The Memphis Grizzlies drafted Ja Morant with the second pick in the NBA Draft this summer, and the re-build officially began. Pairing him with Jaren Jackson Jr., the fourth pick in the previous draft, fans immediately wanted to witness how exciting the duo could be on the court. It was only natural, then, that all eyes were on the Grizzlies summer league team led by… Brandon Clarke?
Somewhat lost in the excitement of drafting the new franchise point guard was the other first round pick of the Grizz. Memphis traded up two spots to grab Clarke with the twenty-first pick, sending the Oklahoma City Thunder the twenty-third pick a future second-rounder. Though he had his critics leading up to the draft, Memphis clearly liked what they had seen and were willing to trade up to make sure they got him. And, while summer league success doesn’t necessarily equate to NBA success, Clarke leading the team to a Summer League championship and winning MVP had to make the front office feel good about their choice.
2018-2019 Season Overview
Brandon Clarke was an absolute force in his lone season with the Gonzaga Bulldogs last year. After sitting for a season due to NCAA transfer rules (Clarke previously played at San Jose St), he averaged 16.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per game as he helped his team earn a number one seed on its way to the Elite Eight. He was a third team All-American and received numerous conference awards.
His doubters, however, will point to his age (22), poor three-point and free-throw shooting, and a lack of sufficient handles to consistently drive past NBA defenders. His extreme athleticism allowed him to dominate at the college level, but he may not have that luxury in the pros.
Players who are able to find a niche and exploit it are capable of having long careers in the NBA, and Brandon Clarke could easily be one of those guys for the Grizz.
Even by professional standards, he possesses elite athleticism and years of college basketball experience. If the team continues to utilize him the way they did in the summer league and preseason games to date, he should be able to play to his strengths as a backup power forward and center. In such a role, he can excel as a rebounder and shot blocker while throwing down the occasional lob from teammates. He’ll likely only be asked to do more than that if there is an injury in the frontcourt or if Jaren Jackson Jr. has difficulty staying on the floor due to foul trouble. If that happens, his limitations may become more visible.
2019-2020 Best Case Scenario
Continuing his summer league success, Brandon Clarke establishes himself as a high-level role player who averages close to a double-double. He quickly demonstrates great chemistry with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., giving the Memphis Grizzlies fan base hope to go along with nightly highlight reels. He provides a quality 15-20 minutes per game that allows Jaren to stay out of foul trouble, and occasionally starts to give Jaren and Jonas Valanciunas nights off to rest when needed. The team wisely uses him close to the basket, allowing him to focus on playing to his strengths during his rookie year.
2019-2020 Worst Case Scenario
Clarke refuses to play within himself, playing out on the perimeter. He shoots an excessive number of threes, turns the ball over frequently, and proves to be too one-dimensional to be a reliable contributor. While still providing the occasional crowd-pleasing blocked shot, he is too small to defend the larger centers close to the basket. As a result, Jaren’s foul troubles become a big concern and spillover to issues with confidence and consistency. Grizzlies fans are left deflated, doubting just how bright the future can be for the franchise.
While it’s easy to get excited after seeing Brandon Clarke play in the summer league, fans would do well to manage their expectations. Very few rookies make substantial contributions right out of the gate. As promising as Jaren Jackson Jr.’s rookie season was, he still only averaged 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
That being said, he is more seasoned than most incoming rookies and the early results have been promising. It’s certainly possible that he winds up on the All-Rookie second team if he is allowed to play to his strengths and not beyond that. For a franchise focused on developing young talent, that would be a great start.