With the Final Four set and Zion Williamson’s collegiate career dead and gone, the scouting process for the 2019 NBA Draft is all but over. All that’s left are the lottery and the inevitable arguments over players, both on social media and, it’s safe to assume, in the offices of NBA decision makers. In terms of individual players, don’t be surprised to see a gigantic debate surrounding Gonzaga big man Brandon Clarke. While he hasn’t declared for the draft yet, he has a résumé that screams lottery pick: Clarke was the second-best player in America this past season and was named the Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year in the West Coast Conference.
Yet debate still persists. Detractors point to his size (around 6’9 in shoes with a probable sub-7-foot wingspan), age (he turns 23 in September), and relative lack of experience and ball skill as points against him. Those are all reasonable concerns, but I didn’t just call him the second best player in the country for nothing. Clarke had one of the best seasons in recent college basketball history, tying Anthony Davis for the second highest Box Plus-Minus (BPM) since the metric started getting tracked in 2011. It is, to put it generously, a terrible oversight that he was merely an AP third-team All-American.
He won’t be a top target for a number of teams, who might be more inclined to draft a younger, more projectable player. But so often in this business, we overlook what a player can do for what they cannot, and the things Clarke can do are nothing short of prodigious.
Any evaluation of Clarke has to start with his absurd, almost surreal vertical explosiveness. I’ve described it as “Gerald Green-like” before, where it almost doesn’t even look like he’s jumping all that hard, but before you know it, he’s staring down into the rim and blocking your shot into the seventh row. Combined with his terrific instincts and timing, it’s made him the unquestioned best rim protector in the country, capable of out-jumping and out-thinking drivers when they get into the paint (his block of Tennessee’s Yves Pons was a highlight of the 2018-19 season).
How well his 220-pound frame will hold up in the NBA is definitely a question mark, and may limit him to situational minutes at the five, like his closest statistical comp, Jordan Bell. But Clarke’s work ethic, hard play, and self-evident basketball IQ make him a much better bet than Bell ever was, and I loved Bell coming out of Oregon.