clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Brandon Clarke isn’t supposed to be here

And yet, here he is.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

You’d think at this point we’d be used to Brandon Clarke unexpectedly showing up.

And yet, it still is so very fun to watch play out before our eyes.

For just a year ago, it appeared as if Brandon Clarke may no longer be part of the plans of the Memphis Grizzlies. His offensive production fell off a cliff compared to his stellar rookie campaign (114.6 points scored per 100 possessions, compared to his rookie number of 133 points scored) and he struggled as a rebounder as well, seeing his defensive rebound percentage tumble from 51st to 28th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. The team was 2.1 points worse with him on the floor, an over 4 point swing compared to the previous year. It seemed that whether it was because of health, or fit, the NBA simply catching up with his elite athleticism, or some combination of all of these three, that the Cinderella journey of Brandon Clarke’s basketball journey was ending.

The same Brandon Clarke that started his San Jose State and transferred to the original Cinderella in college basketball, Gonzaga. The Clarke who, if it weren’t for Zion Williamson’s own greatness, may have received more attention for his own historic performance for the Zags that 2018-2019 season. Clarke was 2nd in PER behind Williamson, who posted a massive 40.8 number. Clarke’s 37.2 rating was almost six points better than the eventual #2 pick in that draft (Ja Morant, you may have heard of him) and BC had the best offensive (137.9) and defensive (84) ratings in the nation. Clarke looked the part of a Lottery talent, and some saw him as such. He backed up these numbers with a dominant combine performance, placing in the top-3 in numerous categories measuring athleticism.

But many NBA teams looked beyond the numbers and their eyes and saw him as an older player (he turned 23 before the start of his rookie season) with short arms (6’8” wingspan), an undersized (6’8”) big with limited basketball skill beyond finishing with force at the rim. He couldn’t shoot the three. He couldn’t play the “3” position. He wouldn’t be able to hang down low. He simply wasn’t cut out to be much in the NBA - great college season, good college career, mediocre pro prospect.

To some. Not the Memphis Grizzlies, who traded up for Clarke and appeared to be brilliant for it as he had an All-Rookie season - until that shine dulled a bit after year two. And Clarke saw less regular season playing time in year three, seemingly no longer seen as a player that was a lock to to learn and grow alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant in the years ahead. Ziaire Williams - the rookie project from Stanford - played more minutes in two less games than Clarke. There are reasons for this - Dillon Brooks’ injuries paired with the health of the Grizzlies front court, for example. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams both had solid seasons, and both played over 75 games.

But even when Clarke was given chances to start in the past, especially when Jaren got hurt, he was not as successful as perhaps he could have been. A slow start here, a blown assignment there...inconsistency reigned. Maybe, finally, the odds had caught up to the flawed Brandon Clarke.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

But the Vancouver-born baller has turned the tide yet again. For without Clarke’s remarkable contributions, the Memphis Grizzlies likely would have already been eliminated from this postseason. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been missing in action much of the series - foul trouble has reared its ugly head once again for JJJ, and he cannot stay on the floor. The same is true of Steven Adams, whose own limitations in terms of foot speed and defensive stylings against a unicorn like Karl-Anthony Towns have rendered him essentially meaningless (but still missed - ask Ja Morant as he deals with different spacing off of Clarke or Kyle Anderson screens).

All of a sudden, the two bigs that ate the minutes of Clarke the most were gone. And in their place was...Xavier Tillman Sr.? Kyle Anderson?

No...it had to be Brandon Clarke. His switchability, his explosive leaping and ability to run in transition. In the absence of the two Grizzlies starting bigs, he was again calles upon to find it within himself to rise - literally and figuratively - to the occasion and be more than what some thought he could be.

He’s answered the call - and has been the best player in this series for the Memphis Grizzlies. Two double-doubles. Four games with two or more assists. He’s scoring more per 100 possessions than ever (139 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs) while creating offense for others...a growing layer to his game even in this high pressure series. His soft and able hands on catches and lobs, his ability to use his athleticism on slip/ghost screens to get to the rim and paint, a handle that does just enough off the dribble to attack from the perimeter to the post to efficiently finish around the basket with a floater or dunk…the elite Brandon Clarke, doing what he does best, has returned.

How very Memphis of him.

For Clarke, you see, is just another example of what makes the Grizzlies so special. He’s a West Coast Conference product - a mid-major man, like his draftmate Morant from Murray State. He was overlooked coming out of both high school and college, seen as a one-trick pony, unable to overcome what limited his ultimate ceiling. He’s proven time and again that those folks are wrong about him, but even if “they” are now just continuing memories of prior doubt unwilling to accept that Clarke - without a three-point shot, without a frame deemed prototypical for the NBA - could be something more than a journeyman, that motivation clearly has stayed with Clarke.

It has paid dividends for a Grizzlies team that needed something - anything - to help them stay afloat. As the great Ja Morant found his footing after a return from injury against a tenacious Timberwolves defense hell bent on stopping his remarkable paint scoring, someone had to carry the burden of consistent production. As Jackson Jr. and Adams fell out of playing time for very different reasons, a player had to be “the man” both in terms of the glass and the defensive versatility that had led Memphis to this point.

Enter Brandon Clarke, who has played more in each game this postseason than his regular season average of 19.5 minutes per game. Enter Brandon Clarke, who despite posting superior advanced numbers to his excellent rookie campaign saw his role diminish with the health of Jaren Jackson Jr. Enter Brandon Clarke - the supposedly limited defender of big men and rebounder, defending not just bigs but guards and wings without fouling so he can remain on the floor while also maximizing his efforts on the offensive glass, helping offset the absence of Adams (87th percentile in the playoffs in both offensive rebound percentage and foul percentage).

Enter Brandon Clarke, the under-appreciated, undersized overachiever. Who refuses to be denied.

On the biggest stage of this generation of the Memphis Grizzlies, Brandon Clarke has been the team MVP five games in to a slugfest of a series with the Minnesota Timberwolves. A series filled with Lottery talent, where the #2 seed in the NBA has been on the ropes more often than not, is being defined by the efforts of a kid from Canada that - despite so much evidence to the contrary - has been seen as unable to be exactly what he has been. And it’s the realization of a basketball life’s work - from gyms north of the border, to the west coast of America, to a city notorious for taking someone else’s unwanted and giving them the shine and appreciation they deserve.

Not all Memphians are born of the Bluff City. Some arrive there by choice, others by fate. But all find themselves in the presence of a place whose soul seems to reverberate through you if you allow it to. The Grizzlies are a personification of that sensation - from Grit and Grind to now, multiple eras have risen where the underdog becomes something so much more- while possessing quite a bite. That’s not an accident. It’s the mentality of those that wear the blue of Beale Street more often than not in recent years. This mindset matches the city that these millionaire misfits who wear chips on their shoulders as big as any Memphis monument call home.

The chapters of this book of Grizzlies history are still being written. But to this point, it has the continuation of what has come before - just with brighter lights and bigger swag. If what is past is prologue, the best is yet to come. We in large part, in yet another memorable Memphis moment, have Brandon Clarke to thank for that.

And he isn’t even supposed to be here.

For more Grizzlies talk, subscribe to the Grizzly Bear Blues podcast network on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and IHeart. Follow Grizzly Bear Blues on Twitter and Instagram.