The NCAA Tournament can be a coming out party for NBA Draft prospects, and Brandon Clarke did just that against Baylor in the second round.
The score doesn’t indicate it, but Gonzaga’s 83-71 second-round win over Baylor was never close, and it wasn’t close because Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga’s best 2019 NBA Draft prospect, had his best game of the year. A 6-foot-8 power forward, Clarke has been an outrageously efficient player this season, ranking second in the country in Box Plus-Minus behind Zion Williamson, posting a 70.8 true shooting percentage while also ranking second in the country in defensive rating. But outside of a 27-point outing against Creighton in non-conference play, he hasn’t been a true number one scorer for the Bulldogs. That changed Saturday night, as Clarke finished with 36 points on 15-of-18 shooting while adding eight rebounds, three assists, and five blocks in a game that perfectly encapsulated everything he can be at the NBA level.
Before we get into this autopsy of Baylor, we have to give a small caveat — Baylor is a pretty perfect matchup for Clarke’s particular skill set. With ground-bound, slow, powerful bigs and a strange 3-2 matchup zone on defense, Baylor was going to have issues with a mobile 4 with great touch and awareness almost by design. A lot of Clarke’s looks came from flashing to the middle, catching the ball, and then making a simple move to finish.
However, that doesn’t diminish Clarke’s display of his full finishing package. A 15-of-18 performance from the field doesn’t just happen because you are exposing a mismatch. He is finishing at 80.1 percent at the rim this year on 191 attempts, per the Stepien shot chart data, despite being perceived as an undersized big man.
Rather than using strength, Clarke’s finishing relies on a combination of elite touch, agility, and decision-making when he catches in the paint. He’s not going to be stronger than NBA competition at the 4, but he’s so fluid around the rim that it might not matter. Watch him repost a guy who has 20 pounds on him easily, and then catch over the top and finish here:
He also has a benchmark of any elite NBA finisher — the ability to change shot angles in the air around defensive contests.
Clarke is more than just touch on simple finishes, though. He gets more pick-and-roll chances than most college bigs, and they account for 10.7 percent of his offense, per Synergy Data. and he scores a strong 1.224 points per possession on these looks. His pick-and-roll looks are usually more open, and that’s because he’s one of the 2019 NBA Draft class’s better screen setters, as you can see on his one true pick-and-roll finish against Baylor.
Yes, there are questions about Clarke’s frame holding up as a big full time in the NBA. But there were the same questions about John Collins and Marvin Bagley over the last two years, both of whom have graded out as very good NBA finishers through two years. Sometimes we overthink things as scouts — if finishing looks as easy as Clarke consistently makes it look, it’s probably going to translate, even if he doesn’t have an optimal build.
Outside of finishing, Clarke had an up-and-down game offensively. He only had one attempt away from the basket, and while it went in, it was a very ugly turn-around fadeaway that helps to illustrate how his jumper, while improved, is a work in progress.
In passing, there were better results. Two of his assists were fairly rudimentary — a hit-ahead transition look, and a dump-off to Killian Tillie off a miss in the paint — but he showed a hint of a way to build on his game as a finisher at the NBA level with his third assist, a late-game kick to the wing that looks like the makings of the short-roll passing that is so valuable against playoff defenses in the NBA.
The fluidity and comfort level with this pass aren’t impressive, but the vision to see the man on the 3-point line is hard to teach, and this will surely be a part of his development at the NBA level. A guy who is this good as a screener and handler at a big position needs this as part of his game, so this was a good possession to catch.
Defensively, Clarke had a good game, but one that disappointed by his standards. One of the best rim protectors in college basketball, Clarke had an impressive five-block performance but could have been more impactful, missing a couple of rotations and giving up a few easy buckets to Mario Kegler and Mark Vital. But his blocks were good displays of his versatility on the back line of a defense. He uses that same agility to fight around opponents in the paint for weakside help, as you can see in this impressive swim move to fight over a Baylor big to contest this shot.
On the above play, you can see the other thing that excites many about Clarke’s potential as a thin rim protector — his block radius, a term similar to “catch radius” in football, describing his three-dimensional range for affecting shots. There are better straight vertical rim protectors — Jaxson Hayes is the obvious — but no one outside of Bol Bol has the range to affect shots outside of a straight overhead position like Clarke can. This is important because it’s not just the basic timing and physical ability that we often think of with rim protection — Clarke extends it further, changing shot angles even when he’s not in position by extending out to the side and using the full extent of his 7-foot-2 wingspan.
His pick-and-roll defense is also impressive, given his agility and footwork. His first block comes off this type of action, where he sticks with a quicker guard easily and bothers the shot from the gather through release.
Clarke didn’t show anything out of the ordinary with his huge performance against Baylor. His skill set looked pretty similar to what he’s done all season, just on a much higher volume thanks to Baylor’s insistence on getting ripped apart by a guy designed to exploit a 3-2 zone. Clarke is a lottery talent on our big board because of his defense primarily, but this was a good showing of what he can be on offense.
He probably won’t be quite at the level of a John Collins, but with his rim protection traits and ability to defend on the perimeter, he only needs to be passable on offense, and there’s a good chance he can be as a full-time four if he can flesh his finishing out into legitimate pick-and-roll performance. Against Baylor, he showed why betting on that is a smart proposition in the 2019 NBA Draft.