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2019 NBA Draft Profiles: Is Brandon Clarke the answer to Washington’s woeful defense?

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Gonzaga’s two-way star dominated the college game, but underwhelming size and shooting could jeopardize his NBA future.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-TexasTech Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards will draft ninth overall in the 2019 NBA Draft on Thursday, June 20. Leading up to the draft, we will write about the players whom the Wizards will likely have available to draft with that pick. Today’s article profiles Brandon Clarke, the junior forward from Gonzaga.

Brandon Clarke, Forward/Center, Gonzaga Bulldogs

Brandon Clarke is six-foot-eight, 215-pounds and cares not for the lives of lesser humans.

Clarke is a 22-year-old junior out of Gonzaga who transferred there after a successful but ultimately unsatisfying two years at San Jose State. Clarke is a Canada native who grew up in Arizona, often overshadowed by star recruits like Marvin Bagley. Draft experts project Clarke to fall somewhere between the 10th and 20th pick this year, though he ranks much higher on certain draft analysts’ big boards: Danny Chau and Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer, for example, each rank him among their top four prospects.

After sitting out his requisite year of transfer limbo, Clarke exploded onto the national scene in 2018 for the eventual one-seed Zags. Clarke was the best defender in college basketball this past season and among the most efficient scorers to boot. He is hyper-athletic, hyper-aware and hyper-productive. He’s hyper. The Wizards could use some hype.

Strengths

Clarke averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 3.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per game at Gonzaga. If that sounds like a lot of production, it is: Clarke would have set the record for the highest single-season Player Efficiency Rating of the last decade if another little-known prospect named Zion Williamson hadn’t just barely edged him out. If you want a close statistical comp for Clarke’s 2018 season, the list basically starts and ends with Anthony Davis.

Clarke swung between the forward and center positions in college, ultimately making his biggest impact as a weak side help defender who struck terror into the hearts of opposing rim-runners. He is superb on the defensive end. Clarke strikes a rare balance between generating highlight plays yet otherwise excelling within a scheme. He will switch across at least three positions at the NBA level and could potentially master all five. His rebounding is not perfect but is more than acceptable.

Though his frame is slight for a center-adjacent prospect, Clarke led the NCAA in blocks and established himself as an imposing physical force in each game he played.

That physicality was also ever-present on the offensive end of the floor, where Clarke was perhaps equally great. Though his work here gets less hype, Clarke had plenty of dominant offensive games including a 36-point NCAA Tournament annihilation of Baylor. Clarke profiles as a great play-finisher who, in the best case scenario, could both roll and pop with similar efficacy.

Though he’s not yet a threatening shooter from distance, Clarke often displays a surprising amount of touch at the rim. Finishing at the hoop at roughly an 80 percent clip in his junior season, Clarke ranked among the very best in the NCAA. There’s good reason to suggest that Clarke’s diverse array of flip shots and floaters will carry over to the next level, where he could deploy them in well-spaced four-on-three situations akin to those exploited by Draymond Green.

Despite his powerful game, Clarke notably defers to his intellect when asked about his offensive game: “A lot of it is basketball IQ,” Clarke told NBA.com’s Chris Dortch. “I’ve always been somebody that didn’t like forcing up bad shots. This year, I was really good at making the shots I was taking. And I had teammates who made it so the floor was spaced and I could operate inside more. And playing with good passers made it that much easier.”

Let’s just say that a young player who actively spurns bad shots would be a more-than-welcome addition to the Wizards roster.

Clarke also revamped perhaps the most upsetting jump shot I have ever seen in my life and became a perfectly competent midrange shooter at Gonzaga, something that could separate him from somewhat similar prospects like Jordan Bell and Kenneth Faried. It also slightly increases the slim chance that Clarke could develop a three-ball at some point — he made just six 3-pointers in his entire college career and shot only 69.4 percent from the free throw line last year.

Weaknesses

Clarke’s profile does come with some concerns. Most of the issues can be summarized thusly: Clarke’s skills best fit the archetype of a modern NBA center, yet he possesses none of the size that one expects from the position. A six-foot-eight pogo stick is most effective with a jumper, and Clarke’s may never be good enough to provide his team with spacing in the half-court — how often does a nearly 23-year-old prospect develop an entirely new skill?

If the jumper indeed never comes, it could become challenging to find teammates to pair with Clarke in the frontcourt. A three-point-shooting, seven-foot-tall big man like Brook Lopez would fit well, but Lopezes don’t exactly grow on trees.

On the other end, it’s a bit difficult to envision Clarke successfully guarding behemoths like Joel Embiid in the post. Of course, only 3-5 players in the entire league can really guard Embiid in the post — how much that really matters is in the eye of the beholder. For a player whose most elite skill is defense and whose best position is center, it’s not ideal that Clarke might just not be big enough to guard the best offensive centers in the game.

With a top-10 pick at stake, it may be hard to sell, uh, whoever is running the Wizards on a big who may top out at “situationally effective.”

What was Clarke’s best game as a college player?

In the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Clarke ripped up and tossed aside Baylor like an old rag. The display epitomized the two-way dominance of his junior season:

Fit for the Wizards

Part of what makes Clarke such a fascinating prospect is that analyzing his potential is basically a binary decision. If you think his combination of size and skill set is disqualifying, you probably don’t think he’s worth much. If you believe Clarke can be effective because of his unique characteristics, you’re probably a big fan.

I’m a big fan. To me, skeptical scouts and fans are thinking a bit too hard when it comes to Clarke. Most players who dominate college do not completely bust out at the pro level (injuries aside), and Clarke dominated the NCAA to a degree that few have.

A recent prospect who reminds me a bit of Clarke is Montrezl Harrell. Their play styles differ considerably, and Clarke was much better, but the narratives surrounding them are alike. An undersized yet consistently productive big man may need to rely on his IQ and superhuman effort to succeed at the next level. Harrell’s best traits won out in the end, and Clarke’s best traits are even better.

Washington reportedly interviewed Clarke at the combine, so they have at least a modicum of interest in him. He would bring an injection of controlled energy on both ends of the floor, and it’s been a long time since you could say that about a Wizards big. And while drafting for short-term fit is often a mistake, Clarke could pair nicely with what Thomas Bryant is becoming. I could even see him developing a fun pick-and-roll chemistry with Bradley Beal or even Troy Brown on the second unit.

If Clarke is the pick, trading back a few spots before selecting him could be prudent, but those kinds of deals aren’t as often made outside the top five. The vast majority of mock drafts indicate Clarke is an unlikely target for the Wizards, but it’s possible no other prospect so closely fits their needs.

For seemingly a half-decade now, John Wall has been asking for athletic wings, highflying big men and smarter defenders — Brandon Clarke might be all three.


Are you a Brandon Clarke believer? Let us know your thoughts on the Gonzaga product in the comments below.