Brandon Clarke clocks in at No. 21 on our 25-under-25 list, thanks to his impressive balance and finesse moves in a traditional power skill-set.
Brandon Clarke being on this list might be a surprise to the casual observer. There’s a lot of young talent in the NBA right now, and spending one of our 25 spots on the 21st pick in a pretty bad draft, who is already 23-years old, and averaged just 12.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies this year, doesn’t sound like it makes a lot of sense.
But if you watched Clarke closely at Gonzaga, you knew. You knew he wasn’t the 21st-best player in that draft class. And you knew he could be really good at the next level. If you watched him closely in Memphis last season, it either affirmed that suspicion or made you a believer. The All-Rookie First Team member may not have gathered the attention that was vacuumed up by his teammate Ja Morant, but make no mistake: Clarke’s future could be nearly as bright.
Clarke’s profile is unassuming, so it’s easy to gloss over and not catch the little things that make him so special. He’s not an elite NBA athlete — he has great quickness for his size and is a decent leaper, but he’s not Derrick Jones Jr. or anything. He’s not a 40 percent 3-point shooter, an elite rebounder or highlight-reel shot-blocker. Clarke isn’t going to beat you over the head with anything he does; his paths to winning on the floor are instead more subtle, and it’s his finesse that made him such an impactful player in Year 1.
What makes Brandon Clarke such an efficient contributor at both ends?
Clarke is already one of the league’s most efficient finishers, shooting 77.3 percent inside three feet and posting a 66.2 true shooting percentage despite being an undersized 4. Without a ton of power to back his rolls to the rim, Clarke has shown himself to be an elite rim-finisher thanks to outstanding body control. Clarke’s balance is his single best attribute — he is incredible at controlling his body in space, and he is able to make circus shots against rim challenges look completely routine.
Clarke’s touch is excellent, and he couples this with what is already one of the league’s best floaters in the mid-range. But the Grizzlies are also partially responsible for Clarke’s incredible rim running — the decision to have Clarke routinely slip screens was a smart one that put both he and the Grizzlies’ guards in great positions in the pick-and-roll.
For Clarke, slipping helps him use his excellent straight-line quickness to get straight into open space quickly, and that forces bigs to play off Ja Morant and Tyus Jones, creating extra space for Morant to gather steam or pull up. Because if the big doesn’t sag, Clarke is too quick to get back to in time for the man defending the ball-handler to recover.
This combination of quickness, touch and picking spots helped Clarke become one of the league’s most effective roll men. Per NBA.com play-type data, Clarke was the second best-finisher in the league among players with at least 20 percent of their possessions coming as the roll man, only behind Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks. Finishing at 77.8 percent on those possessions, Clarke’s elite touch and mobility transcend the traditional length, strength and explosion combination that typically fuels this type of efficiency.
And there’s room for growth here, too; his performance is likely replicable long-term thanks to the threat of his developing short-roll passing:
The same goes for his 3-point shooting, which did end up translating from college. Clarke hit 35.9 percent from 3 on 64 attempts, and this allowed him to provide some catch-and-shoot threat while spacing the corners. In the pick-and-pop, he mostly used his shot as a threat to open driving lanes, but the footwork to get himself square on the line is already pretty impressive.
Clarke’s ceiling on offense depends on how these last two skills coalesce around his finesse finishing. As of now, he’s an effective but raw finisher who offers just a nice lob threat — John Collins can do that, and he’s not on this list. Becoming a total package roll threat is in Clarke’s future if his passing and shooting continue to develop, and if anyone is going to add those pieces, it’s the guy who already makes a sledgehammer’s job work with the skill-set of a jeweler.
Clarke also has finessed his way into being the top defensive prospect from the 2019 NBA Draft. He had his lapses just like any other rookie but showed sustainable ways to impact the game, overcoming his few weaknesses to show that he’s the furthest along of the 2019 players on the defensive end. Clarke is particularly great at infuriating his bigger and more athletic opponents with his top-flight position sense. In one-on-one defense, it comes from his amazing ability to contort his arms away from his body to affect shots, taking unique angles to block shots when opponents get an edge on him:
And as a rebounder, he routinely gets sealed by bigger opponents, only to out-time them on the jump and rip the ball away:
Clarke may be the old bird of the 2019 NBA Draft class, but he’s still one of the best prospects in the league today. Like Malcolm Brogdon in 2016, the league passed on Clarke foolishly because of a perceived lack of development ability, only for that player to come in, provide immediate impact and show room for growth and skill addition. Clarke isn’t just succeeding because he’s a good athlete (and he is, even if he’s not the prototypical rim-running dynamo), but rather, because he already has some of the most advanced balance and positional skills we’ve seen from a player his age.
And that’s why he is one of the best long-term bets to be an effective player from his draft class: Because while athleticism isn’t forever, finesse can be, and Clarke is going to win with that for a long time.