Brandon Clarke waited more than 600 days to make his debut at Gonzaga, but it only took him two weeks to introduce himself as one of the most impactful players in college basketball.
When Gonzaga faced Duke in the title game of the Maui Invitational, it was built as a potential national championship preview in November. It came with only one sizable asterisk: without injured star Killian Tillie, the ‘Zags felt like they were taking the court without their best player.
Clarke used Tillie’s absence as an opportunity to prove himself against the most talented team in the country. He hasn’t looked back since.
When Zion Williamson plowed through teammate Rui Hachimura, Clarke was there with a weak side swat. When R.J. Barrett beat his man off the dribble, Clarke darted over to send it away. When Tre Jones had him beat on the perimeter, Clarke came from behind with the block. When Williamson grabbed an offensive rebound, Clarke rejected his putback.
And when Barrett attempted to tie the game on the final possession, Clarke was again there to deny him at the rim and seal an 89-87 Gonzaga victory.
Brandon Clarke has been a defensive force for @ZagMBB this year. Blocking shots at the rim, in transition, & along the perimeter.— Dribble Handoff (@dribblehandoff) November 26, 2018
If his pace continues, he'll become just the 9th player in the last 25 years to average 15+ PPG & 4+ BPG. Joining the likes of Duncan & Emeka Okafor. pic.twitter.com/LdYpt8596w
The dream of Duke’s undefeated season had been dashed and the mythology surrounding Williamson had been hit with a reality check, at least for one night. It happened largely because a transfer from San Jose State was the best player on the court, not by being the biggest or the most skilled player on his own roster but by simply being better at the things that aide winning.
That’s what makes him such a steal for the Memphis Grizzlies with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Clarke may not have the measurable or the high upside of a younger prospect, but he just knows how to play and win.
Even hardcore college basketball fans might not have been familiar with Clarke before that night, but it became impossible to ignore him afterwards. While Williamson’s dominance exists in a plain above anyone else, Clarke has spent his season at Gonzaga putting together a rock solid statistical argument that he’s the next best player in the country.
Clarke still isn’t a household name as he prepares to enter the NBA. Just know he’s the biggest reason Gonzaga was on the top line in the first place.
There are a countless number of Williamson mixtapes from his prep days that have views in the millions. There appears to be only one high school mixtape for Clarke, and it doesn’t even have 5,000 views.
Clarke was a late bloomer in every sense, growing five inches in his last two years of high school. Though he took his school to the state title game in Arizona as a senior, he was still decidedly below the radar. San Jose State was his only scholarship offer.
His impact was immediately clear at SJSU. As a freshman, Clarke was named Sixth Man of the Year in the Mountain West. As a sophomore, he was named first-team all-conference by leading the Spartans in scoring, rebounds, assists, and blocks. There was only one problem: San Jose State was terrible, going 23-38 in Clarke’s two years on campus. Granted, those were the program’s best seasons in a long time.
When head coach Dave Wojcik was left amid allegations of discrimination, Clarke looked into his options as a transfer. He would pick Gonzaga over Oregon and Washington State.
Gonzaga is known for its success developing international players, but the program is every bit as good with transfers. Behind every great Mark Few team has been a breakout transfer, from Kyle Wiltjer to Nigel Williams-Goss to Jordan Matthews and Johnathan Williams. None of this was lost on Clarke, and it stayed on his mind while he waited from March of 2017 to Nov. of 2018 to finally take the court in a college basketball game again.
Clarke chose the ‘Zags for their track record of development as much as their winning culture. He entered the program with one main objective from that perspective: rebuilding his jump shot.
“He initiated the change before he and I even started working on it,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson told The Athletic before the season. “It wasn’t just a tweak here or there. It was an overhaul. That is a drastic thing to be willing to change. I don’t think I’ve seen someone here overhaul something so extreme.”
Next step for Brandon Clarke is his jumper. Funky mechanics. Career 56.4% from the line, has taken only nine career 3s (22%) at 6-8. pic.twitter.com/bYWMb2oSDH— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 8, 2017
Refining his jump shot remains Clarke’s biggest area for improvement before he begins his pro career, but he’s already made major strides since coming to Spokane. After going only 2-for-9 from three-point range in his two seasons at SJSU, he’s 4-for-15 from three this season. He’s also improved his free-throw percentage from 57 percent to 69.4 percent.
From his balance to his released point to his general mechanics, Clarke’s jumper looks so much better now than when he arrived on campus. If it continues to progress, the Grizzlies will have an even bigger steal on their hands.
Quick trip to Spokane for Gonzaga-North Dakota State. Maui Invitational standout Brandon Clarke shooting the ball really well from 3 in pregame. He’s done a nice job with his shooting stroke since his San Jose State days. pic.twitter.com/aHe0rDWYOH— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) November 27, 2018
Despite what coaches described as a “fundamentally flawed” jumper upon joining the Bulldogs, Clarke still had a tremendous foundation of skills as a player. He showed off incredible reaction time and play recognition on the defensive end. He was able to stay locked in at all times mentally. He had a spin move already in his back pocket on offense, and showed touch on his floaters.
“Brandon is a freak athlete, but he understands his spots, his angles, he can pass, he can shoot and he’s fast.”
“He jumps faster and higher than any human being I’ve been around.”
“I know that I can kiss the rim,” Clarke said. “If you want to do the math, I’m 6’8, the rim is 10 feet, so you can probably figure out my max vertical.”
Clarke has channeled these gifts into immense production at Gonzaga. Clarke didn’t just have a case to be one of the best players in college basketball this season. He put together an argument that he was one of the most effective players in the college game over the last decade.
Box score plus-minus is perhaps the best all-in-one stat college basketball has for determining a player’s total impact on the floor. You can read a full explanation of it here. Essentially, it estimates the number of points contributed by a player vs. an average player, per 100 possessions.
Per 40 minutes, Clarke averaged 24.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He did it while shooting 70.5 percent on two-point field goals. Take those numbers per 100 possessions, and no one has ever equaled them since sports-reference started its database.
Clarke is plastered all over the leaderboard for college basketball’s advanced metrics. A small sampling:
- He was second in the country in PER behind Williamson at 37.4
- He was second in the country in effective field goal percentage behind Williamson at 69.3 percent.
- He’s was first in the country in offensive rating and third in defensive rating.
- He was fourth in the country in win shares and second in win shares per 40.
Clarke did it by being the most dominant defensive player in the country while also being one of the most efficient offensively. His statistical merit can speak for itself, but it doesn’t tell the full story. Why focus solely on the numbers when Clarke did stuff like this?
DON’T TRY THAT ON BRANDON CLARKE pic.twitter.com/fYexzlrVmX— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) December 9, 2018
Despite Clarke’s dominance, he wasn’t even widely considered the best player on his own team. When the Naismith Award released its 10 semifinalists, Rui Hachimura made the list but Clarke did not.
Hachimura received more attention in part because of his backstory coming over from Japan, and in part because he’s put up bigger scoring numbers off the strength of his mid-range shooting touch. But if you kept a close eye on the ‘Zags this season, there’s no question who their best player was. It’s Clarke, whose quick-twitch athleticism, unbreakable focus, and intuitive instincts fortified Gonzaga as a truly elite team.
Clarke was way off NBA radars at the start of the season. Now, he’s a first-round pick, despite turning 23 years old before what would be his rookie season.
Keep overlooking Brandon Clarke at your own peril. Just know that, Zion Williamson aside, there wasn’t a better player in college basketball this season.