Jordan Clarkson didn’t have much momentum entering the regular season.
“He was struggling in training camp, he was struggling in the preseason,” head coach Luke Walton said.
But Clarkson never wavered from accepting his role as the Lakers’ sixth man. And when the team fell behind by 21 against New Orleans on Sunday, he assumed the capacity of leader.
The Lakers fell, 119-112, but not before Clarkson caught fire to turn a ghastly team performance into one that put some electricity into the STAPLES Center crowd.
After back-to-back Pelicans 3-pointers put the Lakers down by 21 with three minutes left in the third quarter, Clarkson jump-started the Laker’s offense by finishing the period with a layup, two assists to Kyle Kuzma and a four-point play.
The 25-year-old kept burning through the next frame, as he put up 11 points and four dimes during a bulldozing 29-5 run that gave the Lakers a 103-98 lead midway through the fourth.
It was a young lineup that had stymied the Pelicans, as Clarkson and Kuzma were joined by Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle.
“It’s a great learning experience for a lot of those young guys,” Walton said. “You get down like that in college — the game’s over for the most part. But in the NBA it’s never over.”
And it was the rookies who battled hardest defensively against a pair of All-Star behemoths. While Kuzma attempted to rein in Anthony Davis all night, Hart was once tasked with fronting DeMarcus Cousins, a player six inches taller and 60 pounds heavier.
“Defensively we were playing for each other,” Clarkson said. “We were switching a lot of the coverages.”
A former second-round pick, Clarkson displayed the blend of individual scoring and team playmaking that made him such a surprise as a rookie. He finished the night with a team-best 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting with five assists.
Three games into the season, Clarkson — who aims to win Sixth Man of the Year — leads all bench players with 19.7 points per game.
“Until you have the mega superstar, on our team each night is going to be someone else’s night,” Walton said. “That’s just the way it is. JC really got cooking there.”
But even Clarkson’s heat couldn’t prevent the Pelicans from coming back.
When Ingram picked up his fifth foul and New Orleans inserted defensive bulldog Jrue Holiday, Walton opted to edit his successful lineup by putting in another ball-handler beside Clarkson: Lonzo Ball.
The move worked well at first, as the Lakers led by four with four minutes remaining. But then the Pelicans rolled off 11 unanswered points behind two buckets and an assist from Cousins.
“There ain’t no moral victories here,” Clarkson said. “We’re trying to win games.”
Although the Lakers trailed by as many as 22 points, it could have been much worse if Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hadn’t found their rhythms.
The primary issue was on the defensive side, where Davis (27 points, 17 rebounds, four steals) and Cousins (22 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists) feasted.
Caldwell-Pope, known mostly for his defense, shined on the offensive end with a highlight package that included a breakaway dunk and four-point play.
After serving a suspension for the first two games of the season, he put up 20 points on a 7-of-11 clip in his Lakers debut.
“As you can see, he can score the ball and he plays defense,” Ball said. “So he helps my game a lot. He just makes the game a lot easier for us.”
Ball put on a show himself, handing out 13 assists — which were the most by a player within the first three games of his career since John Wall in 2010.
He also finished in triple-double range for the second straight outing, adding eight points and eight rebounds.
The scoring just wasn’t there on this night. Although Ball liked the looks he was getting, he went 3-of-13 from the field.
Nonetheless, Walton liked the way that he dared attack the paint with Davis and Cousins protecting the rim.
“Those two bigs he was trying to penetrate today are monsters out there,” Walton said. “He’s not used to playing guys like that. I thought it was great for him to go out there and challenge them.”
Kuzma had 20 points (including seven during the big run) and six rebounds in the third game of his career. … The Lakers scored 60 points in the paint, but allowed 68. … … A crowd of 18,997 sold out STAPLES Center.