‘I’m still chasing another championship,’ says Pat Riley
Brandon Clarke wasn’t quite a household name for most of his lone season with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Even though he was an All-American, Clarke was underappreciated because of the late start times of the West Coast Conference, untested by the competition of the mid-major league and overlooked because of his place next to Rui Hachimura in the Gonzaga frontcourt.
It all changed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs were a No. 1 seed in March and dominated through the early rounds, and their four-round stay in the NCAA tourney turned into a showcase for their star post player.
“Blocking shots is pretty obviously something that I’m pretty good at,” Clarke said Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “With that being said, I think I’m only going to get better at it, so I think it’s just something that I can bring to any team that I get drafted for pretty quickly.”
Their second-round win against the Baylor Bears made sure he wouldn’t be overlooked anymore. The redshirt junior poured in a season-high 36 points to go along with eight rebounds, three assists, five blocks and two steals. It was exactly the sort of all-around performance which has NBA teams considering Clarke with a first-round pick. The Miami Heat is one of them — Clarke said he has a workout lined up with the Heat in the lead-up to the NBA Draft in June.
However, for him to prove he’s worth the No. 13 pick, Clarke needs to prove offensive eruptions like he had throughout the postseason can be more than a rare luxury to go along with his defensive prowess. Clarke, who began his career with the San Jose State Spartans, wants to shed the label of being just a defensive specialist.
“They’re really just trying to ask me about my work ethic and ask me about how much better I’m going to get,” Clarke said of his meetings in Chicago. “They all know the stuff that I can do well, they’re just trying to ask me if I’m going to get better at the stuff that I don’t do that well and I try to tell them I’m here to get better every day.”
What are the mock drafts saying?
Clarke is firmly in the Heat’s late-lottery range right now, although prognosticators have a bit of a consensus as to where Clarke is most likely to wind up. Mock drafts at ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, NBC Sports, The Sporting News and The Ringer all project Clarke to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 11 pick in the first round. Another CBS Sports mock draft pegs Clarke to the Boston Celtics at No. 14, while Sports Illustrated’s mock has Clarke dropping a bit further to the Utah Jazz at No. 23.
The difference between those two parts of Clarke’s draft range depends on how much he can prove himself offensively. Age (22) will probably keep Clarke from having any realistic shot of climbing much higher, but he provides real value for a late-lottery team looking for someone to help immediately in a playoff push. At this point, the odds of Clarke being off the board before Miami picks are just as good as the chance of him falling.
Between his age and his standout defensive attributes, Clarke is a high-floor prospect for the Heat either at No. 13 or in a trade-down situation. He should be able to contribute immediately because of his motor, athleticism and defensive instincts, although a total lack of shooting could make him a liability on offense. Clarke only attempted 15 three-pointers in his time in Spokane, Washington, and 60 of his 257 field goals were dunks. He did, however, shoot 51.7 percent on 118 two-point shots away from the rim.
There’s one problem for Miami, even if the team does fall in love with Clarke: He’s a little redundant with Bam Adebayo. The post player progressed nicely in his second season, shooting 57.6 percent from the field while averaging 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists, and continuing to display some versatile defensive ability. Also like Clarke, Adebayo only attempted 15 threes all season. Early on, it’s tough to envision a scenario in which both post players can play alongside each other in an above-average offensive lineup. At least in Season 1 for Clarke, the Heat’s centers rotation will remain crowded with center Hassan Whiteside in the final year of his massive contract.
“Every team’s making sure that I can shoot it, really. That’s my biggest question mark, so I’ve been working really, really hard on it,” Clarke said. “I’m just really hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and they can see that I made lots of progress on it and that they can kind of trust me that I can get better at it.”