Two members of the Memphis Grizzlies 2019 rookie class have been taken care of this offseason. Ja Morant agreed to his inevitable max extension, with the possibility of it becoming a super-max deal with an All-NBA selection next season. Originally brought into the organization as a two-way, John Konchar continues his developmental arc here after a 3-year, $19M extension early last month.
Now, Zach Kleiman has another extension decision to make on the other 2019 draft class member, Brandon Clarke.
A decision probably won’t come until the 11th hour of the deadline for rookie-scale extension, similar to Jaren Jackson’s last season. Unless it’s guaranteed to be at max level — as we’ve seen this offseason with Morant, Zion Williamson, and Darius Garland, negotiating often occurs until the deadline, ending with an agreement to dodge the possibility of restricted free agency.
Whatever occurs with Clarke will be another domino that’ll dictate how the Grizzlies will be approaching their short-term future. There are several factors that could play into a decision here.
Let’s start with who Brandon Clarke has been for the Memphis Grizzlies.
In his rookie season, he emerged as a potential cornerstone piece next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., serving as an immediate spark off the bench and producing remarkable efficiency numbers.
His sophomore was a bit of a slump. He showed promise of adding more to his game off drives and in defensive situations, but injuries sent him to a brutal close to the season — resulting in an exclusion from the rotation down the stretch.
Last season, he reemerged as a key component of the team. He returned to his elite form of roll presence, energy, and defensive impact. In addition, he become a frequent member of closing lineups. While the second round was a tougher go for him, his performance in the first round against Minnesota was arguably one of the driving factors in keeping their season alive — averaging 16.5 points on 67.9% shooting, 9 rebounds, and 2.7 assists over those 6 games.
When it comes to the NBA and free agency negotiations, there is a lot of “what have you done for me.” However, the slump could be a data point in gauging a number on the extensions. He’s going to be 26 at the start of the season, with a 3-4 year extension going into his late 20’s, early 30’s. So it begs the question on if that season was a glimpse into his future as an aging small-ball big when he has more miles on him. That’s a fair assessment.
Regardless, Clarke’s performance last season warrants an extension conversation, especially given the importance of his skillset and fit with this roster construction.
Brandon Clarke is a fascinating player in that he’s a wing-sized big man without an outside jumper, but provides a lot of strong qualities commonly found from the 4/5 spot.
Offensively, his bread and butter is in the pick-and-roll. Though he’s subpar at setting screens, particularly using a lot of ghost and slip screens, he’s remarkably efficient. He generates 1.412 points per possession as the roller in PNRs — which falls in the 91st percentile, per Synergy Sports. His bounce is a key factor, making him an easy alley oop target for his guards. However, his floater is another avenue for his attack off of the roll. Last season, he connected on 54 of his 84 floater attempts, ranking in the 98th percentile on those shots. His devastating impact as a roller has provided a spark for the Grizzlies’ bench, which has been one of the league’s best over the past couple seasons.
Despite his physical limitations, Clarke is also a powerful offensive rebounder. It shined at its brightest through his Game 5 outing against the Timberwolves where he had seven 4th-quarter offensive rebounds — probably the moment Minnesota ownership decided to sell off all their picks and the heart and soul of their team. He gobbled up 3.86 offensive rebounds and 2.7 put-backs per 75 possessions — falling in the 90th and 93rd percentile respectively, per The B-Ball Index. Again, his elite athleticism benefits him here, but he also possesses great timing and a good second jump when battling for the offensive rebounds.
Defensively, Clarke can switch out onto perimeter players, which my Assistant to the Site Manager Brandon Abraham broke down extensively in the Warriors series. Clarke also serves as a great rim protector. Defenders shot 7.91% worse with him as the primary rim protector, and he blocked 31.92% of the shots he contested, per The B-Ball Index. His shot-blocking is beneficial when he sticks onto drivers in switch situations, and when he’s serving as the help-side defender alongside another big man.
From a deficiency standpoint, the outside shot is his most prominent weakness. He’s not only a non-shooter from an accuracy standpoint, but he’s also unwilling as well — seeing his 3-point volume from 77 total attempts to 22 this past season. He doesn’t make up for it with a “bag” of dribble moves either. Though he shows he can get to his spots inside the paint, the moves are rather simple. Those areas of his game aren’t the most pivotal improvement points in his game, as developing as a short-roll playmaker and taking on more wing defensive assignments would be more optimal for the trajectory of his prime. The absence of those elements in his game though make it trickier to pinpoint an extension number.
Regardless, he’s showed his skillset is valuable to the system. He just fits with what the Grizzlies are trying to do, and who they’re trying to build around.
The most compelling element of Brandon Clarke’s extension conversation is his fit with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
In the regular season, lineups with those 3 players outscored their opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions — per Cleaning the Glass. In the postseason, that net rating rose to 20 points per 100 possession.
Important for his fit alongside Morant, Clarke is the only big man with powerful, above-the-rim gravity. Morant is one of the most dynamic drivers in the game, using dominant paint pressure and wicked passing vision to slice the defense. It’s an asset in multiple components of the offense: pick-and-roll’s, half-court cuts, and transition. Pairing a point guard of Morant’s dazzling skillset with a bouncy big man of Clarke’s prowess yields good results.
I’ve touched on the brilliance and chemistry of Clarke and Jackson earlier this year. The two big men are perfect complements to each other. Offensively, Clarke can play around the high post as a screener and hand-off hub, while Jackson roams the perimeter — preventing a 5-out look that diminishes offensive rebounding positioning, while slotting someone great at them in the “big” role there. Defensively, the two are a modern-day basketball match made in heaven. Per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Clarke and Jackson on the floor surrender just 104.5 points per 100 possessions (96th percentile) on an effective field goal percentage of 47.9% (98th percentile, among lineups). They both can switch, take on perimeter assignments, and protect the rim; when firing on all cylinders, it’s devastating.
When it comes to Brandon Clarke’s fit with the core players, it could be boiled down to how the Grizzlies can maintain their style of play with 2 traditional big men while deploying more modern, “small-ball” principles. Replacing Steven Adams’ screening and offensive rebounding is a tall task. However, Clarke makes up for it with more vertical pop off roll’s, despite not setting screens nearly as powerful. In addition, he makes sure the offensive rebounding drop-off isn’t as steep with his ability to draw put-back attempts.
The Grizzlies can deploy more modern tactics, while not sacrificing much size compared to their opposition. The most evident is how fast they play, as the Grizzlies add 5.3 points per 100 transition possessions with them 3 on the floor together, per Cleaning the Glass. The defensive tandem of Clarke and Jackson, and their ability to shut down plays with their rim protection, is a component in that trend — as is the former’s vertical spacing when running the floor. They could also provide their rim protection while also switching out on the perimeter, and bigs that can survive on islands are pivotal in crucial situations.
This takes me to an important discussion that’s prevalent with not just Brandon Clarke, but with a lot of good role players like him.
Being a starter is important; it’s what every basketball player wants to become. The “should we extend him if he’s not a starter” question does get brought up in these extension conversations brought up in media or Twitter discourse. But what about closers? Should there be more of an emphasis with his role in the team’s closing lineups? After all, that’s winning time.
Clarke isn’t a starter at the moment, and it’s tough to envision him becoming one here, given how effective he’s been in his role off the bench. However, he’s a common ingredient in the team’s closing lineups both in the regular season and the postseason. In addition, there’s evidence he works alongside the players he’d be closing with. If you expand the prior “Morant and Jackson” fit to Desmond Bane, their net rating was +7.5 in the regular season and +21.3 in the postseason — per Cleaning the Glass. Add Dillon Brooks to the fray, and that 5-man lineup blitzed their opposition by 35.6 points per 100 possessions (87 total possessions, and no regular-season data because of injuries).
Good stuff, should help them win games!
Clarke’s extension case builds with his fit around the core, and his elite value with his strengths.
Whether or not, Zach Kleiman and the Memphis Grizzlies end up keeping Brandon Clarke up on an extension is up for debate. My gut leads me to think something strikes at the extension deadline.
At the post-draft press conference, Kleiman talked about how Jake LaRavia’s spacing next to Clarke enhances his presence as a roller, an unprovoked note that isn’t dropped without inclination to keep a player in the mix. In addition, similar to how they did with Grayson Allen, they more than likely would’ve dealt him a few months ahead of his extension deadline — and a year ahead of his restricted free agency. Honestly, if they weren’t going to extend him, a trade by now would’ve been more likely.
Given his impact and fit on his team, an extension seems like the most realistic route. The number though is tough to figure out, at least on my side. There’s not much historical data to back something up, because of his makeup from a skillset and physical standpoint. Going off “role player, big man” money — in this example, Robert Williams — somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 years, $44-53M ($11-13M annually) seems like a good one. That contract might look nicer with the new TV deals on the horizon as well. Something a smidge above the mid-level exception rate ($9-10M annually) is a good bet for Clarke’s extension.
The conversation around Brandon Clarke’s extension will heat up over the coming months and into training camp. We don’t know how it’s going to shake out for him, but his play and impact in the Grizzlies’ stellar season last season warrant a sizable payday.