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A pivotal bounce back for Brandon Clarke

Brandon Clarke didn’t have the season many wanted out of him last season, but there’s a good reason to believe he can bounce back next season. And it’s pivotal for him to do so.

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Indiana Pacers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke has had a pretty big shift in perception around here in the past year.

It went from Clarke potentially being 3rd wheel next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., to a mere afterthought in the young core.

From Clarke and Jackson to Clarke or Xavier Tillman.

From dark-horse 6th Man of the Year candidate to DNP-CD.

From high praise among the fanbase to a common scapegoat towards the end of the season.

Is a lot of that fair? Not really. This past season was really weird, and we probably underestimate the toll it really took around the league. For the Grizzlies, they had to play about 40 games in about 70 days. In the process, there was limited turnaround time between games; and on days without games, they took them as rest days and didn’t practice. That doesn’t even factor in postseason play! That sounds exhausting.

And for Clarke specifically, that load led to injuries, and he didn’t really get practice reps to get back up to speed. He had to be thrusted into games back from injuries, and he struggled as a result. Granted, they implemented play groups in shoot-arounds to make up for the limited-to-no practice time, but it’s not the same as the flow of a normal regular season.

With that being said, Brandon Clarke is a big candidate to bounce back next season. His sophomore year was a bag of mixed results that might’ve yielded disappointment, but there’s too much tangible evidence of him being a good basketball player for him to not turn it around.

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

You could arguable divide Brandon Clarke’s season into 3 parts, as there are decent discrepancies in production, and they have their own takeaways as well.

  1. 12/23/2020 — 2/4/2021 (1st 17 games) averages: 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.0 steals + blocks, shooting splits of 48.8/26.5/59.4, and volume splits of 11.9/2.0/1.9 (28.3 minutes per game)
  2. 2/14/2021 — 3/29/2021 (22 games) averages: 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.9 steals + blocks, shooting splits of 57.2/41.7/72.9, and volume splits of 7.2/1.1/2.2 (24 minutes per game)
  3. 4/2/2021 — end of the season (20 games): 7.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.8 steals + blocks, shooting splits of 49.6/5.3/72.7 and volume splits of 6.7/1.0/1.7 (20.2 minutes per game, 3 DNP-CD’s)

Let’s start with part one. Clarke missed a lot of training camp and a few preseason games due to a groin injury, and the rust showed early on — though the “who the hell broke his jumper” conversation trumped a lot of it. Once he did regain his footing, Ja Morant went down, causing the offense to go absolutely dry. The offense spurted down to a 104.3 Offensive Rating, 27th in the league during that span. As a result, Clarke — and many of his teammates — had to take on a bigger offensive responsibility without getting nearly as easy looks as they would with the star guard.

However, he did show more of a willingness to get his shot off in this span, even when Morant returned to the lineup. He attempted 10 or more field goals in 5 games with Ja back in the fold, and didn’t have a single game where he shot less than 7 times in this span. It was surely promising to see him take on this responsibility early in the season, especially since his number was called upon to do so. The efficiency dip was less encouraging, as that was a result of the lack of a pure go-to player to generate gravity and of the creation limitations of Clarke as well.

The second stretch was more similar to the Brandon Clarke we saw in our rookie season. Though his volume dropped quite a bit, he returned to his superb efficiency, possessing a true shooting percentage of 63% — closer to his 66.3% mark from his rookie year. He looked more like his bouncy self, which helped him connect on more floaters and shots around the rim as well. He went from converting on only 66% of his shots at the rim (54/82, 43rd percentile among big men, per Cleaning the Glass) to 79% (52/66, 88th percentile). So the return of explosiveness, coupled with the return of another dynamic playmaker, surely played a part in his mid-season return to form.

That’s closer to the optimal Brandon Clarke we’ll likely see going forward. No reason to be super upset about that either. Granted, you’d like the volume splits to fall somewhere between his first stretch and this one. However, given his spot in the shot distribution pecking order, this neighborhood sounds about right. All in all, that’s great production to have off the bench from a really good 7th-8th man.

The last stretch was brutal. Both his efficiency and his volume tanked. He was in and out of the lineup due to hamstring issues, and he also indicated in a post-game interview that he wasn’t completely 100% from his injuries. It also showed on the court. His timing was off on his floater and his shots around the rim, due to a hinderance in explosion and leaping abilities. He didn’t have as much legs in his jumper either, and he looked a step slower defensively. Through the combination of his struggles, Xavier Tillman’s emergence, and a fully healthy lineup — Clarke found himself on the outside looking in of the rotation.

That span is likely going to go down as the worst of his career, and I say that because there’s too much of evidence of him being a really good basketball player. However, it does show that he needs to add more tools in his bag that may not be predicated on athleticism whenever that facet of his game wavers a bit.

So I bring this up when factoring in a “bounce back” season, because the first two represent what could constitute such a year. You know it’s easy to say, his raw averages and volume of his 1st stretch with the efficiency of the 2nd stretch is perfect. It’s also hard to identify what a “bounce back” season is in terms of averages and volume, since there are plenty of others that may be higher in the shot distribution hierarchy (Ja, Jaren, Brooks, Bane, Melton are all likely ahead of him). Therefore, I’ll tie it into the 2nd stretch.

If he can achieve that sort of efficiency, while acting as that energetic force off the bench we saw in his rookie season, that'd be fantastic. The raw averages from his rookie year may return, or it could go up — that’s the toughest part to gauge. And if there comes a point in time where his volume has gone up, he’s shown he can shoulder the responsibility.

Nonetheless, returning to his hallmark efficiency will be the biggest thing to monitor here.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Before I harp on the biggest factors for his bounce-back campaign, there are a few areas that he was still really good at this past season that I’d like to see even more growth in during year 3.

Brandon Clarke was a dominant pick-and-roll player in his rookie season, scoring 1.51 points per possession as a roller, falling in the 95.9 percentile. This past season, that number dropped to 1.24, which still fell in the 77.3 percentile. Regaining his explosion and his touch on his still-really-good floater could help him return to form as an elite roll man.

I’ve focused on Clarke’s playmaking a lot, and I felt like he made strides in that area this past season. His assist average slightly rose, but one thing that stuck out to me was his decision-making. He had a low turnover percentage of 5.7%, which was 3rd among players that played 500 possessions. I’d love to see him tap into that more as a short-roll playmaker, as he displayed flashes of not only generating looks through the flow of the offense, but through passing creation as well.

Finally, Clarke came into the league as a fascinating defensive prospect, totaling more blocks than missed shots in his final season. His rim protection abilities has held him pretty well, though usually from the weak side, as offensive players shot 11.8% worse from the rim (6 feet or less) with Clarke as the defender. He improved defensively inside 10 feet, but he regressed mightily further out. There was a bit of a downturn though. From 15 feet out, the defensive field goal differential went from -3.3 to +5.9; and on 3’s, it went from -0.8 to 4.5. Though it could’ve been a product of his lower body injuries, getting closer to negative or even neutral is going to be important for his bounce-back potential, as it’ll help him stay on the floor in postseason situations. And from the looks of last season, he’s going to be put in those spots to test out those abilities.

Clarke did have encouraging spots of growth last season, despite the consensus of him taking a step back. Watching how he continues to progress in those areas, while regaining his shooting touch, will be cool to see.

Boston Celtics v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

In a recent interview with NBA TV during halftime of a Memphis Grizzlies Summer League, Brandon Clarke said he's been working on his body and his jumper the most.

And that’s arguably the two biggest things tied to his outlook for next season.

Let’s start with his body. Clarke missed 10 games due to various soreness injuries, excluding the one that held him out of training camp. As the phrase goes, the best ability is availability. And for a team with the depth the Grizzlies possess, and in a league where injuries and load management are both bound to happen, availability opens up opportunities. So that’s the first step in the bounce-back season.

And the jumper — the one that has the most people stirring.

Clarke entered his sophomore year, after shooting 35.1% from 3 in his rookie season and drilling 4 three-pointers in the play-in game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Then, his jumper changed catastrophically — and his percentage plummeted from 35.1% to 26.0% on 13 more total attempts (64 to 77).

Hearing the jumper be a primary focal point of Clarke’s offseason work is encouraging. We even got the August workout video of him shooting rotating between corner and wing 3’s — and you know how much everyone loves to talk about these empty gym offseason lab videos.

(Note: I’d love it if anyone who critiques a professional basketball player’s jumper who add in their criticism — “this is how it’s done” with a clip of their shooting mechanics).

A slight change to his 2020-21 form isn’t exactly going to leave a fanbase optimism, but I like to see a cleaner, repeatable base on his jumper. He shows good elevation as well.

Nonetheless though, we have to see its live-action translation, and that’s going to be vital for Clarke’s bounce-back campaign. Taylor Jenkins has shown that he wants as much shooting and playmaking on the floor as possible. In the postseason, he rolled with all 3 of Grayson Allen, Desmond Bane, and De’Anthony Melton to match up with Utah’s firepower. To get on the floor in these moments, when the rotation is crunched down, Clarke will have to make strides as a 3-point shooter.

Now will Clarke have to fire 3’s at the same clip and volume as a Bane or Melton to bounce back? That’s not an expectation, but it’d be incredibly rad. There are some pathways towards reemerging as an outside shooter.

Returning to roughly that 35% clip would be nice. League-average percentage even on a low volume is fine, given what else Clarke provides on the floor.

Finding his sweet spots are key for him as well. In his rookie year, he shot 41% on non-corner 3’s, per Cleaning the Glass, primarily finding those looks above the break at the top of the key. Where he could really start honing in his outside shot is from the corner, and let me start with an idea here from GBB Site Manager Joe Mullinax:

That’d be ideal, and it’s attainable. In that second span (his healthiest) I mentioned earlier, he shot 47% (7-15) on corner 3’s, per Cleaning the Glass. It may not reach that mark, but could he knock them down at a 36-38 percent clip? That’d be a big key in his bounce-back campaign, as he found himself in the corners more often in lineups featuring a more pure big man like Xavier Tillman and Jonas Valanciunas.

Expecting Clarke to become this sniper from beyond the arc is probably an unfair expectation. How he bounces back from his shooting regression, though, will serve as a major deciding factor in his bounce-back season.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

This past season, Brandon Clarke was in at least the top 5 on this team (among players who played 1000+ minutes) for individual advanced metrics.

  • PER (17.3, 2nd)
  • Offensive Win Shares (2.2, 3rd), Defensive Win Shares (2.0, 2nd), Win Shares (4.2, 3rd)
  • Offensive Box Plus/Minus (0.3, 5th), Defensive Box Plus/Minus (1.0, 3rd), Box Plus/Minus (1.3, 4th)
  • D-RAPTOR (1.7, 3rd), RAPTOR (0.3, 5th) — per FiveThirtyEight Sports.
  • WAR — Wins Above Replacement (2.2, 5th)
  • LEBRON (1.12, 5th), D-LEBRON (1.24, 2nd), BoxLEBRON (0.41, 4th), Box-D-LEBRON (0.83, 4th) — per B-Ball Index.
  • Wins Added — Total Aggregate Impact (3.20, 5th)

I know what you’re asking, okay you showed us the spreadsheets, now what does this mean?

It means that Brandon Clarke is still an impactful player on this team, despite the regression. When you’re this consistent in numerous impact statistics, especially in a solid sample size, it means you’re good.

That’s why I believe in his bounce back campaign. Through his good stretches last year, his stellar rookie season, and his dominant season at Gonzaga, there’s too much evidence of him being a good basketball player. It’s highly probable he returns to his original playing form.

And it’s going to be pivotal for him to bounce back as well.

With a crowded young core, especially one with prospects ready to impact winning now, he’s going to have to return to form to establish himself as someone who needs to play a substantial amount of minutes. In addition, he’s going to need to bounce back to prove he deserves good minutes in high-stakes basketball. The inability to do so could leave him on the outside looking in of the playoff rotation once again.

If you even want to stretch it out to financially implications, he’s eligible for a rookie extension after next season, or he can hit restricted free agency in the 2023 offseason. Returning to his rookie year form, or even reaching a level higher, could net him a well-paid 2nd contract. Or the inability to do so could cost him millions.

The stakes are high for Brandon Clarke next season, and understandably so. In a few months, he’s going to have the chance to prove everyone that the last year was a different story, and the wildly-efficient Brandon Clarke is still here and ready to make an impact.

I’d bet on him doing so.

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