Why Jordan Clarkson’s midrange success will be key to the Utah Jazz’s playoff success

The reigning Sixth Man of the Year seemed to unlock something with his 45-point performance against the Sacramento Kings late in the regular season

(Tony Gutierrez | AP) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) takes a shot as Dallas Mavericks' Dwight Powell (7),. Davis Bertans, right front, and Jalen Brunson (13) defend in the first half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Dallas.

Editor’s note: Riley Gisseman is a writer for Salt City Hoops. This story is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune that seeks to create more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.

“I appreciate you throwing me that ball, man,” Jordan Clarkson said with a smile.

This was during last year’s playoffs. Clarkson was talking to then-teammate Joe Ingles, who had just surprised him with the news that Clarkson had won the first Sixth Man of the Year award in Utah Jazz history.

Clarkson had earned himself the title as the league’s best scorer off the bench, putting up more than 18 points per game. The team’s offense, despite finishing top-3 in the league (filtering low-leverage possessions, via PBP Stats), was actually better when the first man off the bench was on the floor than when he was off.

It hasn’t been easy since that moment for Clarkson. Utah went out earlier than hoped in the 2021 playoffs, and then Clarkson started the 2021-22 season slowly. February’s trade deadline would bring lots of noise surrounding the 8-year pro’s future, and then things got more difficult for the Jazz as an injury sidelined Ingles. A torn ACL would keep Clarkson’s fellow bench playmaker out through the duration of his contract, and the Jazz subsequently traded him.

That meant a struggling Clarkson would need to handle a larger role in the team’s bench creation without Ingles. Yet, Clarkson maintained that he wasn’t worried about his early struggles, nor the team’s miserable 4-12 record through January. He went to the All-Star break with 52.2% true shooting for the season, but he talked as though a breakthrough would come at any moment.

It finally came on March 12, when the Jazz squared off against the Sacramento Kings. Utah was without starters Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert, leaving a large offensive void to fill, primarily through the creation ability of Donovan Mitchell and Clarkson. When the latter arrived at Vivint Arena that night, Conley made it clear what the Jazz needed. “You know what I ain’t seen you do all year?” Clarkson recalled Conley telling him. “Get 40.’”

“It just pinged in my head,” Clarkson said of the invitation.

He would go on to tally 45, the most points off the bench in Jazz history.

While the flamethrower guard did get hot with a 7-for-13 night from distance, the explosion was largely fueled from inside the arc, where he didn’t miss a shot. He made each of his eight attempts, and drew two more shooting fouls to give him 20 points exclusively from inside of the 3-point line.

Jordan Clarkson's shot chart vs. the Sacramento Kings on March 12, 2022.

“It’s important for guys to do what they’re capable of doing,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “The risk is guys feel like they have to pick up the slack, doing things that maybe they aren’t as efficient at doing.”

That game — and in particular Clarkson’s success below the free-throw line — seemed to change things. Up until that night, Clarkson had taken only 27% of his attempts in the short midrange, an area where he makes an elite 52% for the season. From March 12 on, he took 37% in the floater range.

This increased appetite for floaters and other short midrange shots proved to unlock a new level to Clarkson’s offensive game over the last few weeks. The Jazz, who before March 12 had the league’s best offense (ORtg) at 117 points per 100 possessions, have since averaged over a 123 ORtg when Clarkson’s been on the court. Jordan’s scoring output has climbed as well, from 15 points per game on 52.5% true shooting percentage to 19 points per game on 57.5% true shooting.

In Game 1 of the Jazz’s series with the Mavericks, Clarkson went 4-for-7 from the floor overall. But he was 4-for-5 below the free throw line.

From a statistical perspective, the short midrange isn’t the most analytically-friendly zone, and even Clarkson’s relatively great 52% renders only yields 1.04 points per shot, which is well under the league-average 1.13 mark for points per possession.

This argument, however, misses the mark. Clarkson’s game plays into the Jazz hands when considering the amount of space he creates for offensive rebounding, causing defenders to jump out of position to contest the shot. Over 44% of Clarkson’s short-mid range misses are recovered by another player on the Jazz, often creating easy putback opportunities.

When accounting for the second chance opportunities Clarkson’s largely giving to Gobert or Hassan Whiteside, alongside a higher foul rate when attempting shots closer to the basket, Clarkson’s short-mid range shot is a weapon that yields nearly 1.3 PPP rather than the assumed 1.04. Even if he were to attack the rim more, you could argue that the increased chance of a blocked shot or turnover at the rim makes Clarkson’s floater more valuable. Here’s a comparison of how many points per possession Clarkson produced just on self-created opportunities, by shot zone:

A look at Jordan Clarkson’s shot quality, factoring in second-chance points and fouls.

The Jazz have largely gone as Clarkson has gone since he joined the club before Christmas 2019. The bench was a disaster that season before the Jazz acquired Clarkson for former lottery selection Dante Exum, and Clarkson’s arrival sparked a turnaround. In the dominant 2020-21 campaign, the Jazz tallied a 117.9 ORtg when Clarkson was on the court. And this year, the roller coaster climb and fall has defined both Clarkson and Utah. He’s been a bellwether for the team.

This is why it’s so important for Clarkson to manage a consistent shot chart in the playoffs. By maintaining high levels of dribble penetration rather than settling for earlier, easier shots in the possession-by-possession game, Clarkson has a chance to do what playoff opponents fear most from him: maintain the elite numbers the Jazz offense has put up during the minutes in which Conley or Mitchell are forced to rest. When he handles the offensive load responsibly, and that doesn’t necessarily mean scoring efficiently, the Jazz find themselves receiving 48 minutes of league-best offense. The weak link disappears.

There’s an infallible vibe that follows Clarkson. He’s headlined Utah’s bench while leading what he calls the “Good Vibe Tribe,” and he’s seemed to reach another level of zen over the past month. He exudes confidence, and if you asked him if he expects buckets this postseason, you’d likely hear him utter a familiar phrase.

Yeah, a lot.”