There’s a certain variation of comfortability in rookies who make the transition to the NBA.
The Memphis Grizzlies have two from this past year’s draft: No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant and No. 21 Brandon Clarke. Both have been impactful, both have shown flashes of the potential — yet each impacts the game in different ways.
Morant, on the one hand, was hand-picked by the Grizzlies’ front office to be the face of their franchise. He’s lived up to the billing so far, providing highlight-reel plays and first-year star-level production — 18.2 points, 6.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds per night — and did we mention highlight-reel plays?
“On the court, he does things that are crazy that I haven’t seen before,” Clarke, the other half of the Memphis rookie duo, told Basketball Insiders.
Evidenced by his ferocious nature — ask Kevin Love — and will to win, Morant isn’t afraid to make mistakes. At 19 years old, he’s willing to go outside of his comfort zone and live with the consequences if it helps him and the team in the long run.
Clarke’s M.O. is admittedly different. With a much lower usage rate and complementary role, the 6-foot-8 Gonzaga product prefers to take a more conservative approach.
“I’ve just been a player that hasn’t really ever forced shots, and the shots that I do take I’m really, really good at,” Clarke told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just been me not really trying to do stuff that I can’t do. Keep on just taking shots that I know that I can make.”
That selective approach has allowed Clarke to thrive. Among those in his draft class, the 23-year-old stands at the top with a 69.4 true shooting percentage, a figure that ranks fourth in the NBA overall.
“That’s what you hope out of any player, that they play to their strengths,” Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins told Basketball Insiders. “But the great thing about him is he’s willing to be challenged.
“For a rookie to come in and know what he’s capable of doing, and he’s a quick learner. He doesn’t have all the answers. He knows what he’s good at, he knows where he can get better at and he embraces that challenge.”
Jenkins sees an unselfish player with the will to compete at the highest level. His high IQ makes him a natural fit in Memphis. Clarke isn’t trying to prove anything other than contributing to the team in a positive way.
Clarke does it best in picking his spots. In the open floor, he is a savvy rim-runner who is explosive at the point of attack without being out of control. As somebody who saw him play in college, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein is no stranger to that.
“He just moves so easily,” Beilein said. “He just runs with such ease. He’s a glider and I mean that in a good way. He just gets down the court.”
“That’s just who I am as a player,” Clarke told Basketball Insiders. “Not always, but as of the past few years, it’s been really easy to get up and dunk.”
In addition, Clarke’s screen setting prowess is also elite, as is his ability to finish. According to NBA.com, the first-year forward is scoring 1.59 points per possession as a roll man. When he touches the ball, it isn’t for long and he acts when he has an opportunity.
Clarke leads the entire league in non-restricted, paint-area field goal percentage (68.4) by a significant margin and is second to only Anthony Davis in paint-touch points percentage (min. five touches).
Perhaps the most unique tool in his arsenal is the floater. Normally utilized by guards who get in between, Clarke has developed a soft touch to get his shots over the outstretched arms of the league’s sizable rim protectors and it hasn’t failed him.
“He can shoot it at many levels,” Jenkins told Basketball Insiders. “Sometimes, he even hits that floater from the free-throw line or even outside the free-throw line. He’s got tons of confidence in it. He knows where to get to — from his spots, angles, points — to get that shot off. He’s got such a quick release it catches defenders off-guard sometimes.”
Clarke says he keyed in on improving his float game in between his transfer from San Jose State to Gonzaga. During his redshirt year with the Bulldogs, he and Mark Few’s coaching staff began maturing the shot in practices. And though he brought it out from time-to-time in his two years in Spokane, Washington, he has gone to it much more often at the pro level.
“I’ve always had touch for sure,” Clarke told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, it’s just a bit harder to get all the way to the rim versus all the bigger guys, so I’ve been shooting that shot and it’s been working out.”
When asked about the special weapon in Clarke’s game, fellow frontcourt teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. says he’s never seen anything like it for a player his size.
“Just his elevation on it,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders. “He definitely gets to his spot and no one can guard it because they’re not going to jump as high as him and he’s always on balance when he takes it, so that’s good.”
Jackson is the third centerpiece to the growing core in Memphis. As Basketball Insiders sat down with him for a pregame chat to get a closer look at his thoughts on the rookie big man, Clarke flexed and looked his way with a smile. Jackson started cracking up.
“That’s my boy,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders. “He brings a lot in his athleticism, obviously. It carries him a long way. Just whenever he gets a chance to play out there, he’s going to get more and more experience and get more comfortable.
“I haven’t really had to help him that much. He kinda understands and he’s getting it just from watching people. Everybody’s leading by example, he’s just doing his thing. Every time he has a question he asks it, and that’s all you need.”
Even better, both want to work together on lifting each other’s games to new heights. Jackson believes that he can learn from Clarke’s knack of finding room on the floor and getting there by maintaining his balance. On the flip side, Jackson thinks he can help instill confidence in Clarke to extend his range as the season and his career progresses.
Jenkins is finding that Clarke has put that process into motion with each game — plus, with the touch he’s showing now at the line, it will only help smooth his transition into knocking shots down from distance. Clarke honed in on working on his three-ball over the summer and he plans on doing the same next offseason. It’s all about a growth mindset with his game.
Defensively, Clarke knows he has to be better mentally. In a 126-122 loss to the Thunder, the Grizzlies’ forward acknowledges that he gave up a few too many lobs because he was positioned too high on the court, and only more reps will help him learn from those kinds of mistakes.
Jenkins doesn’t see one particular glaring hole on that end, though. He believes that, as Clarke continues to study the league, he will continue to make strides.
“The other night he was guarding [Danilo] Gallinari. Is it a big that’s a roller like [Nerlens] Noel or is a big that comes off of screens and shoots threes?” I think as he figures out player tendencies a little bit more — he’s getting an influx of new personnel every single night, so learning tendencies of players,” Jenkins told Basketball Insiders.
To this point, Clarke says the most significant adjustment from college to pro has been the number of games. With Memphis just passing the 30 mark, that’s essentially the entirety of in an NCAA season in total. Finding the right rest and getting the proper treatment have been his top priorities.
A fitting workload for Clarke also matters to accomplish that. Averaging just over 21 minutes per game, Jenkins has kept a particularly close eye on how much he’s playing — ideally, the 20-25 range. It’s necessary to keep the rookie forward fresh and ready to go, especially for a player with Clarke’s high motor.
“Over time, as the season goes on, the years go on, his minutes will go up as he adapts to the league and finds how he can continue to be successful at a high level,” Jenkins told Basketball Insiders.
After playing a total of 75 minutes over three games against Washington, Miami and Cleveland, Clarke saw just 30 combined minutes of action in the Grizzlies’ next two contests. But he fully trusts Jenkins and his coaching staff in any of their decisions.
“Obviously, it’s not smart to throw a bunch of minutes on a rookie,” Clarke told Basketball Insiders. “And the way that I play, I’m pretty active on the court when I am on it. So, I don’t think it would be very smart to throw me a bunch of minutes at the start.”
He is all about the team and his team rewards him for it.
So whatever time Clarke does receive, you can be assured he won’t waste the minutes.
“We always talk about competing being our number one motto here in Memphis — he fits that bill every single day,” Jenkins said. “Loves to compete in the team environment. It’s not about him.”