Brandon Clarke: Role
Excellent help defender
Creates events on defense. High block rate
Great finishing touch
Quick leaping ability and north-south speed
Small frame for NBA big
Flashed three-point shot, but mostly a non-shooter right now
Offensive role at Gonzaga
With Gonzaga’s stretch-big Killian Tillie injured for much of the season, Clarke has alternated between the high post and dunker spot with Rui Hachimura. Clarke also runs pick and rolls often with Gonzaga’s lead guard Josh Perkins. The two have solid chemistry and Perkins is good at hitting Clarke on short rolls out of traps. When Clarke gets downhill, he is able to put the ball on the floor and gather for an athletic finish or find a teammate one pass away.
Offensive role projection -
Clarke is too small to play center full time, making him a tough fit into many offenses because he does not provide the spacing teams want from power forwards. However there is hope he can be a backup short-roll facilitator at center no matter what. His intersection of touch and vision allows him to be plugged into this role on any team with a handler that can create 4-on-3 situations for a roll man via their off-the-dribble gravity.
If he is able to extend his range to NBA three-point range, he will be a seamless fit at power forward in almost any offense. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor and make basic reads on the move. If he cannot shoot, his fit at power forward can be aided by a rim protecting center who can space the floor.
Defensive role at Gonzaga
Clarke is Gonzaga’s back line of defense, the only true threat to block shots of the three star forwards. The Zags are one of the best defensive units in the country and Clarke’s contribution plays no small role in their success. He plays free safety, positioning himself between his man and the action on the perimeter, ready to pounce for a block whenever needed. He is one of the best weak-side rotation players in the NCAA and has great instincts, coming from unseen angles after offensive players have picked up their dribble or taken a second step and have no options but to shoot. He also sometimes finds himself switched onto the perimeter where he is able to contain most guards and wings for short periods using his length to contest pull-up shots and drives.
Defensive role projection -
Unlike at Gonzaga, Clarke is likely too small to be a strong-side rim protector for major minutes in the NBA. He projects as an excellent weak-side rim protector at power forward, though. He will be able to contain some NBA wings and can provide a nice balance of on-ball versatility and off-ball playmaking. Considering Clarke makes more sense as a center on offense currently, he may be asked to defend centers in spot minutes. He will be fighting an uphill battle but may be able to hold his own through denying the ball in the post. Moreover, he will not be matched up against many bigs who can truly punish him in the post if he mostly defends second unit centers. He also has shown some proclivity for being an on-ball shot blocker against more landlocked big men, an asset which could allow him to punch above his weight for five minute stretches.
Why Clarke will earn minutes as a rookie
There is a clear path to Clarke playing starter’s minutes if he is paired a big who can both act as a strong side rim protector and space the floor. As the ideal skill set for starting forwards has become more rigid and perimeter oriented, big men who are not a clean fit at power forward or center have been moved to the bench. Some of the very best of these players have thrived in prominent backup center roles. The two most prominent examples are Domantas Sabonis and Montrezl Harrell. Both are elite in specific categories, which offsets their defensive drawbacks and makes them overall positive players: Sabonis through his passing, Harrell through his interior scoring.
Of course, using outlier success stories like Sabonis and Harrell is not a rational approach to draft decisions. Are they anomalies or representative of the future for highly skilled non-shooting tweeners? Is the “sixth man” role going to tilt towards these types of big men who do not fit cleanly into a starting lineup but can provide value in relatively high-usage bench roles? In Clarke’s case, there is a chance. He could bring elite value as a short roll playmaker and help defender and may at least warrant a prominent 24-26 minute bench role, primarily at center, if a team can properly extract his positive traits.
Why Clarke’s minutes may be limited as a rookie
If Clarke does not develop a three-point shot or find a frontcourt partner who can shoot threes and guard opposing centers, his ability to provide a difference-making impact off the bench will be extremely dependent on environment.
While Harrell and Sabonis are both immensely talented offensive players, they are both put in a specific role that allows them to use their strengths. Harrell comes off the bench in tandem with Lou Williams who creates many inside looks that Harrell can then capitalize on with his unique blend of strength and agility. When Victor Oladipo was healthy, he warped defenses towards him and gave Sabonis opportunities to attack on short rolls. This, along with Indiana’s excellent spacing, has opened up Sabonis’ marvelous playmaking ability.
These contexts allow Harrell and Sabonis to produce enough on offense to offset their defensive concerns at center. If they did not have this context to thrive in, perhaps their impact would be closer to that of a traditional backup center rather than them being elevated into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
It is for this reason that most “sixth man” archetypes are guards who can create their own shot. Lou Williams and Eric Gordon are not reliant on others to open up their offensive game. Therefore, they are a more reliable bet to produce enough on offense to offset their defensive concerns in a 24-26 minute-a-game role off the bench.
Clarke can provide more defensive value at backup center than Harrell or Sabonis even though he is undersized, but if he’s not paired with a guard who can put him in a position to execute off of short rolls Clarke is not as clear-cut of a candidate to be an elite bench big. That scenario makes him a risk to receive spot minutes as a 15-20 minute per game backup.
Because of his defensive instincts, athleticism, and finishing touch it will be difficult for Clarke to play less than this on an NBA team. However, there is credence to the notion that most, if not all, backup centers in these roles are by and large replaceable. Perhaps in this situation Clarke could augment his backup center role by playing additional minutes at power forward given his defensive versatility and ability to space out to 15 feet. Without added range, he is far from the ideal offensive fit next to a traditional rim-running big.