkson has increased his efficiency, is favored by the oddsmakers to win Sixth Man of the Year and continues to put up impressive numbers and improve his game. So, who is his competition for the award?

Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell (15) shoots against the Houston Rockets during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Houston. The 2019-20 winner of the Sixth Man award, Harrell is having another solid season but his numbers have dropped off a bit. | Troy Taormina, Associated Press

Montrezl Harrell, who won the award for the 2019-20 season while with the Los Angeles Clippers, is now with the Lakers and while a repeat winner is not unheard of, he doesn’t have the same impact with the Lakers and his scoring numbers have decreased.

Lou Williams always seems to be in the conversation, having already won the award in 2014-15 with the Toronto Raptors and then again with the Clippers in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. But, for the first time since 2007, Williams is averaging fewer than 10 points per game and playing fewer than 20 minutes per game.

In the early days of the 2020-21 season it seems like there are a handful of candidates that are being talked about along with Clarkson as contenders for Sixth Man of the Year honors — Toronto’s  Chris Boucher, Terrence Ross of the Orlando Magic and Shake Milton of the Philadelphia 76ers.

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For the first time in his four-year career, Boucher is finally playing meaningful and regular minutes and is making the most of it. Through the first 16 games he averaged 14.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game for the Raptors. Though he’s certainly having somewhat of a breakout season, there are two problems with Boucher’s bid for the award.

First, the Raptors are not playing well and look like they could end up on the cusp of missing the playoffs. Winning matters for end-of-year awards and if the Raptors aren’t winning it’s hard to argue for a player having a major impact. Secondly, there is a strong belief that Boucher’s time on the bench will not last long as he looks to be in line to take a place in the starting unit. If that happens, he won’t be considered at all.

Ross is included in this list because of the buzz he’s generated, which has led to him being one of the top four candidates for the award by most oddsmakers. But, Ross’ bid also comes with a couple of problems. He too is on a losing team and his numbers so far this season are almost identical to what they have been for the past couple of years.

That’s not to say that his game isn’t worthy of praise. He’s one of the Magic’s best defenders and looks like he’s going to have his third straight season of scoring 14-plus points per game while shooting upward of 35% from deep. The truth is that those numbers just don’t stack up well against Clarkson’s.

Milton is probably the most interesting of the challengers in this category. Through the first 14 games, Milton was putting up 15.4 points per game to go with 3.4 assists per outing. While his efficiency and his numbers don’t reach the level of Clarkson’s, there is an argument to be made about his importance in high-pressure situations and his impact in those moments for the Sixers.

In Clarkson’s defense, Snyder has said there are times when even as a bench player it’s hard to take Clarkson out of tough games.

“There’s times when it’s hard to take him out of the game, and I don’t always take him out of the game,” Snyder said. “He’s a selfless person, a huge asset to our team. ... Just having him out on the floor, he just makes such an impact.”

“For sure JC is the Sixth Man of the Year. I mean he’s instantly affecting games every time he comes in, in a positive way.” — Mike Conley

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In addition to all of his tangible attributes that can be logged and read in a boxscore, there are also the intangibles. Clarkson is regarded as an incredible teammate, a quick learner, coachable and willing, perhaps one of the most confident players in the league.

That’s the thing about these end-of-year awards. They’re about more than just numbers — though those matter a great deal. They’re also about pressure and impact and nuance and difference-making.

“For sure JC is the Sixth Man of the Year,” Mike Conley said of Clarkson. “I mean he’s instantly affecting games every time he comes in, in a positive way. It’s tough for teams to stop him, he can score in so many different ways so he’s definitely the front-runner. Hopefully he will be able to hoist that trophy up in the air.”

Though the Jazz are only about a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 season, Clarkson is already leading the conversation as the league’s top reserve. But at the very least he is playing the best basketball of his career and the Jazz are all too happy to have him as the first man off the bench.

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