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Brandon Clarke is the NBA draft steal we all should’ve seen coming

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The Grizzlies rookie is thriving in the NBA in the same way he thrived in college basketball.

Brandon Clarke dribbles for the Grizzlies.
Brandon Clarke is already a productive and impactful player for the Grizzlies.

All Brandon Clarke did at Gonzaga was turn in one of the strongest single-season performances in college basketball’s modern history. After sitting out a year following his transfer from San Jose State, Clarke posted impossibly efficient numbers on both ends of the floor, with sparkling 69.9 percent true shooting and remarkable defensive playmaking rates. His impact was crystallized in every all-in-one stat you could find: he had the second highest box score plus-minus since 2009-2010 (behind Zion Williamson), and the second best PER (behind ... Zion Williamson).

Yet when Clarke entered the NBA draft, scouts saw a forward who lacked positional size, didn’t have a reliable jump shot, and would turn 23 years old as a rookie. His 6’8 wingspan was proportional to his height. His 207-pound frame meant many opponents in the paint would outweigh him by 50 pounds. He made just 6-of-24 shots from three-point range in 98 career college games.

Clarke didn’t have the length or heft to play center. He didn’t have the shooting to be a stretch four. He was a rookie who was about the same age as Devin Booker after four NBA seasons. His numbers said he should have been a top-five pick. Everything else pointed to the type of player that gets taken in the second round or even goes undrafted.

The NBA made the choice to sleep on Clarke, and the Grizzlies took advantage. Memphis gave up a future second round pick to move up two spots in the draft to take Clarke at No. 21 overall.

Look at him now.

To the surprise of very few paying attention, Clarke currently looks like the steal of the draft. He has been effective in the league in all the ways he dominated college, while continuing to add new parts to his game. All of the consternation about his positional fit in the league was misguided for one simple reason: this is a young player who is just incredibly good at basketball. He was always going to find a way to make it work.

Memphis has the the likely Rookie of the Year in Ja Morant, but Clarke is nearly as important to the Grizzlies’ future. This is what’s made him such a rookie success.

Clarke is an incredibly efficient offensive player

Scouts viewed Clarke as a great defensive prospect whose offense could struggle to translate to the next level. Those concerns were completely overblown.

Right now, Clarke is leading the NBA in true shooting percentage at 70.1 percent. No, not rookies. He’s the most efficient scorer in the entire league, posting a number is almost identical (slightly better, even) than what he did in college. The touch that made him so fantastic at Gonzaga is only getting better. Clarke is the 99th percentile on floaters and runners in the entire NBA, per Synergy Sports. He’s in the 92nd percentile on non-post-up finishes around the rim. He entered the week shooting at least 50 percent from literally every distance on the floor, per basketball-reference. Yes, that means three-point shooting, too.

Entering the week, Clarke had already doubled the number of three-pointers he hit in college only 21 games into his career. He was 13-of-26 from three-point range heading into Wednesday night. The hard work he’s put in to totally remodel his jump shot since his San Jose State days has paid off. If Clarke has made this much progress on his jumper just over the last year, where could it be a few seasons from now?

Per-36 minutes, Clarke is averaging 22.1 points per game on 14.6 field goal attempts. He might lack the volume to be a go-to scorer, but he’s perfect in his role. If Clarke is shooting the ball, it’s probably going in.

Clarke’s two-way impact is fully translating to the NBA

Clarke is on a very short list of the best pure athletes in the NBA. Beyond that, Clarke’s athleticism is functional in the way he’s able to quickly load up to sky in the air for blocks, rebounds, and put-backs. Ty Jerome never stood a chance on this fastbreak:

Clarke’s superior athleticism and rare feel for the game made him an advanced stats all-star at Gonzaga. It’s happening again for the Grizzlies.

Clarke leads all rookies in win shares. He’s leading all rookies who have played at least 300 minute in BPM, VORP, and PER, per basketball-reference. He’s third among rookies in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR stat. Yes, there are some issues with PER, it also speaks volumes that he’s No. 14 in the entire league in the metric right now.

Clarke has done a great job of blocking shots without fouling. He’s averaging 10 rebounds per-36 minutes. He’s also deterring shots that never get taken because of his positioning and the threat of his athleticism. Clarke’s impact is no mirage.

The Grizzlies young core looks great

The morning after the 2019 NBA Draft, we anointed the Grizzlies as the internet’s new favorite team. That praise might not be high enough: out of any rebuilding team currently at the bottom of the league, Memphis has the NBA’s best young core going forward (or at least right there with Williamson and the Pelicans).

Morant is already proving to be a star in his rookie season, scoring efficiently while carrying a huge usage burden and providing dazzling highlights every night. Jaren Jackson Jr. had a disappointing November but has been better in December, including a 43-point outburst (with nine three-pointers) against the Milwaukee Bucks. De’Anthony Melton has also given the Grizz some good minutes recently when he’s had the opportunity. Then there’s Clarke, who is thriving in the exact same way he thrived in college.

This clip of the 6’11 Jackson initiating the offense and hitting Clarke for an open three should make the imagination of Memphis fans run wild:

Clarke never should have fallen to No. 21 in the draft, but the Grizzlies sure are happy that he did. The rest of the NBA’s loss is Memphis’ gain.