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Brandon Clarke bounced back in a big way

Brandon Clarke proved to much more than the epitome of scoring efficiency this season.

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NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, there were many questions surrounding Brandon Clarke. Coming off a season in which nagging injuries consistently prevented him from taking advantage of opportunities to continue developing his game, Clarke eventually even lost his spot in the rotation to fellow young big Xavier Tillman. In fact, Clarke played less than 10 total minutes in the five playoff games against Utah to end the season.

Heading into the offseason, some were wondering how much the injuries and inconsistent playing time impacted Clarke. Was the true version of Clarke the player that produced one of the most efficient scoring seasons by a rookie ever, or the player who could not crack the playoff rotation? On a positive note, Clarke felt that he was in a very good place both mentally and physically entering his third season.

The beginning of the 2021-2022 season was a mixed bag of production for Clarke. Though he had big games, like willing the Grizzlies to an overtime win against eventual first-round playoff opponent Minnesota, he also struggled with consistency and injuries through the first 30 games of the season. However, after missing 11 straight games during the holiday season, Clarke returned to the Grizzlies lineup the night after Christmas and never looked back.

From 12/26/2021 through the end of the season, Brandon Clarke regained his rookie form and then some. Among the 175 NBA players who attempted 300 or more shots after Christmas this season, Clarke had the best FG% at 65.5%. He also was truly one of the most valuable all-around reserves in the NBA. From Christmas through the end of the season, among NBA reserves, Clarke ranked 7th in points scored, second in offensive rebounds, third in total rebounds, first in blocks, and third in individual +/- (+185 over this stretch.) He also showed growth in his playmaking ability, producing 59 assists to only 26 turnovers. Clarke’s play was one of the main reasons the Grizzlies bench was arguably the best reserve unit in the NBA this season.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Just like he did during his rookie season, Clarke proved to be a tremendous advantage source for the Grizzlies many times he was on the court, especially off the bench. Obviously, it starts with Clarke’s scoring efficiency, shot selection, and consistency. In fact, beyond just this season, Clarke continues to make history with his scoring efficiency. In NBA history, 178 players have attempted 1,000 or more shots as a reserve during the first three years of their NBA career. Among that group, only Montrezl Harrell produced a higher FG% and 2PFG%. Clarke truly is one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. Even if it may not always come against the best competition, it still remains a tremendous advantage to the Grizzlies offense for them to remain consistent with the starters off the court.

However, the other wonderful storyline to emerge from Brandon Clarke’s season is that he proved he was far more than a valuable bench player in multiple ways. For one, Clarke’s production at the rim on both ends of the court was among the best in the NBA. Along with his efficient scoring, Clarke was among the NBA’s best when it came to the combination of offensive rebounds and protecting the rim. He was one of just nine players with a OREB rate of 10% or better and block rate of 4.5% or better in the league this season (min. 1000 minutes played). While Clarke’s progression as a three point shooter is certainly an area to improve, his elite ability to gain the Grizzlies extra possessions with his offensive rebounding and prevent points with his rim protection more than makes up for it.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Another aspect of Clarke’s value is the growth in chemistry he developed with fellow young big man Jaren Jackson Jr. In fact, one of the most advantageous duos for the Grizzlies this year was Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. The Grizzlies were 12.3 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions when Clarke and Jackson Jr. were on the court together (97th percentile per cleaning the glass.) With both Clarke and Jackson Jr. on the court, Grizzlies opponents produced only 104.5 points per game (96th percentile) and produced an efg% of only 47.9% (98th percentile). Though Steven Adams helped to set the tone with the starting lineup, there were many times Clarke and Jackson Jr. truly helped the Grizzlies earn victories in both the regular season and NBA Playoffs.

Perhaps the biggest development for Clarke this season was a completely new narrative when it came to the value he can provide in the postseason. In recent history, there have been plenty of reserve bigs, such as Harrell, who dominated in the regular season but were played off the court due to being major liabilities in the playoffs. That was not the case with Clarke.

Clarke was one of the Grizzlies most valuable players against the Timberwolves. He scored in double digits each game and had three double-doubles. He also averaged nearly a block and steal each per game and a 16-to-4 AST/TO Ratio. There were many instances where Clarke, along with his effective paint defense, had to guard Anthony Edwards, Karl Anthony-Towns and other Twolves on the perimeter and many times Clarke denied a good look at the basket. The combination of Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. also remained highly effective against playoff caliber competition.

However, perhaps the most exciting thing about Brandon Clarke is how reliable he proved to be in the 4th quarter and clutch situations for the Grizzlies. Clarke shot 56% from the field and had the third best individual +/- behind only Ja Morant and Desmond Bane during the 4th quarter in the NBA Playoffs. He was the second leading scorer after Morant in clutch situations. Clarke also had twice as many fourth quarter rebounds (34) than any other Grizzlies player. In fact, Clarke still has the most fourth quarter offensive rebounds of any player that played in this year’s postseason.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Clarke’s production in the playoffs was a perfect exclamation point to a season in which he bounced back in a big way. Not only did Clarke put to rest any doubt of his value and prove that the real version of him is one of the most efficient scorers in the league who also offers significant versatility on the boards and on defense, he also proved he could do it in the playoffs as well. He truly is a very valuable asset that Taylor Jenkins and his staff now know can be utilized in many different ways during both the regular season and postseason.

Though the Grizzlies had hoped to progress further in the playoffs, the most positive development from this season is the emergence of one of the best young cores in the league with Morant, Bane, and Jaren Jackson Jr. However, the Grizzlies also have a very young, talented, and versatile supporting cast to make Memphis a potential title contender in the future. Other than perhaps Ziaire Williams, Clarke has more potential that any other current Grizzlies player to support Memphis’s young trio for years to come.

As a result, Clarke becomes an interesting narrative to follow this season. When it comes to future commitment decisions for players not under contract (Tyus Jones and Kyle Anderson) and players under contract (De’Anthony Melton, Dillon Brooks, Steven Adams and Clarke), the Grizzlies have plenty of significant and important decisions to make this summer. With Clarke being eligible for an extension, the progress he made this season on many different fronts arguably makes him the highest priority among these players for Memphis to keep as a part of their future core.

Last year provided a few examples of what an extension for Clarke could look like. Just like Jackson Jr. did last summer, Wendell Carter Jr. of the Magic and Robert Williams of the Celtics signed four-year extensions for $50M and $54M, respectively. Overall, it is fair to suggest Clarke may not have the upside of either Carter Jr. or Williams, due to being older and Clarke not having a long-track record of success as a starter. However, when it comes to on the court impact and per minute production, Clarke is highly comparable to both Carter Jr. and Williams.

As a result, Clarke signing a similar type of deal this summer certainly carries plenty of logic for both him and Grizzlies. Sure, Clarke could bet on himself and try to earn a bigger payday as a restricted free agent. But it his pretty clear he loves being part of the Grizzlies and the feeling is more than mutual for the franchise. Similar to the situation surrounding Jackson Jr. last season, there seems to be a good chance both sides could agree to keep Clarke in Beale Street Blue for the foreseeable future.

Of course, with multiple first round draft picks and plenty of other options to sign for the future as well, the Grizzlies could view Clarke has a valuable trade pieces if the right deal came along. However, that simply seems to be very unlikely with how many boxes Clarke checked this season to show how valuable he could be in the future. Clarke truly is one of, if not the best, example of how the Grizzlies stay committed to the development of their players even if tough times emerge.

As a result, the Grizzlies should feel confident and certain Clarke clearly is an important piece to keep as a part of this core for the best chance to win a championship or three in the future.

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