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Brandon Clarke: Jaren and Ja’s Third Man

The versatile forward can raise the ceiling of the Grizzlies’ future.

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2019 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be breaking down some young players and their fits next to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, while addressing the likelihood of them being on the next Memphis Grizzlies playoff team. So far GBB has covered the fits of Josh Jackson, Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks, and Bruno Caboclo. Now, we continue with Brandon Clarke.

There are always some players that can raise the team’s ceiling if they hit theirs, without necessarily hurting the trajectory if they don’t — “long-term x-factors” will be the term we use here. We’ve seen how these “long-term x-factors” have changed a team’s fortunes.

The Golden State Warriors were always going to be good with the Splash Brothers leading the way. However, when Draymond Green stepped in for the injured David Lee, the Warriors became a well-oiled machine that’s dominated the last half-decade. When Kawhi went north, the Raptors were positioned to be a contender in the East, but Pascal Siakam made it a sure thing. The Boston Celtics were going to be good regardless of who started at point guard, as long as the “Big 3” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce were together. Rajon Rondo’s breakthrough prolonged the team’s window, as he quietly became one of the best point guards in basketball.

I’m also intrigued with some of the potential long-term x-factors on some of these young teams, such as Harry Giles for Sacramento, Markelle Fultz for Orlando, or Cam Reddish for Atlanta — Andrew Wiggins is in this category now too, right(?).

The one that’s the super captivating is Brandon Clarke for these Memphis Grizzlies.

Though he fell to the Grizzlies at 21, most basketball savants had him in their top 10 — even as high as 2 — on their big boards. He has the game of a modern center, but he has a prototypical small forward body (6’8”, 6’8” wingspan, 207 pounds). He only shot 15 three-pointers last year at Gonzaga, but he also blocked more shots than he missed. His age and questions about his shot caused him to fall, even though he’s second behind Zion Williams in season BPM and PER all-time in college basketball.

At Summer League, Brandon Clarke showed how good of a basketball player he is, while somewhat answering questions about his doubts. He showed that, at minimum, he’s going to be a good energy big man that’ll finish easy dunks at the rim. However, his 3-point shot was falling, which made his fit with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant even more fascinating.

The Grizzlies are already pretty set for the future with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, along with whoever they acquire within the next two drafts – depending on when the pick conveys to Boston. They’ll be good even if Clarke is only a 7th man, similar to a JaMychal Green or Darrell Arthur — which is a realistic floor. However, if he hits his ceiling and lives up to Pascal Siakam comparisons, the game is changed for Memphis.

Fit with Jaren and Ja

Clarke’s fit alongside Jaren and Ja is tantalizing on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, it’s a guarantee that Clarke will be a primary beneficiary of Morant dimes. They will definitely connect on a lot of pick-and-roll’s, as Clarke is a quick, bouncy roller that finishes at the rim uber efficiently. As Coach Taylor Jenkins is preaching pace-and-space, Clarke is the perfect rim-running big that can run the floor alongside Ja in transition, as plenty of lobs will be thrown. Aside from pick-and-roll situations, his half-court fit with him is a tad questionable, unless his shooting is actually improved. If anything though, he can still be a good cutter that takes easy dump-off’s or that runs baseline for putback’s.

His fit alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. is a NBA Twitter dream.

It’s not a traditional two-big lineup, where both players aren’t reliable outside weapons. Though Clarke’s shooting isn’t there right now, his ability to finish in the paint complements Jackson super well, as Jackson is already a good 3-point shooter, especially for his size.

Though the fit is intriguing on the offensive end, defensively is where the potential really lies with this young duo.

Like Jackson, Clarke projects as an elite multi-positional, switch-able defender that’s also a superb shot-blocker. Somewhere down the road, when both of them are on the court at the same time, havoc will be wrecked. They’ll be swarming all over the court in pick-and-roll situations, making the ball-handler dread his life immediately. At the rim, they may turn the paint into their personal volleyball court and spike everything in sight.

How soon we sees this depends on the Grizzlies’ willingness to give Jaren Jackson Jr. more minutes at the 5. It’s not out of the realm of possibility though to see Jenkins sprinkle in some minutes for this intriguing duo.

Regardless, Brandon Clarke is a perfect fit next to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, as he’s a high-efficient player that doesn’t need the ball to score, and he can also maximize their impact on both sides of the court.

Can He Be on the Next Great Grizzlies Team?

Brandon Clarke can hit either his floor or a realistic scenario, and he could still be in the rotation for the next good Grizzlies team. His skillset suits the “third big in the rotation” mold perfectly — energy big man that’ll dive to the rim, play high-end defense, and hit mid-range jumpers. Even then, that guy is probably the 6th or 7th-best player on a good playoff team.

However, unlike most of the players surrounding Jaren and Ja, Clarke has the potential to be a swing player for the Grizzlies to help transform this team into a legitimate contender down the road.

The Ringer Draft Guide said that there are shades of Paul Millsap and Pascal Siakam in his game, and that possibility isn’t unfeasible. Both players can defend multiple positions at an elite level, serve as secondary playmakers, and score 15-18 points a night on efficient shooting numbers. There’s little reason to suggest that Clarke can’t do the same thing.

Already, Clarke is a switchable defender that can alter shots without fouling, or necessarily blocking the shot. At Gonzaga, he averaged 1.9 assists, which at least displays some of his promise as a secondary playmaker. With his efficient shooting, and maybe an improved jumper, his peak scoring output should reflect that 15-18 range.

If Clarke hits on his ceiling, while Jaren Jackson Jr. approaches his, their potential is gaudy — I’d like to say “turbo-charged, bouncier versions of Atlanta Paul Millsap and Al Horford.” When you factor in Ja Morant — who can become a top-5 point guard in this league for the 2020’s — the potential for this trio is out of this world.

2019 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Sean Berry/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke is going to have a long NBA career. How good he becomes hinges on a few questions?

Can he prove that his Summer League shooting exhibition was real?

What his position?

Can he evolve into a reliable secondary playmaker?

It all becomes a waterfall effect, if the answer to that first question is a “yes.” If he becomes even a league-average 3-point shooter, it opens up different avenues to his game. At that point, as a 4 or a 5, he spaces the court even more. Imagine how much room Morant will have to operate, if opponents also have to worry about Clarke hitting open jumpers. He could play spot minutes at the 3 — something he’s been saying he could do — giving Jenkins the flexibility for Clarke-Jackson-Valanciunas lineups. If he evolves into a 38% 3-pointer shooter, he can even battle for the starting small forward spot.

That sounds nice, right?

If Clarke jumper starts to fall, defenders will have to pay him respect, which could force him to make plays off the bounce and create for others. That scenario could open up a damn good “pace-and-space” offense with borderline-elite ball movement.

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant are bound to lead the Memphis Grizzlies to a bright, new era. Somewhere down the road though, the emergence of Brandon Clarke could be the difference between “making noise” in the playoffs and potentially scheduling parades on Beale Street.

Follow @sbngrizzlies.