One does not simply watch Brandon Clarke play basketball. You feel it.
From the vibrating echoes that ring off the rim long after he follow slams, to the soul-crushing rejections of his opponent’s attempts, Clarke was a player this year whose presence on the floor demanded attention.
Standing at 6’8” (with shoes on) and posting a matching wingspan that is tepid for a player who had to shoulder a significant amount of rim protecting duties, Clarke, in theory, should not have been able to do what he did all year with Gonzaga this past season — but he did.
Helping lead the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight, the transfer from San Jose State left his mark on the college basketball world with his unbelievable athleticism, defense and stunning effectiveness.
As a junior, Clarke would go on to set multiple offensive and defensive statistical school records and became the first player in the history of the WCC to receive both Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year honors in the same season.
In an attempt to broadly, and best encapsulate what Clarke does so exceptionally well on the hardwood and what ultimately helped propel him into becoming a potential NBA lottery pick in June’s upcoming draft, one needs to know little else than he simply wrecks shit — a lot of it.
For the Lakers, a team who did very little shit wrecking this past season, adding a player like Clarke in the draft would theoretically help jumpstart new head coach Frank Vogel’s vision of a “modern” defense as he could potentially become the type of switchy, versatile option they lacked last season with Julius Randle’s departure. He could also help energize their bench with his whirling-dervish play and fill out what is a thin and uncertain front court in the process.
And while this maybe isn't the most important factor in a draft pick, Clarke would also provide a much needed injection of fun back into the viewing experience of the team's fans, as his tour de force of a college year revolved around doing these three things with a high and vicious frequency:
1) He jumps way out of the gym and would even dunk on an unexpecting grandmother who was holding a plate of homemade oatmeal raisin cookies if she was not willing to throw her body at him in a box out attempt.
2) Like an ambitious hawk sensing nearby prey, he gobbles up any rebounds within his reach (17.1 total rebound percentage; comparatively, Zion Williamson had a 15.1 percentage) then hungrily soars back in the sky to do it again. Rinse and repeat all day, and every day.
3) His blocks are very fun. Emphatic rejections you feel deep in your bones and then in the most visceral of levels, forcing you to rewatch these moments 50 times over again, just in a sociological attempt to comprehend the degrees of disrespect.
Like this one for example (*warning: not for the faint of heart):
After miraculously securing a top-four pick in the upcoming NBA draft, the Lakers suddenly have plentiful of options put at their feet regarding what they could do with this attractive asset. Evaluating a player like Clarke specifically, who has been recently mocked anywhere from the 8-14 range, could and arguably should play a role in the calculus.
If not smitten with the players, or cap holds that come at the head of the lottery, Los Angeles may decide their best route is to trade back (Atlanta may be a willing partner, as they have the number eight, ten and 35 picks in the upcoming draft) and snag a player they might prefer more, and simultaneously pick up another asset for future negotiations.
But the question thus arises, is Clarke a player worth trading back for?
The numbers, and the results suggest absolutely yes. But, there are also genuine risks that are present that should be taken into account.
Making the Case for Brandon Clarke
Behind unreal athleticism (posted a 40 inch vert, which was the fourth-best mark at the recent draft combine and was the only non-guard to record this number) and impeccable timing, Clarke overcame his supposed ‘physical limitations’ by leading the entire NCAA in blocks this past season (had the same number of blocks, 117, as missed field goals) and individual defensive rating, cementing himself as the player to be feared on defense.
His prowess on that end was not only reserved for his opponents however, as during Clarke’s year or residence he would reportedly also have to be pulled off his defensive assignment of current Laker and former Gonzaga Bulldog, Johnathan Williams, during team practice for rejecting his hook shots too frequently that it became simply no longer “realistic” for in-game preparation, according to his head coach.
Clarke’s defense can be downright suffocating in times because of how multi-faceted it is. As his block numbers suggest, he has an unreal nose for the ball which he couples with tremendous timing and instincts at the rim and as a help defender that beautifully present opportunities other players simply are not cognizant of. Especially those under 6’9.”
His bonkers ability to help swat away the flies that are his opposition’s shot attempts only supplements what is his tremendously sought after ability to hang on the perimeter.
Beside his aforementioned innate ability to jump over buildings, Clarke’s athletic gifts also hint at translating encouragingly at the next level into a big who could defend 1-5 at the drop of a dime. That's been proven to be an immensely valuable skillset in the modern NBA.
Functionally, Clarke does a superb job using his agility (best lane agility time and three quarter sprint speed among all bigs measured at the combine) to make up for his shortish stature, as it allows him to get back into plays even if initially losing his man, or in closing out to shooters (85th percentile in defending spot up attempts according to Synergy).
Because of his immensely fun combination of athletic gifts and defensive aptitude, Clarke’s offense often goes overlooked. Which, although having clear limitations, was arguably nearly as good, if not better than, his defense.
This past season, Clarke led the nation in overall field goal percentage, was fifth in true shooting percentage (a mere fraction of a percentage point from fourth place, Zion) and finished in the 99th percentile of college basketball in terms of half-court scoring, averaging 1.23 points per half-court possession.
In short, he was efficient. And while this is partly true for most bigs when spoon-fed easy buckets and dunks, Clarke was not strictly one-dimensional in this regard.
Clarke flashed an impressive amount of craft in his finishes at and near the rim, was a solidly effective post up threat, had a filthy go-to spin move and showcased dazzling touch on his floaters/runners (92nd percentile / 1.1 points per attempt) potentially showing there is still some untapped offensive upside to be further unearthed by an NBA team.
Making the Case against Brandon Clarke
He pops out of the gym and on film, his efficiency metrics are out of this world, and ESPN’s draft model projects him to have the third-highest probability of the entire class to make an all-star team. In that case, why is Clarke not a shoe-in to get selected in the top-four, or even in the top-ten?
One big number that is currently working against him as he enters the pre-draft process is his age. Clarke is set to turn 23 in September and is one of, if not the oldest prospect who is set to get serious interest in the upcoming lottery.
While some teams have begun to recently view drafting players who are a bit more seasoned as a market inefficiency (the Lakers recently got great value where/when they selected Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart) there still remains a stigma around the league in using a high draft pick on a player who has less perceptional upside than a 18-year-old.
The other somewhat large red flag when it comes to Clarke’s transition to the NBA (trigger warning, Lakers’ fans) is his jumpshot, specifically from three.
Gonzaga assistant coach, Brian Michaelson, was tasked this past season with what described as an “overhaul” of Clarke’s mechanics after he initially diagnosed his jumper as “fundamentally flawed” when the junior originally joined the club.
While there were glaringly visible improvements that occurred thanks to the hard work that was put in, the jumper is undoubtedly still a work in process.
In his first two seasons with San Jose State, Clarke attempted only nine 3-pointers, making just two. Encouragingly, Clarke would go on to take 15 with the Bulldogs last season alone, but struggled with his consistency, shooting only 26.7 percent on these chances.
His lack of a reliable outside jumper, coupled with his somewhat worrisome physical profile also raises questions in terms of fit.
Ideally, Clarke’s skills would likely be best optimized beside a center who can both check bigger opponents and consistently space the floor enough to let him operate in the dunker spot or short midrange area. But on a team with a more traditional big, like a JaVale McGee/Tyson Chandler, things can get crammed quickly.
On the subject of his shot projection, though, it is worth pointing out that besides the improved mechanical functionality, there are other positive indicators that suggest his outside shot can still reach a respectable clip.
Clarke has improved his free-throw percentage every season in his collegiate career thus far, jumping from 57 percent as a sophomore to 69 percent as a junior. This id encouraging, and coupled with his aforementioned impressive touch around the rim and out of the pick and roll, is a sign that there is a competent jumper there waiting to be unearthed.
With just a few weeks left until draft night, the Lakers will have a ton of options to consider heading into yet another reconstruction of the roster, and monumental summer. Clarke is not the perfect prospect by any means, but in the right situation — and even in not — it is difficult to see his combination of skills flaming out.
The Lakers likely goal this offseason is to likely operate within a LeBron James window of contention and go out and sign an additional star wing. It that happens, drafting a ready-to-contribute big with Clarke’s exciting and useful skillset simply checks a plenty of boxes.
If this past Lakers season proved anything, it is that there is often little-to-no substitute to playing hard, playing defense and giving a damn. Clarke, if nothing else, can do that, and will gladly block the absolute crap out of the ball in the process. When it boils down to it, that might be enough reason for the Lakers to find a way to draft him, while moving back and getting another asset in the process.