Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first seasons of notable rookies. What did the Memphis Grizzlies see from Brandon Clarke?
The young Grizzlies’ core gelled into a playoff contender more quickly than anyone anticipated, turning all their optimistic upside into a 32-33 record and a hold on the No. 8 seed in the West when the season was suspended.
The explosive campaign of Ja Morant and the offensive growth of Jaren Jackson Jr. were the most obvious factors. But rookie Brandon Clarke, the No. 21 pick, seemed to become a solid contributor as well. He averaged 12.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists in just over 21.7 minutes per game, on a sterling 67.0 true shooting percentage. Clarke looks like an essential part of the Grizzlies’ core, but was he playing over his head or is this what Memphis was hoping for when they snagged him towards the end of the first-round?
What did we expect?
Clarke wasn’t discussed as a lottery pick by many mainstream media outlets but he was a darling of draft nerds and ranked fifth on the final Big Board at The Step Back. In his notes, Trevor Magnotti focused on Clarke’s defensive upside and versatility, and the offensive skill set of a solid role player.
Clarke already has good court vision and handling ability, and his transition from a midpost game at Gonzaga into being an effective short roll decision-maker in the pick-and-roll should be pretty simple. He’s also the second-best finisher in the class behind Zion Williamson, and his touch should help him translate into this role as well. Clarke gets treated like he’s a complete zero on offense, but he has a fairly projectible role as a 5 on offense, who can play next to a shooting five on offense and help cover for that type of player on defense. That’s a player I bet on to translate into being a useful player at the NBA level.
Assessing Clarke’s rookie season, then, was about how his defensive potential would manifest and how successful he could be as a role player on offense. If he showed upside anywhere beyond that, it would be in his shooting and playmaking.
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What did we get?
Jacob Goldstein’s Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus estimated Clarke to be a slight positive at the defensive end, which is a very good sign for a rookie. He showed some versatility, spending about a quarter of his defensive possessions defending wings but primarily he was defending bigs.
In terms of how his impact manifested, there are some mixed indicators. By raw rim protection, Clarke rated just slightly above-average this season. Opponents made about 54.5 percent of their shots inside of six feet when Clarke was the closest defender, which ranked 31st among the 93 players who defended at least 200 such shots this season.
If we look at his Regularized Adjusted Deterrence, a metric from Andrew Patton that looks at how a defender impacts an opponent’s shot selection, we see some conflicting information.
The yin-yang around the basket area is confusing — he was very strong at keeping opponents away from one side of the rim, but opponents got a lot more shots than normal on the other side when he was on the court. At least part of that could be explained by shaky defensive rotations behind him and the Grizzlies’ general inconsistency on the defensive glass.
Watching tape, there are more than a few examples of Clarke rotating over to cut off penetration and contest a shot at the rim, only to watch his original assignment get an easy bucket because no one else rotated down to box them out.
That’s something that should be cleaned up fairly easily though, both as he gets more effective contesting and deterring shots at the rim and as he and his young teammates develop more defensive cohesion.
Away from the rim, Clarke certainly delivered on his potential as a mobile, switchable defender who could fill different roles. He generated a fair number of deflections and had a healthy steal rate. The biggest question left to answer on the defensive end is actually less about Clarke than it is about Jaren Jackson Jr.’s optimal role when they are paired together. Jackson took a bit of a step back at the defensive end this season, with rim protection numbers roughly equal to Clarke’s. The team’s defense was not great when they were on the floor together and if Jackson is more comfortable defending 4s, long-term, it could complicate their partnership.
If Clarke’s defensive impact was as good as advertised, his offense was a pleasant surprise. Most all-in-one metrics estimated his offensive impact to be well ahead of his defense as a rookie and he certainly fit the role draft scouts saw for him.
Almost all of his made baskets inside the arc were assisted on, and he was a fantastically efficient finished — 65.4 percent on 2-pointers. In addition, he even showed some development in his range and knocked down 21-of-52 (40.4 percent) from beyond the arc. If he’s doing those two things, especially with his ultra-low turnover rate, he’s a huge positive for the Grizzlies and will have no trouble playing off Morant and Jackson in the future.
But we also saw a bit of the passing and playmaking upside from Clarke that could make him an even more useful and versatile offensive player. He finished the season with nearly twice as many assists (72) as turnovers (46) and looked great setting things up with dribble hand-offs and screen combinations around the elbows. He has a great sense of the court and knows where teammates are going to come open in transition or off chaotic scrums on loose balls and offensive rebounds. Clarke also looks dangerous on the short roll, finding cutters or open shooters in the corners. In all, 53 of his 72 assists went for 3-pointers or shots at the rim.
What’s so exciting about Clarke’s rookie season isn’t just that he showed the Grizzlies pretty much every skill it was projected he had in his toolbox, he did so at a relatively savvy and effective level for a rookie. He was an older draft prospect (23 this season as a rookie) and pessimistic assessments of his upside may have been one of the reasons he slid. But he’s already a solid role player and as this Grizzlies roster coalesces towards a hypothetical contender they can count on him being a very high-level complementary piece.