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Brandon Clarke’s (possibly) unreachable next step

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How much better can he actually become?

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NBA: Rising Stars-World at U.S. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There really isn’t much more that I can say about how excellent Brandon Clarke is as a basketball player. In the glorious aftermath of his outstanding performance in Vegas summer league, I wrote about his inevitability in that he will be a part of the Grizzlies’ front-court of the future sooner rather than later. I’ve written about how he was one of the most efficient rookies in NBA history. And I even wrote about how he wasn’t getting to play enough in said rookie season.

However, if you’ve followed me over the last several years, then you already know that I have a brand to maintain. That brand is mainly defined as “unrelenting realism that often masquerades as negativity and pessimism”. To put it simply, I call different developments as I see them.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

And as my brand pertains to Brandon Clarke, the difficult truth is that I doubt how much better he can actually get. It’s almost paradoxical in the sense that while Clarke’s maturity and specific skill-set have helped him already prove himself as a tremendous role player, it’s those same qualities that lead me to doubt whether he can ever become more than that.

For starters, it’s fair to wonder how much better a 24-year-old second-year player can become. Many NBA general managers and executives trend toward younger players in the NBA Draft because of this same thought-process (no matter how misguided it may be for them to do so). Of course, there are exceptions, such as the fact that Malcolm Brogdan, who was 23 like Clarke when he was drafted, has grown into an All-Star caliber player. Yet for the most part, older and accomplished prospects like Clarke or, say, Shane Battier do seem to closely resemble what they are as a final product in the NBA. That is simply reality.

Yet the most significant reality that Clarke may have to face in trying to take his game to the next level is his skillset, or rather the limitations of his skillset.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

At Grizzlies media day, he affirmed that ball-handling and shooting were the two primary areas that he had focused on throughout the off-season. As a spot-up shooter, Clarke definitely has room to grow, as he attempted only 1.1 attempts from three while still shooting a respectable 36%. If he can continue to grow his comfort level from beyond the arc, then he can still become a true threat like he was when he made a career-high four threes against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Grizzlies’ final play-in game. And becoming a more prolific threat from three will also make him an extremely difficult player to defend in the pick-and-roll, since defenses will have to respect his ability to pop to the three-point line just as much as his ability to roll to the basket.

But improved shooting alone will not be enough to elevate Clarke’s game to stardom. If you go down the list of front-court all-stars for the 2020 season, they all (with the lone exception of rim-protector extraordinaire Rudy Gobert) are above-average ball-handlers who are proficient at creating for themselves in the half court. Even in the lower-tier of those stars, you can easily expect players like Domantas Sabonis, Pascal Siakam, and Bam Adebayo to size up their man and score with consistency even in isolation. In 2020, ball-handling is the ability that separates front-court players who function as the tip of the spear from front-court players who are spears in and of themselves.

NBA: Rising Stars-World at U.S. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In his current form, Brandon Clarke is merely a tip of a spear. In pick-and-rolls and in spaces where he can receive the ball in the paint, he is fantastic, as he possesses a splendid array of floaters and superb basketball-IQ that empowers him to be one of the most efficient paint scorers and finishers in the league. But you can’t expect him to create for himself with the ball in his hands, outside of occasionally attacking a closeout or taking a few dribbles toward the paint from the high post.

To put it bluntly, Clarke really just possesses no comfort as a ball-handler whatsoever. His lack of comfort showed up on the stat sheet as well; of the 70 forwards who qualified, he ranked 69th (nice!) in drives per game (1.5). Whenever he received the ball in transition, he usually looked like a deer in the headlights, almost always getting rid of the ball after one or two dribbles.

Now to be fair, I do wholeheartedly believe that Clarke has been feverishly working on his ball-handling. Yet history would not seem to be on the side of his potential improvement. Whether past or present, I cannot think of a single NBA player who entered the league a relative non-factor as a ball-handler and became a decent one over the course of their career. Mike Conley is really the only player who somewhat comes to mind, but he entered the league as a raw, 19-year-old point guard with a below-average handle who later came to have an elite one. The NBA is just a very difficult place for players to add tools to their bag that they never previously possessed at all, especially when they are relatively older.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, that’s not to say that Brandon Clarke can’t. He has already surpassed the expectations that many scouts and analysts had for him coming out of college. As unlikely as it may seem, stardom could very well still be in the cards for him. But if he is to become more than an elite role player, he will have to significantly improve as a ball-handler, which is incredibly difficult for a player at his age and position to do.

Here's to hoping that he will. Because I may be a realist, but I can still afford to be an optimist.

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