SALT LAKE CITY — Suddenly, the reason the dual on-air interview with Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles was made clear.
“Inside the NBA” host Ernie Johnson asked the players how many Utah Jazz players had ever won Sixth Man of the Year. It was a relevant question — both players, after all, were the front-runners for the award.
Clarkson answered first, guessing zero.
Ingles answered next, saying, “One.”
“Who’s the one,” Johnson asked Ingles.
With a wide smile, Ingles pointed to Clarkson and then grabbed the Sixth Man of the Year trophy and presented it to his teammate, who laughed in disbelief.
“I was really speechless,” Clarkson said. “I don’t really do well with surprises.”
He averaged a career high 18.4 points and 4.0 rebounds coming off the bench to become the 2020-21 NBA Sixth Man of the Year. He shot 42.5% from the field, 34.7% from the 3-point line, and a hair under 90% at the free-throw line. His 203 3-pointers, including one in each game, was the most made off the bench in the league.
Clarkson won the award with 407 total points, including 65 out of 100 first-place votes. Ingles finished second with 272 points; he had 34 first-place votes.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 24, 2021
“One of my closest teammates,” Clarkson said of Ingles. “We’ve sat in locker rooms where it’s just been me and him and had conversations about my personal life and stuff like that, and he sits across from me on a plane and we hang out. We drink beers together and we should come out with a beer company soon with how many beers we drink on off days.”
Even as the Jazz shuffled the starting lineup due to injury, Clarkson was a mainstay on the bench. He played 68 games and only started one. That’s the role he’s embraced and it’s become part of his identity — but that wasn’t always the case. Clarkson recalled being a young player with the Los Angeles Lakers when he was told he was moving from the starting lineup to the bench.
“I kind of took it like, ‘Man, he don’t think I’m good enough. He gonna play me off the bench? I got to prove him wrong,'” Clarkson said.
He admitted he was hardheaded and wanted no part of it at first. It was a process, no doubt, but once he accepted that it didn’t have to be a demotion, he went to work learning how to best impact the game off the bench.
Sixth Man of the Year Voting: pic.twitter.com/P0LGpbtT8M
— Ryan Miller (@millerjryan) May 24, 2021
“I just said, ‘This is who I’m gonna be. I’m just going to come in here and I’m gonna impact the game with the minutes that’s given to me, I’m playing my role and I’mma do it well,'” Clarkson said.
And having some Sixth Man of the Year winners as teammates didn’t hurt either in J.R. Smith and Lou Williams — also players who were looked upon to provide instant offense for their teams off the bench.
“There’s just something they all kind of passed down to me,” Clarkson said. “I remember Lou was big on me in L.A. with slowing down with life and everything, just giving me so much knowledge that I really wasn’t able to accept when I was a young player in the NBA.”
When he matured, though, he became a Sixth Man of the Year right along side them.
Clarkson has been the favorite for the award nearly since the beginning of the season. Through his first 28 games, he averaged 18 points on 38% shooting from 3, including a virtuoso 40-point performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. Clarkson’s numbers dipped after that, but the strong start was enough to hold off a late charge from his own teammate and win the award.
Clarkson credited Quin Snyder for his belief in him and allowing him to play his game and for his teammates for making “winning” the best part of the season.
“I know it sounds kind of cliché, but having these teammates and coaching staff, I feel like you don’t really get this opportunity to have once or twice ever,” Clarkson said.
With an award-winning season, he certainly has taken advantage of it.