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Brandon Clarke and his playmaking potential

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Clarke has the tools to be an impact NBA player for the next decade.

He’s one of the most efficient rookies in NBA history. The Grizzlies are great when he steps on the floor, possessing a on/off +/- of +3.3 per Cleaning the Glass. He also has the defensive arsenal to be a unique 5-positional defender, as he can protect the rim and defend in space off switches. Offensively, his 3-point shot looks promising, and he’s a devastating finisher in the paint.

Clarke looks like he could join Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. as a potential cornerstone on this team. He fits perfectly next to both of them, as he’s a nice rim-running partner for Morant’s passing prowess, and he and Jackson are the ideal big man combo for the modern NBA.

The common perception is that shooting is Clarke’s swing skill. Though he shot 40.2% on 52 attempts from 3, most local analysts wonder what happens if he ups his volume. Does he become more of a 15-18 point-per-game scorer, instead of a 10-12 one? What happens to the Grizzlies’ ceiling if he becomes a good volume 3-point shooter?

Clarke’s shooting can alter his and the Grizzlies’ trajectory, but his true swing skill is his playmaking. Even though he only dished out 72 total assists this season, some of the reads he made flashed upside as a great secondary playmaker as a big.

Unlocking Clarke’s potential as a playmaker could transform the Grizzlies into a contender and his upside as an All-Star caliber player.

Brandon Clarke is on a great trajectory towards becoming a great playmaking big man, as some of his aspiring counterparts weren’t nearly as good as him during their rookie seasons.

I compared his stats to Shawn Marion (his draft day comparison from Chauncey Billups), Draymond Green (probably the greatest passing 4-man in the modern NBA), Paul Millsap and Pascal Siakam (two comparisons in The Ringer’s draft guide), and Domantas Sabonis (an emerging passing big man) from their rookie seasons. Clarke leads the pack in all passing categories.

clarke against counterparts (assists per game)
assists per 36 minutes
assist percentage

Am I saying that Clarke will achieve Draymond’s — or even Sabonis’ — playmaking potential? It’d be great, but with deft playmakers like Ja Morant and Tyus Jones at the helm, I doubt it.

However, this shows that he’s not only on a great pace, but he also has room to grow as a playmaker. None of these players emerged as great secondary playmakers over night. If he could facilitate similar to Millsap and Siakam, who have both averaged roughly 3 assists per game at their peak, it’d open up the offense for him and this Grizzlies team.

It’s a luxury when a team has big men that can ignite the fast break off a rebound. Whether it’s an outlet pass, or pushing the ball up the court themselves, the big man handling the ball gives his perimeter players chances to attack the rim with little-to-no resistance.

Brandon Clarke fits the bill here, as he’s a high basketball IQ big man that can run the floor for easy transition opportunities for both himself and others.

This outlet pass was one of my favorite Clarke assists this season. The Grizzlies possess a number of perimeter players that are good in the open court — Ja Morant, De’Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen, and Josh Jackson. When you have a big man that can make a precise outlet pass, it generates easy offense.

In this scenario, it gives Clarke two passing options. De’Anthony Melton took advantage of Matthew Dellavedova and Jordan Clarkson not being completely focused on him defensively, giving Clarke a window to zip a perfect bounce pass for the easy hoop. However, if both defenders collapsed on Melton, it opened up a wide-open corner 3 for Tyus Jones, the Grizzlies’ catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter.

This season, the Memphis Grizzlies became a solid 3-point shooting team, especially from the catch-and-shoot. Of those that played at least 20 games with the team, 9 players have a catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage greater than 35% — the league benchmark for 3-point shooting. In Taylor Jenkins’ “let it fly” approach, they don’t mind if they fire away on the break or in the halfcourt.

Transition 3’s have become a common practice in today’s league. Whenever your rebounder can grab and go, it allows shooters to leak out to the 3-point line for an open, stand-still jumper. Having the shooters that could capitalize on open transition 3’s is huge, and a big man that can rebound and make the correct reads like Clarke is a luxury as well.

The tantalizing option out of Clarke’s playmaking potential is it opens up the floor for Ja Morant to make things happen in transition. When he has this kind of room to operate, he’s bound to do something special — something that’ll leave the crowd, at home or on the road, in awe.

Brandon Clarke is an exciting transition big man, with his elite explosiveness and athleticism. With his playmaking though, he just becomes even more dangerous in the open court.

Big men have played an integral part in this franchise since its arrival in Memphis. The Gasol brothers played a huge role in that, but the Grizzlies have done an excellent job of keeping up with that trend in the post-Gasol(s) era.

Most of the Grizzlies big typically operate as DHO facilitators, when positioned at the high post. Of Clarke’s 72 assists, 19 of them have come from handoff’s. Because of the reliance on the DHO, the Grizzlies also use it as a decoy for easier paint opportunities.

Finding ways to get Ja Morant off ball is important. Aside from Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja is the most potent scoring weapon on this team. He has a quick burst when attacking the basket, and the athleticism and aggression to finish regardless of his opponent. Here, he baits Beverley to go defend, then jolts to the rim for an easy bucket. Clarke made the correct read and thread the needle, so Ja could get in great position to finish the job.

Here, Grayson Allen serves as a decoy for the dribble hand off. Clarke catches Mike Conley napping off the ball, which leads to a bucket off of a cut from Jones. Given the number of outside threats and secondary playmakers on this team, they should look to deploy similar actions to this set to generate easy buckets for cutters or shooters.

The Grizzlies made a living off the high/low game between Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and they now have the chance to build around another special big man dynamic. When the Grizzlies drafted Clarke, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote, “Clarke and Jackson are a match made in basketball heaven. Defenses will have to pick their poison. Jackson (who shot 35.9 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game as a rookie) can stretch them out to the 3-point line, and Clarke (who shot 70.5 percent from 2-point range on 9.7 attempts per game last season) will be able to dunk on almost anyone.”

So far, in their short time together, we’ve seen their immense potential as a tandem.

Though it’s not the vision Tjarks highlighted, this play showcases the interchangeability between the two. There should be times where the roles are reversed here. Nonetheless, Clarke demonstrates his ability to make the quick decision off the pass for the tantalizing alley oop.

This two-big game has also paid off with Jonas Valanciunas, as the duo of JV and Clarke have a net rating of +12.8 in 248 minutes played together. Despite their low volume of 3-pointers, the duo of Valanciunas and Clarke is still efficient, and they could still generate free-flowing offense despite the spacing issues.

The Grizzlies’ pace-and-space offense has been marvelous to watch all season long. Brandon Clarke’s transformation into a secondary playmaker in the half-court could unlock a new level for this franchise for years to come.

Portland Trail Blazers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke is the swing player for the Memphis Grizzlies. Yes, there are a few young players that could emerge as good complementary players next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. None of them possess Clarke’s upside.

Though he’s an old rookie at 23, there’s still room for his game to improve, despite the common misconception that players are finished products between 23 and 25. Many will monitor how Clarke’s shooting will look at a higher volume from 3. However, with his efficiency as a finisher, with the floater, and from 3 (albeit, the low volume), he may not need to be a guy that shoots 4 three’s a game to take the next step.

That next step is evolving as a secondary playmaker on this team. In this evolution, he’ll need to improve as a ball-handler. So far this season though, he’s shown that he can be a dynamic secondary playmaker, similar to aspiring counterparts like Paul Millsap and Pascal Siakam.

If Clarke becomes that playmaker in his peak years, there’s no telling where this Memphis Grizzlies team could go.

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Clips from Stats from basketball-reference and