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NBA Draft profile: Brandon Clarke could be the small-ball center NBA teams need

In Clarke’s lone season at Gonzaga, he rose from an unknown transfer to a potential lottery pick

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Texas Tech Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Since starting his career in obscurity at San Jose State, Brandon Clarke has put himself in the lottery conversation after starring in his lone year at Gonzaga. Clarke was a pleasant surprise for the Zags faithful, excelling in his only year as a starter after sitting out the previous season due to transfer rules. He was the most talented player on a Gonzaga team that went 33-4 and earned a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Clarke was the best power forward in the country not named Zion Williamson. Clarke had an insane stat line of 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game — all while shooting 68 percent from the floor. He was a highlight reel and block machine on defense. Clarke’s offensive IQ was apparent as he excelled in the most dangerous pick-and-roll combo in the country with point guard Josh Perkins. All told, Clarke was the first person since Anthony Davis to lead the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Clarke fits as a perfect small-ball 5 in today’s modern NBA. He is a player that can carve out a role and make a 15-year career in the league. Most mock drafts have him going late in the lottery between the No. 11 and 15 picks.

Pre-Draft Measurables

Height: 6’8
Weight: 207
Wingspan: 6’8
Vert: 40.5 inches

Strengths

Rim protection

Clarke is a freak out who can jump out of the gym. He had the third-best vertical in the combine at 40.5 inches. His athleticism combined with his elite defensive instincts allowed him to tally a total of 117 blocks last season. He has great defensive recognition and was elite in weak-side rim protection. Clarke athleticism and help defense instincts give him the tools to become a defensive anchor in the league. He does a great job stepping in to absolve his teammates’ mistakes.

Clarke’s athleticism allows him to guard 1-5. He can switch on just about anyone and can hold his own against the elite guards in the NBA. Clarke is the most NBA-ready defender in this draft. His defensive prowess alone should help him carve out a role in the league.

Interior scoring

On offense, Clarke has shown he can score the basketball efficiently by shooting 68% from the floor last season. Clarke is terrific around the rim. He is relentless running the floor and he is excellent in pick-and-roll situations. His explosiveness allows him to get to the rim, and he has good enough post moves to get bucks inside. Clarke has pretty good offensive awareness, and he serves as perfect rim runner. He is an athletic freak who will be able to throw down lobs from talented point guards.

Weaknesses

Frame

Standing at 6’8 and with just 6’8 wingspan makes Clarke an undersized forward in today’s NBA game. It’s hard for a lot of NBA scouts to highly rate a 6’8 shot blocker. He is not very long for his height and he is going to have add weight to his frail 208-pound frame without taking anything away from his athleticism.

Shooting

The most popular criticism of Clarke is his lack of shooting. He shot just 24 threes in his college career and only made six of them. Clarke’s lack of shooting is a threat to floor spacing in the NBA. Because of this, Clarke is going to have to develop a jumper — or at least become an automatic bucket within 18 feet. Besides, Clarke will need to improve his 69.4% mark from the free throw line.

Age

Despite being 22 years old, many scouts are deeming Clarke a finished project. If Clarke was two years younger, he would be a lock to be selected in the top 10 based on athleticism and potential alone. Whether this criticism is fair or not, it needs to accept as a tangible concern for scouts.

NBA Comparison

Ceiling: Prime Serge Ibaka

Some forget there was a point in time where Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti chose to pay Serge Ibaka over James Harden. That decision looks pretty terrible now and there were a lot more elements that went into that decision. However, Ibaka was an absolute monster for the Thunder. He led the NBA in blocks three consecutive years and was a huge contributor to the OKC team that went to the NBA Finals.

Floor: Larry Nance, Jordan Bell

Larry Nance has become a consistent NBA starter while Jordan Bell has played significant minutes on two championship teams. At the very least, Clarke will be able to come in the NBA either as a consistent low usage starter, or as a rotational defensive stopper/rebounder. Clarke has a very safe floor as a productive rotational player; his motor alone will convince NBA coaches to get him on the floor. If his defensive skill-set doesn’t translate to the NBA game, Clarke can still scrape out a role as a gritty offensive rebounder who gets his offense from from dump offs.

Best Fit: Boston Celtics (pick 17)

Falling just outside the lottery might be the best situation for Clarke. The Celtics have three picks in the first round, and if they use their first one on Kentucky forward PJ Washington, then the Celtics may select Clarke with their second pick at 17. Should Al Horford leave in free agency as he’s expected to do, the Celtics can either get a similar veteran to replace him (like Brook Lopez) or get younger by taking Clarke.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens tends to get the most out of guys with great athleticism and high motors, so Clarke has the personality to fit the new-age, gritty Boston Celtics team. Stevens regularly played Gordon Hayward or Marcus Morris at the 4 spot, and it didn’t provide positive results. Clarke would excel filling the defensive anchor spot Horford was. He would also be able to excel at the 5 when the Celtics want to run with some combination of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, or Jayson Tatum.