Years from now, there will likely be several memorable dates that Grizzlies’ fans will recall from the summer of 2019:
May 14th, 2019 (Landing the second overall pick in the NBA Draft)
June 19th, 2019 (Mike Conley Traded to Utah Jazz)
June 20th (2019 NBA Draft, Picking Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke)
Each of these dates represent a significant moment in the history of the franchise that led to the formation of one of the best young cores in the NBA. However, another date, July 15th, 2019, should be considered just as memorable. It was the day the Grizzlies won the 2019 NBA Summer League, and also the day Brandon Clarke was named Summer League MVP.
Many already knew who Brandon Clarke was, and many also had an idea of what Brandon Clarke could become. However, few could have expected Clarke to immediately emerge as on of the best rookies to come into the NBA over the past few seasons. Clarke’s performance last summer was simply a small sample and introduction to a rookie campaign that was full of impressive consistency and historical efficiency.
It also was the introduction of one of the biggest advantages for the Grizzlies in the present and foreseeable future.
AT HIS BEST
It is well-documented how efficient and effective Clarke has been this season for the Grizzlies. His consistency, 2-way impact, versatility, and intelligence all were all on full display whenever he was on the court. However, there are a few specific perspectives that truly show how extraordinary of a season Clarke had for Memphis.
In the 2019 NBA Draft Class, 20 other rookies were drafted before Brandon Clarke. However, when measuring their impact on the court, especially from a holistic perspective, Clarke was in a class of his own. Among rookies who played at least 650 minutes in the 2019-2020 season, Clarke statistically stood head and shoulders above the rest of the rookie field. He was first in Win Shares, WS/48, Offensive Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus and VORP. He was among the top three in PER, Offensive Rating, and Defensive Win Shares.
The only other rookies to frequently appear among the top performers across the board are Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, the top two picks in the 2019 draft. Morant is the clear and rightful front runner for Rookie of the Year, while Zion Williamson is a finalist and widely assumed to finish second. However, from multiple perspectives - including overall playing time - Brandon Clarke certainly has a stronger case than Williamson to be this year’s runner-up.
The significance of Clarke’s debut extends beyond this season. In fact, it is quite historical. Clarke is the first rookie since the 1953-1954 season to produce five or more win shares in 1,300 minutes or less of playing time. He also became the first rookie in NBA history to have eFG%, FG% and TS% marks each at 60% or higher (min. 475 field goal attempts.)
A better understanding of just how special Clarke has been this season may come from his inclusion in the group of players above. These are the only rookies in NBA history to have produced a WS/48 of .180 or higher with a usage percentage of 18% or higher (min. 1,300 minutes played.) This shows the high impact that Clarke made on the court this season as a featured option. His production and overall impact on the game was truly historical for a player in his first season.
CURRENT LEAGUE PERSPECTIVE
The impressive nature of Clarke’s production was not just limited to his fellow rookies.
For instance, Clarke’s production compares quite favorably to 2019-2020 Eastern Conference All-Stars Pascal Siakam, Bam Adebayo, and Domantas Sabonis in terms of their overall production on the court. Obviously, each of these players produced their numbers over a much higher span of playing time. However, the fact that Clarke, as a rookie, offered a similar level of production as All-Star level talents when he was on the court is extremely valuable.
Of course, Clarke did much of his work against lesser talents than Siakam, Adebayo, or Sabonis due to the fact that Clarke only started four games this season. However, he truly was one of the league’s most productive reserves. Among the 19 NBA reserves (five or less starts) who played at least 1300 minutes this season, Clarke finished third in Win Shares, second in PER, second in VORP, and first in Offensive Rating. As seen above, Clarke offered similar levels of production this season when compared to perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrel
Along with the overall impact of his game, Clarke’s shooting efficiency also proved to be among the best in the NBA. Among 163 players who attempted 475 or field goals this season, Clarke finished third in eFG%, TS% and FG%, respectively. He also was one of only three players, along with Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside, to have a mark of 60% or higher in all three categories.
The numbers above should certainly be kept in context. Though they are not an attempt to show that Clarke is among the best players in the league, they are meant to validate the point that he was among the most valuable reserves and efficient scorers in the league. Those characteristics show the significant value Clarke produced compared to the NBA as a whole.
As can be seen above, Clarke was an absolute asset when on the court. He added value both offensively and defensively, and provided that value consistently. As a result, in terms of the Memphis lineups that were most successful this season, having Clarke on the court was a huge advantage for the Grizzlies.
In terms of Net Rating, Clarke was a part of three of the Grizzlies five best four-man lineups, and was in each of the top four three-man lineups (minimum 100 minutes played together.) In fact, the four man lineup of Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, and Clarke produced a NET Rating of 25.1 in 2019-2020, which was the Grizzlies best lineup and ranked tenth in the NBA. It also was the Grizzlies best overall lineup since 2012-2013, and the franchise’s second best lineup overall since lineup stats began being tracked in 2007-2008.
Clarke also was one of the best reserves in the history of the franchise. Among Grizzlies’ players who have played 1,300 or more minutes with five or less starts in a single season, Clarke’s 2019-2020 campaign ranks second in Win Shares, fourth in points, and first in offensive rating. Though Clarke may not have played as many minutes as others on past teams, he arguably just had the best season by a Grizzlies’ reserve in franchise history.
AT HIS WORST
Without a doubt, Brandon Clarke’s athleticism, intelligence, and natural talent all have played a major role in his success as a rookie. The way in which the Grizzlies utilized Clarke also contributed also added value to his performance, though. Clarke consistently feasted on lower tier front court talents from opposing benches. Brandon could easily feature his strengths on both ends of the court.
Logically, the hope for Clarke is to join Jackson Jr. as long-term answers in the Grizzlies starting lineup alongside Morant. However, while that lineup conceivably has a very high level of potential, it still will likely take time for Clarke to become a permanent starter. For one, the Grizzlies already have a very good compliment for Jackson Jr. in the starting lineup in Jonas Valanciunas. For another, the advantage Clarke creates as a reserve will be hard to replace.
Furthermore, Clarke’s ability to expand on his already valuable skill sets is a work in progress. When Clarke is asked to play within himself, the results are amazing. However, areas where he is still developing include being a more confident three point shooter, play maker, and defensive anchor. It seems it would be better to develop these skills by keeping Clarke in his current role, rather than rushing his progression.
In the small sample size the Grizzlies do have when Clarke starts, his effectiveness certainly declines. That likely is a result of facing better competition and more responsibility falling on Clarke’s shoulders. In time, Clarke appears to have the talent and intelligence to eventually become a reliable starting talent. However, in the present and near future, it seems it his best for the Grizzlies to continue featuring him as a key reserve.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Why change what clearly works?
Just like Morant, Jackson Jr, and Valanciunas are entrenched in the Grizzlies starting lineup for the foreseeable future, Clarke should be viewed as a clear benefit in his sixth man role. Along with the overwhelming proof from his rookie season that it is an ideal fit for his skill set, it will also benefit his development and the team’s progression towards becoming a sustainable winner.
As mentioned above, there is still plenty for Clarke to work on to become an even more valuable asset for the Grizzlies. However, in his case, just like the case of this young roster itself, there is a already so much talent to work with, and the Grizzlies have correctly utilized his talents so far. Just like the aforementioned names of Siakam, Sabonis, and Adebayo, letting Clarke continue to evolve as a player off the bench could lead to better than expected results down the line. Even if that does not result in an All-Star type ceiling, Clarke should remain extremely valuable, and one of the biggest reasons the Grizzlies will continue exceeding expectations over the next several years.