In the buildup to the 2019 NBA draft, there was much concern about Brandon Clarke’s arms. Yes, his arms. Many NBA GM’s felt that it was apparently too risky to draft a 6’8 player with just a mere 6’8 wingspan in the lottery.
Never mind the fact that he was one of the two or three most productive players in all of college basketball last year at Gonzaga (his PER of 30.2 was the second highest in the last decade of college basketball behind only Zion Williamson).
Never mind the fact that nearly every single aspect of his game—his vertical athleticism, rebounding, shot-blocking, switchability, and even his ever-improving shooting—is what NBA GM’s desire in a modern big man.
Never mind the fact that Brandon Clarke is just a hell of a good basketball player, and there was no reason to ever believe that would change in the NBA.
But no, NBA GM’s believed that his arms were too short for him to continue to be the player that anyone with eyes knew that he was. And it has proven to be a classic case of overthinking as Clarke has clearly shown himself to be one of the best rookies of his class so far.
However, even the most vocal Brandon Clarke proponents, of which I can consider myself, did not expect this level of excellence this early in Clarke’s career.
His per-36 minutes numbers are generally in line with his per-40 minutes numbers at Gonzaga, which is certainly surprising at this early stage of his career but not absolutely jaw-dropping. After all, Clarke was an insanely productive player in college, so it’s definitely feasible if not outright expected that he would be quite productive in the NBA immediately. He is currently averaging 20.7 points (second to only Ja Morant among rookies), 10.2 rebounds (first among rookies), and 1.7 blocks (third among rookies) per-36 as compared to 24.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks per-40 at Gonzaga.
To be sure, Clarke’s raw statistical production alone definitely merits a first team all-rookie selection and a place in the Rookie of the Year discussion along with the Memphis Grizzlies’ own Ja Morant. Yet it’s his advanced numbers and general efficiency that place him in a class entirely of his own among NBA rookies—both this year and for all time.
His dominance in both production and efficiency among his rookie class certainly cannot be overstated. While his shooting was a question mark coming into the draft, it has clearly become an asset for him and has improved his shooting efficiency across the board. His Field Goal% (64), 3 Point% (47), and True Shooting% (69) are all soundly the best in the league among rookies, and he is also top-five in the league as a whole in each of those categories.
His PER, which marked him historically significant in college basketball, continues to be incredible in the NBA. His PER (23.0) ranks 16th in the NBA as a whole. The next closest rookie is Ja Morant, whose PER (18.0) is 50th in the league.
But it’s when you compare Clarke to the annals of NBA history that his nearly unprecedented excellence becomes apparent. Out of all rookies in NBA history that played at least the number of minutes that Clarke has at the time of this writing (370), his effective field goal percentage (68%) ranks second all-time behind *checks notes*...Mitchell Robinson? (Side note: David Fizdale is just plain terrible).
Back on topic, Clarke’s true shooting percentage ( a very nice 69%) ranks second among all rookies of all time by the same criteria. His field goal percentage (64%) ranks sixth all-time. Even his three-point shooting, which again was a concern coming out of college, has been superb, as his 47% shooting on 2 attempts per game from beyond the arc ranks 5th all-time.
And his vaunted PER (23.0) is just absolutely absurd when viewed through a historical perspective. He ranks 11th all-time among rookies in that category and ahead of players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Now make no mistake: there’s no agenda-setting or clever manipulation of Basketball Reference to make these numbers appear the way that they do. They simply are what they are, and they paint an unprecedented picture of the rookie season that Brandon Clarke is having.
Of course, Clarke’s performance so far raises the question of what exactly type of player that he will become. Like many believed during the pre-draft process, he could eventually have a Draymond Green-level impact on the game. Or perhaps he could be even more than a perennial all-star and former Defensive Player of the Year. And then again, he may never grow out of being more than just a mere role player for the Memphis Grizzlies.
However, Brandon Clarke’s eventual ceiling doesn’t immediately matter in the context of what he’s been able to accomplish so far as a rookie. If his current play continues, he should be a lock for first team all-rookie and remain one of the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year. He won’t win it over Morant, but when you’ve quietly been the most efficient rookie in NBA history, that’s a seat at the table that you’ve earned.
And for just the 21st pick in the NBA draft, that is definitely worth celebrating.