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Brandon Clarke has come full circle in Memphis

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NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

In his book Screwtape Letters, my favorite writer C.S. Lewis coins something that he calls the “law of undulation” (well technically a demon in the story did, but I digress). The law is simple: Life will have many highs and lows, so you can never afford to get too high or low. The truth of who you are is always found in the middle, not where you are at the highest hill or the deepest valley.

When Brandon Clarke was a rookie, I wrote a piece about halfway through that season about how he was having the most efficient rookie season in NBA history. It was no hyperbole; everything from his PER (20.9) to his eFG% (64) made him a historically significant rookie who seemed to have the upside of possibly becoming the Memphis Grizzlies version of Draymond Green.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Now that last part was hyperbolic in retrospect. At the time when I wrote that piece, the Grizzlies were in the middle of a six-game winning streak and were improbably surging toward the playoffs in both Ja Morant and Clarke’s first year in the league; at that point, you could have told me that Jaren Jackson Jr. was going to turn into Giannis Antetokoumpo with a three-point shot, and I would have believed it.

But an NBA team is never as good as it is at its peak, and neither are its players. Brandon Clarke was phenomenal as a rookie, but he was still a flawed player, and his flaws became quickly apparent in his second year during the 2020-2021 season as both injury and roster realignment began to make him look expendable.

One of the knocks against Clarke coming out of Gonzaga was that he was a positional tweener, as he lacked the playmaking and shooting ability to be an NBA wing, but also lacked the size at just 6’8”, 215 pounds to be anything other than a power forward. This reality became problematic for him, as Kyle Anderson had a breakout season starting at the 4 without Jaren Jackson, and rookie Xavier Tillman possessed a bigger body that allowed him to have more positional versatility.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Add in the fact that Clarke dealt with constant nagging injuries that caused him to be clearly less effective on the court, and he began to collect some DNP’s in the second half of last season, something that would have seemed unthinkable at his hyper-efficient best during his rookie year.

The highest hill was only being followed by the deepest valley for Brandon Clarke. And the valley seemed like it was only going to continue for him throughout the first few weeks of this season. In the Grizzlies’ first 9 games, he picked up 3 DNP’s, and it looked like his time in Memphis would probably soon come to an end.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

And then the Minnesota Timberwolves game happened (no, not the 43-point disaster loss on the road). On November 8th, the Grizzlies played the Timberwolves at home. Since Ziaire Williams was injured, Clarke took his place in the rotation after not playing in the team’s last three games. The Grizzlies desperately needed a spark, as they trailed by as many as 17 points in the 4th quarter. Yet he didn’t just give them a spark; he rose straight out of the valley and back to the hill, looking every bit the impactful player he was during his rookie year. He totaled 20 points on 8-11 shooting along with 9 rebounds, including three huge offensive ones in overtime as the Grizzlies managed to come away with a 125-118 victory.

Since that game, Brandon Clarke has now come full circle. Just over three weeks ago, he seemed destined to be a footnote in Grizzlies history as they would likely trade him for a happy meal. But now, he again looks like the other half of the Grizzlies’ front-court of the future next to Jaren Jackson Jr. Both his raw production and the lineup data confirm it, as his per-36 numbers are comparable to his rookie season, and the Grizzlies outscore their opponents by 38.8 points per 100 possessions in their most-used lineup with Clarke at the 4 and Jaren at the 5.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Clarke still has his flaws. He’s never going to be even a secondary playmaker, and he has not made a three this season. His jumper in particular is aesthetically like the weather; it could be just about anything depending on what day it is. He’s probably not ever going to be a tertiary star like some may have thought during his rookie season, and he’s also not going to fall out of the rotation again like he did during his sophomore season. The truth, again, is somewhere in the middle.

And the truth is that Brandon Clarke is a good basketball player who likely still has a significant role for the Memphis Grizzlies both now and in the future.

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