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Jordan Clarkson’s evolving game is contributing to the Utah Jazz in ways beyond just shooting

Though renowned and sometimes lamented for his remorseless chucking, the guard has been impacting games of late with his playmaking, passing, rebounding, and yes, even his defending.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Jazz bench reacts as guard Jordan Clarkson (00) steals the ball from guard Sterling Brown (0) as the Utah Jazz play the Dallas Mavericks at Vivint Arena Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021.

After a 4-for-13 shooting performance in Saturday’s closer-than-expected Christmas night win, Jordan Clarkson offered an accurate and honest assessment.

“I’ve been shooting the ball like trash this year,” he said.

He’s not wrong. The 6-foot-4 guard is at 37.9% from the field and 30.6% from 3 for the season. His effort against the Mavericks was his eighth sub-50% shooting night in the Jazz’s past 10 games. And yet …

They would not have beaten Dallas without him.

Clarkson’s high-volume, low-regret style has always made him something of a lightning rod wherever he’s been, but recently, he’s been showing increasing flashes of evolving his game, of being able to swing an outcome in ways other than letting the rock fly. On Christmas night, he frequently made a difference simply by amping up his energy level, by finding the open man, even — gasp! — by playing some defense.

“Playing hard, just bringing that energy, I think that’s been a real big thing for me this whole year,” Clarkson said afterward. “Even though shots ain’t falling like I want ‘em to, I’m just trying to find different facets of the game that I can affect the game, have an impact.”

His 12 points made a difference, of course, in a game decided by four, but his eight rebounds, four dimes and a key fourth-quarter steal arguably had a bigger tangible effect on the end result.

“We’ve told him we’re not going to judge him on whether the ball goes in or not [because] he’s trying to take good shots and involving people and playing defense,” said coach Quin Snyder. “Boy, I’ll take that any day of the week.”

Clarkson’s production in those non-shooting, non-scoring categories is, to be fair, pretty unspectacular — 3.4 abounds and 2.3 assists per game this season.

And yet, there have been increasing flashes of late from him, important contributions in those other areas of the game. Seven assists in the home win against the Wolves. Five boards vs. Charlotte. Two steals apiece in the home losses to the Spurs and Wizards. Five momentum-changing assists in D.C. a couple of weeks back.

The rest of the Jazz have noticed how he’s been diversifying his game.

“He’s grown each year he’s been here,” said Donovan Mitchell.

“His playmaking has gotten better every year. I really respect that from him. It’s really changed his game,” added Rudy Gobert. “He’s learned how to really get out of his comfort zone and really not just be a scorer but be a playmaker and create for his teammates, and it takes us to a whole different level.”

Mike Conley seized upon that sentiment as well, adding that Clarkson has been something of an example for his teammates in that regard.

“We all know what we can do great, we all know how good we are in our own comfort zones, and it’s time for a lot of us to get out of our comfort zone a little bit and expand a little bit,” he said. “And I think JC’s done that throughout the season — when his shot’s not falling, trying to make plays for guys on the offensive end and pick up his defense on the other end.”

Clarkson has noted that during games, he enjoys chatting up opposing coaches when the time allows, just to say hello or share a laugh. Increasingly, he said, the message coming back to him is that they are all too aware of his Sixth Man of the Year award-winning exploits, and are determined not to let him beat them that way.

And he’s had to take that to heart.

“A lot of ‘em always just come up to me and be like, ‘JC, we’re not gonna let you get off tonight. We’re not gonna let you score,’” Clarkson recalled. “You know, sometimes I take some crazy shots, do stuff like that, and it’s just me being me. But making plays — a lot of teams are forcing me to pass, so I’m set on making a play and doing what’s best for us. It’s going to help us grow a lot more, too.”

He, of course, is growing as well.

“I think it actually is more fun for me to kind of get somebody else a shot than to shoot 3s over three or four hands,” Clarkson said with a grin.

Rudy Gay, now in his 16th season, said that the guard’s willingness to make such adjustments is an indication of a player with enough intelligence to stick in the league for a long time.

“As you grow in your career, you pick up different things. Nobody is going to go out there and let you try to get 30. This is the NBA, and it is full of the best players in the world, best defenders, everything,” said Gay. “JC is a great player and he’s not a one-dimensional player at all. The role he [first] assumed here was to score, and now that people are zoning in on that, he has to do something different. And he’s been pretty good.”

Which is not to say that Clarkson doesn’t yet have plenty of room to grow, as he himself admitted.

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that his focus tends to be higher on one side of the ball than the other — but he’s working on that, too.

“Sometimes I’m not always there defensively, mentally,” Clarkson said. “But just coming in when I know it’s time and we need it and I really got to lock in on that and make plays — I feel like I’m giving more effort on that end. So for me, it’s just all a mindset, knowing that if I start it on the defensive end, the offense is just gonna come. That’s what I’ve just been trying to hold my hat on this year — bringing energy on that end.”

Snyder said progress from Clarkson is possible simply because he loves to play, and because “he’s probably harder on himself than anyone.” The coach’s constant refrain to him is to not beat himself up over a missed shot, but rather to throw himself into doing the things that will help the team win.

“He knows that, and that’s what he’s bought into,” Snyder concluded.

Gay said that much is obvious about Clarkson, even to a brand-new teammate.

“If I’m coach Quin, I’m happy,” he said. “I’m going to sleep happy because that’s what we want from him.”

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