Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga’s stud forward, has gone under-discussed heading into the NBA Draft. Will the Knicks take a flyer on the athletic, intelligent Clarke?

The Knicks Wall is setting a spotlight on the top prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft. Follow along with weekly features on the draft and players. Next up is Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke.

The best player on a number one seed in the NCAA tournament this year led all college players in offensive rating, defensive rating, field goal percentage and blocked shots. No, he wasn’t a Blue Devil. It was Brandon Clarke, the 6-foot-8 big man out of Gonzaga.

Mostly mocked around the 10-15 range in the upcoming draft, Clarke had a historic season for the Zags and is going to be way under-drafted due to concerns about his age (22) and how his game might translate at the next level. His PER this season was an astonishing 38.1, which would be the highest in the last 10 years of NCAA data if Mr. Zion Williamson did not exist.

He ranked in the upper echelon of almost every offensive play type this year and blocked a monstrous 11.4% of all opponent two-pointers (over four blocks per 40 mins).

At only 6’8” with a wingspan equal to his height, and checking in at only 207 pounds at the combine, Clarke’s closest physical comp coming out of college is Khris Middleton (credit to the TKW Slack for finding the physical comp). But he is the furthest thing you can imagine from Middleton in play style. He is a gifted jump-out-the-gym athlete with elite agility, anticipation, footwork, balance, and timing. He’s a hyper-active, springy big man with a ceaseless motor, but he’s trapped in the body of a small forward.

He was incorrectly classified as a small forward at the combine because of his physical measurements—and still blew all the small forwards out of the water in agility and athleticism drills.

Evaluations on players with unique skill sets for their size are difficult because we can’t always wrap our minds around something we haven’t seen succeeding before. Player comparisons are typically the easiest way to conceptualize how a player might fare at the next level, but when there’s no comp readily available for how a guy might fit, he will often fall lower in the draft than he should.

Draymond Green coming into the NBA had no real comp either because we didn’t have guys who played like him at the next level. As a “tweener,” he was a three-star recruit, and most believed there was no natural fit for him in a modern NBA offense, so he fell to the second round. But his elite traits shone through as he carved out his own role in the league and, in part, helped redefine what a modern NBA offense looks like. Nikola Jokic is another example of a player with a few elite skills and questions about his fit in the NBA who ended up going way under-drafted.

Elite traits are the ones most likely to shine through at the next level, and Brandon Clarke has them in spades.

First, Clarke’s defense is just plain special. Pairing his 40.5” vertical with incredible instincts, anticipation, and timing, he had about five jaw-dropping defensive moments every game that popped off the screen. And he’s a very vocal defensive leader, constantly pointing and talking to other guys.

So many people are in love with wingspan when it comes to defense. It’s why Nassir Little is probably going to be over-drafted despite not showing much on the defensive end all year. Sometimes, what you do is more important than how you do it, and Clarke consistently got his hands higher and in the perfect spot more than any player outside of Zion this year. Clarke’s coordination is off the charts, and that complements his quick load time and ability to track the ball in real-time so well. It makes up for any lack of wingspan.

When you watch Gonzaga games, you almost never see him on his heels. He just seems to dance everywhere across the court, ready to explode any direction faster and higher than anyone else. He gets to the highest point in his jump so easily, and his second and third jumps are pretty much just as springy, exemplified by his 98th percentile in finishing offensive rebounds.

He also has this unique ability, pointed out by @polarfall to extend his core mid-jump. It almost looks like he’s unfolding himself upwards mid-air and through contact, which allows him to get to that final point at the top and look like he just keeps floating upwards. Polarfall also pointed out that one of Michael Jordan’s signature qualities was his ability to control his upper body under contact mid-air (please don’t take this out-of-context). This also plays out for Clarke in his finishing around the rim, which I’ll get to soon.

Clarke had that Mitchell Robinson thing where he blocked more shots than he missed this season. The Gonzaga stud was the first player in NCAA tournament history to have 15+ points and 5+ blocks in consecutive games. He god damn met Zion at the rim and blocked him twice when Gonzaga played Duke in the Maui Invitational Championship.

But it’s not just blocks. Clarke’s footwork is incredible, and he’s comfortable guarding in space, quick enough to stay with almost anyone on the perimeter. His hips are always in the right place, too. Look at how he hedges the guard here to prevent him from turning the corner:

Here, he closes out under control and finishes with two blocks on the play.

He always stays composed, never panics, and reads his indicators really well, which Dr. Rajpaj Brar mentioned is eerily similar to a lot of what made Lonzo Ball special on the defensive end.

That footwork and control play out in his offensive game too, where he thrives in getting his shot up over and around defenders in the paint. He finished the season first in shooting percentage at the rim with almost 80%! And only 55.7% of those buckets around the rim were assisted, so it’s not like he’s just getting those high percentage alley-oop looks. On non-dunks, Clarke shot 73.3% at the rim on 180 shot attempts. For reference, Deandre Ayton at Arizona shot 70% on 140 attempts and Marvin Bagley III at Duke shot 60% on 166 attempts.

He has a legitimate skill set that allows him to score in the paint, even at his size. He does tend to turn over his left shoulder a little bit too often to create space, so he’ll need to add some counters to his game at the next level, but he seemed aware of that in interviews at the combine.

His touch around the rim is great, and one can see here how that ability to control his upper body under contact while maintaining balance in his lower half helps him get shots off with even the tiniest sliver of room.

He creates space with his body and gets so high on his floaters and shots around the basket. He showed a ton of that upper body extension and flexibility with his finishes in the tourney game against Baylor where he shot 15-of-18 from the field for 36 points, with five blocks, two steals, eight rebounds, and three assists. 

His most natural fit in the NBA is going to be at the 4, if we still need to designate people with positions. And he’s a decent playmaker who sees the floor well, so he will fare okay out of the short roll.

But the biggest concern about Clarke on offense is with his shot. Stretching the floor is a key skill for anyone who plays as a big man to add versatility to the offense. But before delving into his current shot mechanics, let’s take a look at where he started:

Now that looks like somebody who had never had to shoot a basketball outside of 10 feet before he was 16. He probably didn’t given how easily he creates shots for himself in the paint and out of the mid-post. Given how terrible this shot from the shoulder is, where he stands today as a shooter shows vast improvement since his time at San Jose State.

Here’s a look at his current shot form, from a workout in Charlotte:

He has a super low release point, shooting it outwards instead of upwards. But he now keeps his elbow in and it’s a lot smoother and more repeatable than before. He also showed significant improvement in his free throws, going from 57% to almost 65% in a year.

There’s no one factor that projects shooting success at the next level, but given Clarke’s touch around the rim and improvements this far in his career, I’d bet on him becoming an at least replacement level shooter. Small tweaks to a shot over time rather than a complete overhaul are the best way to actualize a player’s shooting potential. No two players are the same in their body motions, and based on their body morphology, some are more comfortable getting the shot off at different levels and angles depending on things like wrist and shoulder flexibility. Tons of good shooters have had janky motions, but if it’s repeatable and comfortable, you’re on the right path.

On a small sample size (46 shots), Clarke was in the 92nd percentile in college ball on spot up shooting with 1.196 points per shot attempt. He was selective, so most of these were wide open. It kind of reminds me how Ben Simmons didn’t need a jump shot because he got to his spots so well in college.

But Clarke also has a relentless work ethic and motor and is highly self-aware, noting in an interview that he knows three-point shooting is his weakness right now and that he has been putting up a ton of reps every day from NBA range. He said that Gonzaga didn’t need him to shoot threes, but that he knows that’s what will be needed out of him from NBA teams. Of course, every player says this around draft time, but coaches gush about Clarke’s work ethic. And if he’s zeroing in on something he needs to improve, it’s a good bet that he’ll refine that skill given how talented he is with everything else he does on the floor.

What it comes down to with Clarke is that he has a few elite traits that can’t be taught. His defensive instincts are at a level rarely seen among anyone. His otherworldly vertical and agility make him a rare athlete, even amongst NBA standards. His flexibility, control, and touch project well on offense to the next level. He’ll have to put on some weight to fully realize the impact of his monstrous defense at the next level, but @CanyonDriver pointed out on Twitter how Ben Wallace started his career as a high-motor guy with amazing defensive instincts and grew his body into a defensive player of the year. Out of the gate, Clarke will already be a monstrous weak-side shot-blocker and capable multi-positional defender.

Clarke has an incredibly high floor, but shooting will probably be his swing skill for stardom. While he’ll probably never be a great shooter running around screens or anything, that shouldn’t be his role. He’ll have to be able to spot up and hit corner shots, but spot-up shooting is definitely a growable skill through tireless practice. Heck, Dewayne Dedmon decided to add the spot up to his repertoire last summer and ended up shooting 37% this past season for Atlanta. Given Clarke’s impressive skill set everywhere else, I’m betting his shot gets there and he ends up carving out a unique role as a 6-foot-8 wrecking ball.

I think there’s a good chance that five to ten years from now, Clarke will end up the second best player out of this draft. He was pretty clearly the second best player in college basketball this season. Given his projected range is around the 10 spot, it would be stupid for the Knicks to take him at 3. But if they were to swing a trade to grab an asset and move back a little bit in the draft, Clarke should be a no-brainer selection and would be a fan favorite for years to come.

 

 

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