The 2019 Vegas Summer League MVP award and a Summer League championship are only the very beginning for Brandon Clarke.
When the Memphis Grizzlies selected Clarke with the 21st pick nearly a month ago, many (including yours truly) believed that they had gotten a steal. Since he projected as an elite hyper-switchable defender as well as a player with a deft scoring touch in the paint, the idea was that he could become a cornerstone of the Grizzlies’ future along with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson in time.
Yet that time is now.
If there were ever any doubts as to the incredible impact that Brandon Clarke could have, his performance in Vegas effectively silenced them. Over the course of six games, he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, AND 1.8 blocks. Although his perimeter shooting has been a concern, he also shot 56% from three. It goes without saying that he was indisputably the best player on the court at almost all times (sorry Carsen Edwards fans).
Perhaps it should be completely unsurprising that Clarke is this good before he even plays in his first official NBA game. His PER of 37.73 would have been the highest over the last decade of college basketball if not for the existence of Zion Williamson (it’s also worth noting that his PER of 35.3 was the highest in Vegas as well). He also had the highest EFG% in the country last season at Gonzaga (69.3), the 7th highest offensive rating (138.1), and the 12th highest TS% (71). It’s completely reasonable to say that he was one of the three best players in all of college basketball last year.
And it also isn’t ridiculous to believe that he could be in contention with one of his own teammates for the Rookie of the Year award by season’s end (even if it’s unlikely). That is simply how good Brandon Clarke is right now. For a player that has dominated every level of basketball up to and including the professional level, it’s reasonable to expect that to continue.
However, Clarke’s rapid rise could create a potential issue later on in the season. And it could alter the Grizzlies’ plans in both the present and the future.
That potential issues revolves around Jonas Valanciunas and the Grizzlies big man rotation as a whole.
While it’s true than Valanciunas is an excellent center who can efficiently score and rebound, it’s also true that he is mainly a veteran leader that can help the team win games in the short-term while not being apart of the franchise’s long-term plans. Even if the Grizzlies make the playoffs in the third year of his contract, it’s more likely than not that Jaren Jackson Jr. will soak up most of the minutes at center. To put it simply, Jonas is a stop-gap, a temporary solution until the Grizzlies young bigs are ready to be placed in the deep end.
But the Grizzlies youth —even Brandon Clarke — may just be ready very soon. With Clarke farther along in his development than many previously projected, it may make sense to move him into the starting lineup at some point later in the season. In many cases, greater opportunity can lead to the full realization of a player’s talent. After all, Draymond Green could not truly become Draymond Green until Steve Kerr put him in the starting lineup in place of David Lee, a superbly-skilled solid scorer and rebounder much like Valanciunas.
Also, the narrative that Jaren Jackson Jr. truly needs Valanciunas to handle the more physical match-ups at center is greatly overblown. While it’s wise to have a level of concern about the physical health of a franchise cornerstone, there’s not much in the way of precedent or direct examples that playing a young big man at center—especially one with the physical gifts of Jackson—harms their long-term physical health. Jackson’s listed weight before the start of his rookie year was 242 pounds, just 13 pounds shy of Valanciunas’ listed weight. After a several months in the weight room and him looking noticeably bigger, it’s likely that Jackson’s current weight is now comparable to Jonas’. He is ready to carry the physical load if he has to do so.
And if Jackson’s most natural fit in the modern NBA is at the five, then the Grizzlies should seek to play him there sooner rather than later. Whether it’s with Clarke, Jackson, or any other potential personnel decision, concern for the future should always take precedent over that for the present.
As far as the future is concerned, moving Clarke into the starting lineup could also potentially benefit the Grizzlies in the form of assets. If the Grizzlies move Valanciunas to the bench in the first year of his new contract, his days in Memphis will almost certainly be numbered. They could then move him at the deadline for other younger assets and possible draft picks. For a skilled center on a reasonable three-year deal, there will be suitors in any possible trade deal.
Of course, even with his incredible play in both college and now summer league, it’s still hard to imagine that Brandon Clarke will be so tantalizingly good that the Grizzlies would prioritize him in his rookie year over a superb center that they just signed to a three-year deal. And maybe it would be foolish to do so. As Josh “Showtime” Selby proved once upon a time, summer league excellence can be a mere mirage at times.
However, to paraphrase Thanos: Brandon Clarke is inevitable. On the next great Memphis Grizzlies team, he will in all likelihood be the starting power forward next to Jaren Jackson Jr. at center. And if he continues to ascend in the way that he has since his time with Gonzaga, the Grizzlies should seek to make this vision a reality sooner rather than later. The extra assets received from a potential Valanciunas trade would only be a bonus.