The 2019-2020 version of the Memphis Grizzlies were certainly one of the best stories in the NBA this year. For a team that many thought would be starting a rebuild that would last for years, the Grizzlies instead earned the opportunity to chase a spot in the playoffs. This prosperity is the result of both expected and unexpected developments. The immediate impact of Ja Morant, development of Jaren Jackson Jr., and maturation of Taylor Jenkins all occurred as many predicted, though each could be described as ahead of schedule. On the other hand, the emergence of Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton, as well as the Grizzlies featuring one of the best benches in the NBA, surprisingly yet significantly helped the Grizzlies become a surprise playoff contender.
However, one of the most significant developments of all, for both the present and the future, was the superb start to the career of Brandon Clarke. The fact that Clarke was promptly productive is not surprising, as many felt he was one of the more underrated talents in the 2019 NBA Draft and could be an immediate contributor. However, few thought he would fall all the way to the 21st pick in the draft and arguably become the biggest “steal” and one of the most valuable selections of this year’s rookie class. Even more exciting is the fact that he would go on to have one of the most efficient rookie seasons in NBA history.
Clarke’s emergence as one of the best rookies this season is wonderful in its own right. It has become increasingly more realistic to say that the Grizzlies featured two of of the top three first year players in the league this season. Clarke’s consistent contributions from the start of the season has been a wonder to witness. Though other rookies may have provided higher statistical quantities due to higher minute totals than Clarke, few compared to him in terms of quality of play. In fact, very few talents have provided the same quality of play Clarke did this season during their rookie seasons in recent NBA history, a list that includes some of the best young talents across the league today.
This aspect of Clarke’s production is even more captivating than how Clarke stacks up against his fellow draft class. The value of Clarke’s play on both ends of the court compares favorably to the current production of some of the best young front court talents in the NBA. Here are a few perspectives from this past year as reference:
As can be seen, Clarke impacts the games in a similar overall fashion as names such as Montrezl Harrell, Bam Adebayo, Kristaps Porzingis, Domantas Sabonis, and Pascal Siakam. Due to the fact that each of these five players play more minutes than Clarke, they had more significant statistical totals and per game numbers. However, in terms of their production when on the court, Clarke produces a similar overall impact. Though a few names may be stronger in one certain skill or another, they each play at a very high level.
This is validated by the fact that Adebayo, Siakam, and Sabonis were all first time All-Stars this year, while Porzinigis was an All-Star during the 2017-2018 before his ACL injury. Harrell may not have an All-Star nod on his resume yet, but that is almost certainly due to the fact that he is on one of the NBA’s most stacked rosters. He is, however, once again a clear favorite for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, and likely would be in contention for an All-Star roster spot if he received starter minutes. The fact that each of these five players have achieved these accolades and levels of sustained success early in their careers is quite encouraging for Clarke’s development over the next few years.
At the age of 23, Clarke falls right into the age range of the players listed above, so his comparable statistics may not seem that surprising. However, what makes the image above eye opening is the fact that Clarke is producing at this level in his first season; the rest of the group have been in the NBA for three or more years. As a result, Clarke’s rookie numbers likely become more profound when you compare them to the rookie numbers of the rest of the group shown above:
It should be noted that Clarke is one to three years older than each of the other players were during their rookie years, and that Clarke immediately had a defined and featured role on the Grizzlies. However, Clarke was also joining one of the youngest rosters in the league with a first year head coach. Though he may have been farther along and closer to his prime naturally, that should not diminish the significant impact he made on both ends on the court. While Clarke was clearly an asset on offense, his impact on defense also compares favorably to his peers above. Simply put, when on the court, Clarke’s production was on par with some of the brightest young front court talents in the league.
The statistical comparisons above are not meant to firmly suggest Clarke will become an All-Star over the next few years. They are meant to show how encouraging the range of outcomes for the start of Clarke’s career might be based on his historic rookie season. Rather he becomes one of the best bench players in the league (the most likely scenario over the next few years) like Harrell or he takes the leap as a starter to become a potential All-Star, all that matters is that Clarke adds a high amount of value when he is on the court.
For the Grizzlies, Clarke’s value extends well beyond his work on the court. The ways in which Clarke adds value, as a highly efficient scoring stretch four who can shoot the three on offense while anchoring the Grizzlies defense in the paint, has a good correlation with his franchise becoming a consistent winner. Once each of the five other players mentioned above joined their current organization, their team’s level of winning improved as each of their roles expanded. Each of the six names in the images above were on playoff rosters this year. Having a player such has Clarke, with a versatile and effective skill set, is a big advantage for a team to feature.
If Clarke were to remain this successful once basketball resumes, his contract could easily become one of the most valuable in the league. Obviously, that is an asset in its own right. The Grizzlies can spend money more effectively since they are getting such good production from a cheap source in Clarke. This value also could make Clarke a highly valuable trade chip. Clarke could easily become an asset that, if included in an offer, would make the difference in the Grizzlies acquiring a true current NBA star over other suitors. However, despite this intriguing idea, the Grizzlies should have every intent of keeping Clarke as a part of their core for as long as possible.
While the development of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the most critical factors to the Grizzlies future success, it can be argued that the development of Brandon Clarke could be the most compelling. There are many paths his career could take; fortunately, it seems that each path could lead to a high degree of success for Clarke and the Grizzlies. Without a doubt, while the ultimate value Clarke will provide will be determined in time, his presence as one of the best bargains in the NBA is likely to highly benefit the Grizzlies for years to come.