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2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies Player Previews: Brandon Clarke

Sophomore slump? Or strong showing?

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2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies Content Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke is a very good basketball player, and he’ll likely stay that way for a long time.

He’s a hyper-efficient big man with a signature shot (his patented floater), defensive versatility, explosive leaping ability, and a strong basketball IQ. His skillset projects as a winning player that’s a consistent rotation fixture on great teams.

The questions around the realms of GrizzNation are, what is Brandon Clarke’s projected role, and how much more he can improve?

Brandon Clarke is awesome in his 6th man role, and we’re unsure of what he is as a starter. I don’t buy the notion that he may not be a NBA starter. In 2 of the 4 games he started, he played a combined 13 minutes, as he left with injuries, which tarnish the numbers there. He mainly started alongside Jonas Valanciunas, so it’s worth seeing how he looks as a starter with a more spacing-friendly Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 5 — a desirable future outcome given the hierarchy of the Grizzlies talent.

We’re guilty of pigeonholing older prospects a bit by saying this is what they are, and they’ll likely stay this way. And for a 24 year-old Brandon Clarke, he’s working to be one of the many older prospects that’s debunked this narrative. Clarke himself told the media that he has really focused on shooting and ball-handling, and my Core 4 co-host Nathan Chester wrote about how much more he can improve as a ball-handler. That’s going to be the most pivotal area of growth for him, as well as maintaining efficiency with an increased volume.

Whether it’s his role, or his improvement as a creator, this year will tell us a lot about Brandon Clarke.

2019-2020 Overview

Last season, Brandon Clarke was one of the most efficient rookies ever.

Per sports-reference.com’s Stathead database tool, Clarke finished among the top 20 in Win Shares/48 minutes (.182 - 9th), Box Plus/Minus (3.1 - 15th), PER (20.9 - 14th), Turnover Percentage (9.4 - 6th-lowest), Offensive Rating (127 - 2nd). He also paced the 2019-20 rookie class in Win Shares, WS/48, Offensive Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus and VORP.

Clarke was also one of the most efficient players on the team. He was 2nd in PER and Win Shares — behind Jonas Valanciunas — while owning the best Box Plus/Minus.

Needless to say the analytics love Brandon Clarke.

He was also a key part in some of the Grizzlies’ deadliest combinations, as he was a member of 2 of the best trios in the league (Clarke-Melton-JJJ at 12 with a net rating of +20.5, and Clarke-Melton-Jones at 14 with a net rating of +20.2). His efficiency, basketball IQ, and versatility make him a seamless fit next to anyone.

Though he didn’t get the deserved Rookie of the Year finalist nod, Clarke finished the season on the 1st-team All-Rookie squad, while averaging 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, while shooting 61.8% from the field and 35.9% from deep (1.1 attempts per game).

Projected Role

This is where it gets tricky.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. out for an undisclosed period of time, Clarke could get some starting run until his return. There, he’d look to prove he can be a NBA starter, while showcasing his new skillset in an increased role.

It’d be great to see how he could next to starters like Ja Morant, Jonas Valanciunas, and Dillon Brooks, since he can theoretically alleviate some offensive responsibilities off them. Where the biggest challenge lies is spacing; with him and Valanciunas up front, they need more shooting. Do they go ahead and start Clarke, then move Grayson Allen or Desmond Bane up?

Or do they roll with what has worked?

Clarke was stellar as a 6th man last season, and the Grizzlies could continue rolling with that trio of him, Tyus Jones, and De’Anthony Melton off the bench. The aforementioned net rating for that group is the highest among any trios that played 200+ minutes and consisted of only reserve players. I’m not saying the Grizzlies should sacrifice a good starting lineup for an incredible bench, but given where the team’s at, they should continue to strike on that advantage.

In that 6th man role, he continue honing his repertoire as a scorer — finding more ways to be an efficient pick-and-roll/pop big, taking more spot-up 3’s, and attacking closeouts.

Regardless of whether he starts or not, I’d bet on him being a fixture in crunch time lineups.

2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies Content Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Season Best Case Scenario

In the best case, Brandon Clarke takes a leap where he either proves himself as a starter, or joins the conversation for 6th Man of the Year.

Such a leap is tied to his improvement as a shooter and ball-handler, his primary focuses in offseason workouts. For me, I see this as going hand-in-hand. If Clarke maintains his 36% 3-point shooting mark, while upping his volume from an attempt a game to 2.5-3, his “improvement as a ball-handler” could simply be attacking close-outs for a closer floater, or for a launching pad to explode to the rim.

Defensively, he improves as a rim-protector for small-ball lineups, while showcasing the potential to switch across the court. Coach Jenkins liked using him at the 5 last season, as he spent nearly 300 minutes there, but the Grizzlies were outsourced by 7.3 points per 100 possessions in those lineups (per Cleaning the Glass). Maybe it comes with better players surrounding him — going up from Marko Guduric, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill to Desmond Bane, Kyle Anderson, and Justise Winslow should help. Clarke’s defensive switchability and offensive rim-running could make him an appealing small-ball 5, in the right matchups, but we need to see if Clarke has improved his strength to defend opposing centers.

If his improvements as a creator are legit, and if his shot volume jumps, it’s extremely possible to see Clarke with a 15-7-2 stat-line with a steal and block a game and shooting splits of 50+/35/75.

Season Worst Case Scenario

The worst case scenario is obviously injury, but another primary one would be a noticeable step back from his rookie season. What does that look like though? A dip in 3-point efficiency would be a starter; falling below 30 percent would be a bit worrisome. Any dramatic drop in his efficiency would probably push Clarke out of closing lineups, especially with a fully healthy team, which would generate questions about his long-term role.

Another potential outcome in this (worst-case) noticeable step back would be as a defender as well. The eye-test would be that he’s overpowered by bigger frontcourt players, while not being able to stay in front of quicker players — though he hasn’t shown thus far. Numbers-wise, it comes with the Grizzlies’ net rating plummeting when Clarke’s on the floor.

Memphis Grizzlies Portraits Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Overall Expectations

I fully expect for Brandon Clarke to back up his word on improving as a shooter and ball-handler. I buy into the notion that he hasn’t reached his final form yet, mainly because his work ethic shined when he completely transformed his jumper from a Michael Kidd-Gilcrest form to a repeatable, smoother shot. That takes serious dedication, so until he proves otherwise, I’m buying on Clarke to continue rounding out those areas of his game.

Also watch for a small spike in assists; going up from 1.4 to 2.0 would be nice. I’ve chronicled his potential as a playmaker, and in Coach Taylor Jenkins’ system that’s predicated on playmaking and pace, his strong basketball IQ could translate to more dimes this season.

Regardless of whether he’s a starter or not, Brandon Clarke will continue to solidify himself as the steal of the 2019 draft, an elite role player, and a potential cornerstone in the Memphis Grizzlies’ bright future.

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