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Brandon Clarke continues to rise

I talked with Brandon Clarke and Taylor Jenkins on his growth as a player.

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Washington Wizards v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke is a tricky prospect, but also a fascinating one. He’s a player that relies more on efficiency, as we saw a spike in volume but a dip in percentages to start the season. He’s also very much a “he does the little things” kind of player — smart rotations, stays active defensively for switches, makes the nice read for a hockey assist or a pass to a cutter.

There’s really no clear verdict yet on what Brandon Clarke can become as a player. Some see him as a potential 3rd or 4th piece in the Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. core, which leads many around the league circles to believe that he’s an “untouchable” player for the Memphis Grizzlies. There are some who think he might have topped out as a player and will likely be an energy big man off the bench going forward.

This season though, we’ve seen Clarke and the coaching staff look to stretch the boundaries of what he could become as a player. The results can be viewed as mixed. Some have considered his season to be a bit of a disappointment, since he’s not entirely the same player he was last year, but he’s also inching towards returning to that caliber — shooting at 58.5/40.0/80.0 splits since February 1st.

If you’re looking for signs of growth in terms of stat jumps, you’re going to be disappointed. With the eye test though, there have been strides and improvements in his game. He looks more comfortable on the floor, and he’s learning to attack in a variety of ways on both ends.

Milwaukee Bucks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Brandon Clarke’s defensive versatility was one of his most enticing traits coming into the NBA. He could switch onto to perimeter players, but he also oozed potential as a weak-side defender. He had more blocks than missed shots in his final season at Gonzaga.

With his pogo-stick leaping ability, he can affect shots close to the basket. He’s improved in that area from last season, even though he was already elite in that area. Opponents have shot 10.4% worse with Clarke as the primary defender inside 6 feet (up from -8.6 last year) and 9.4% worse inside 10 feet (up from -7.2 last year). Inside 6 feet, Clarke is 21st in the league in field goal percentage differential, ranking ahead of devastating rim protectors such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.

This season, Taylor Jenkins has been wanting to expand on his defensive versatility, throwing him into different coverages and matchups. He’s been impressed with the results, and it’s going to aid his long-term development on that end of the floor.

There’s been more positional variance with his matchups. This season, he ranks in the 91st percentile in defensive position versatility, per B-Ball Index’s database. Just in the Milwaukee game, there was a stretch where he had Khris Middleton one possession, Giannis the next, and Jrue Holiday shortly after. That game in particular highlighted his upside as a switchy defender, as he held Middleton and Giannis to a combined 2-8 shooting on 18.7 partial possessions.

Here, Clarke does a great job of moving his feet and sticking with Middleton. Despite the screen from Giannis, he stays focused on his matchup and then forces him into a tough fadeaway miss.

This was probably one of Clarke’s better defensive plays this season. He maintained position on Giannis, staying physical without getting too handsy for the foul. He then forces Giannis towards the baseline and into Dillon Brooks, who then allows to add another shot contester to alter his shot.

The Grizzlies’ defensive outing on Jerami Grant last month was one of the best performances on a high-volume scorer this season. Brandon Clarke played an instrumental role in that, forcing him to 2-7 shooting as the primary defender in 19.2 partial possessions.

Like with the Giannis clip, Clarke does a good job of maintaining solid position, staying physical, and not fouling.

He’s also growing as a defender in the steals department. He’s doubled his steal average from 0.6 to 1.2 this season, and he ranks in the 90th percentile in steal percentage (1.9%) — per Cleaning the Glass.

There have been a bit of growing pains too, as defenders are shooting 6.2% better from 15+ feet with Clarke as the primary defender. However, he’s also only allowing 0.79 points per isolation possession (70.8th percentile), while being one of the most frequent isolation defenders in the league (14.9%, 12th in the league). Over time though, if he’s going to be either starting or closing games next to Jaren Jackson Jr., taking on more perimeter-oriented matchups and staying switchy will be a key for him going forward. Coach Jenkins is throwing him into the fire on that end on the floor to prepare him for what lies ahead and to allow him to grow as a versatile defender, and he’s responding quite well.

Denver Nuggets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke’s efficiency has dropped off from his rookie season, and that could’ve been expected since he was historically efficient. However, he’s still made strides in his game.

“Obviously, I think his 3-point shooting has taken big steps. He’s embracing the 3-point line a lot more,” Jenkins said. “He’s lethal when he can put the ball on the ground, or when he’s in pick-and-roll situations.”

I know you’re thinking he’s bluffing on the 3-point shooting, since he altered his mechanics and his 3-point percentage has dropped from 35.9 to 33.3. On the other hand, he’s shot the ball well since the team’s return to play towards the end of January, shooting 41.7% on 23 attempts from 3 in 16 games. It’s not just embracing the 3-point line as a shooter though; it’s also as a driver.

As we’ve seen a lot more recently, he’s still going to that lethal floater that’s difficult to block because of his spring. He’s also added this nifty spin-move on the drive.

None of these players are necessarily slouch defenders either. It’s becoming a staple in his offensive bag, and it’s promising to see him add new skills to his scoring arsenal in year 2.

He’s also getting to his floater more from the perimeter. As he’s shooting more outside shots, defenders will at least have to respect the jumper. So now, he’s attacking those closeouts to get to his spots.

He’s also growing more comfortable attacking off the dribble against wings, as he drives against Dorian Finney-Smith — arguably Dallas’ best perimeter defender — to find his way to his spot.

Through this, he’s also grown as a playmaker.

“I just feel like I am not as rushed right now,” Clarke said. “The game is coming to me much, much easier than it was. I just feel like that it slowed down.”

His assist numbers have remained close to the same, going from 1.4 to 1.6 this season. He’s also emerging as one of the best care-takers of the basketball in the league. He’s tied for 1st in Turnover Percentage (5.1), and he ranks in the 97th percentile among bigs in that category, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s a product of the game slowing down for him.

He’s become a solid needle-threading passer, as he illustrates in this clip here. He’s also gotten a bit more flashy as a passer, not afraid to add a little extra sauce in his dimes.

Clarke’s growth on the offensive end will determine his upside going forward. If he continues to evolve his perimeter game, he can be a fringe cornerstone for a really good team. If he tops out here, he’ll likely remain a 6th/7th man energy big, which is still not a bad outcome.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

We’re still figuring out what Brandon Clarke can be as a player. What I envision him becoming is this wing/big hybrid. Defensively, he can be a guy who can protect the rim as a weak-side defender or small-ball 5, while also taking on perimeter matchups — straight up or in switch situations. Offensively, he can attack off the bounce and hit an occasional 3, but he’ll do most of his damage in the paint and as a roller.

There is still more room for growth. We’ll need to see how he can balance an increased shot volume, while lingering in the same efficiency neighborhood. He could also rev up his assist totals as a secondary playmaker as well.

While we don’t know what he can become just yet, there’s one thing that’ll remain a constant with Brandon Clarke: impacting winning.

He’s always hungry for ways to get better and help his team win,” Coach Jenkins said. “Every time I talk to him about him coming off the bench, or being a starter, or different matchups, or different coverages — he’s like ‘whatever you need, I’m ready to go.’ And that’s been the case since day 1, and he’s just continued to embrace that mentality in year 2. And I know that’s going to serve him well year after year.”

Regardless of what happens, Clarke will continue to impact winning with his shot-contesting, his offensive efficiency, and his high basketball IQ. Because of that foundation and his work ethic, Clarke will continue to adapt and find new areas to rise.

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