With the NBA becoming more and more positionless, it is more important than ever to have forwards and centers who possess the quickness and athleticism to switch and guard multiple positions.
Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson is a good example of this, although he is limited by his lack of lateral quickness.
Depending on whether or not the Cavs acquire another first-round draft pick, they may have the chance to replace Thompson with a younger, cheaper, and better player in Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke.
Aside from Zion Williamson, there may not have been a better college basketball player than Clarke in 2018-2019. In 28.1 minutes per game, he averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and 3.2 blocks, while shooting 69% from the field.
His Player Efficiency Rating of 37.2 was the second-highest in a decade, behind only Williamson. And he was the first player since Anthony Davis to lead the NCAA in both offensive and defensive rating.
When watching Clarke play, it’s clear he’s a great athlete. His explosion allowed him to be a dominant force inside, on both offense and defense. He showed off a 40.5″ vertical jump at the combine, which certainly helped him be a rim protector at the college level.
However, it’s not fair to expect him to have that same impact in the NBA. He stands 6’8″ 207lbs, which is already undersized for a power forward, but his wingspan was also just 6’8″. That lack of length could really hurt him when trying to defend taller players. He should still be a very good defender in the pros, but three blocks a game is asking a bit much. He rebounds very well on both ends of the court, and is a skilled and willing passer.
The good thing is that because of his athleticism, Clarke isn’t limited to guarding only centers. He can defend really any position, although keeping him away from guards would be ideal. He will be more effective against players like Steph Curry than Thompson, however.
Clarke’s lack of length is his biggest weakness, but he has two other major issues. The first is the lack of a three-point shot. He attempted only 24 triples during his three-year college career, and made just six of them. He must develop a respectable outside shot, or his offensive potential is going to be extremely hampered. He doesn’t need to a Splash Brother out there, but he needs to be capable of hitting the shot if the defense leaves him open.
Teams can’t afford to play an undersized PF if he’s going to severely harm their offensive spacing. There is a place in the league for players who can’t hit an outside shot, but Clarke doesn’t have the excuse of being a seven-footer. Improving his shot must be his highest priority early on.
The third issue is another that can’t be fixed. Clarke will turn 23 years old in September. For perspective, Williamson will be 19 next month. Four years is a lifetime in the NBA, and because Clarke is significantly older than most other prospects, his stock is going to suffer. As a player he’s probably a top-10 prospect. But with his frame and age, he could fall to the late teens or even early 20’s.
This is a good thing for the Cavs. Clarke shouldn’t be under consideration at fifth overall, nor should be taken at picks No. 8 or 10 if Cleveland were to acquire either one.
But if the Cavaliers do trade with the Atlanta Hawks and end up with pick No. 17, Clarke should be seriously considered there, especially if the team has already taken a high-risk prospect like Bol Bol or Kevin Porter Jr. Clarke may not have the highest ceiling, but because of his athleticism and defense, his floor is very high.
If the Cavs do take Clarke, they won’t be swinging for the fences, but they would be getting a baserunner. Since Thompson is on an expiring contract, he could very well be traded by February.
Clarke and Larry Nance Jr. would be able to replace everything Thompson does well, and improve on the things he struggles at. And they likely wouldn’t be significant off-court distractions either.
Brandon Clarke will be an interesting litmus test for how the NBA views size and length compared to athleticism and pure talent.
If Clarke were two years younger and two inches taller and longer, he’d probably be a top-five pick.
If the Cavs determine his less-than-ideal frame won’t hurt him too much at the next level, Clarke could be a major steal who could make an instant impact as a rookie.