Brandon Clarke left Las Vegas two weeks ago as the toast of Summer League, with glowing reviews from Rick O’Donnell (naming him the best rookie at the event) and Tom Ziller (talking about Clarke not being like to pull a Summer League star vanishing act).
That Clarke stood out is not surprising. He was a surefire first round pick, and is insanely talented — as was emphasized to the casual college basketball fan when a mystified Steve Lappas told the nation Clarke had more blocks than missed shots for the season late in the Zags second round win over Baylor.
As we grind through the offseason, his story is still worth revisiting. There probably, almost definitely isn’t a Brandon Clarke (or Ja Morant, for that matter) hiding somewhere on your favorite team’s roster heading into 2019-2020. But his college career hammers home that NBA-level talent can still come from anywhere and follow unconventional paths. You can always dream, right?
When Clarke signed with Dave Wojcik and San Jose State in November 2014, the Mercury News ran a headline you might expect:
Men’s basketball signs two, including first ever four-star recruit.
Except Clarke wasn’t the focal point of that headline. The landmark recruit was forward Cody Schwartz (who later transfer to Green Bay after two seasons), while Clarke was a springy prep prospect from Phoenix that didn’t have a composite ranking on 247sports.com. He would work his way into Wojcik’s rotation, averaging 8.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game en route to winning the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year award as a freshman.
But for the 1,327 people that saw his debut — where he scored two points and grabbed one rebound in 17 minutes in a 20-point loss at Idaho — it probably wasn’t obvious they were watching a player that would one day excite an NBA fanbase. That was even probably the same case when he picked up his first career double-double at Fresno two months later.
The NBA future may have been more clear after a breakout sophomore year, when Clarke grew into one of the Mountain West’s best players (17.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG. 2.6 BPG). He may not have been showing up on any mock drafts, but in an interview with The Undefeated this past June, he talked about how he himself had started to see the NBA as a realistic possibility at that time.
I’ve dreamed about going to the NBA. But going into college at San Jose State, I just really wasn’t sure if it would happen the way that I wanted it to. I was going to a team that had won only three games prior to me getting there. So, obviously, I thought the journey would be a bit tougher. But I don’t think I ever fully lost belief that I could be here today.
What kept that faith alive was just me always, always working hard. I just always had a hunger to get better. That is what really got me here.
But I figured out that I had a shot probably after my second year at San Jose State. I was watching the draft, and I was seeing players getting drafted that I was just as good as, if not better.
The rest is story with which most are familiar. SJSU let Wojcik go following the 2016-17 season and Clarke opted to leave, becoming a hot commodity on the transfer market with interest from a pair of teams coming off Final Four appearances in Oregon and Gonzaga. To him, he wasn’t ready-made for the NBA at that point, and prioritized the ability to use his redshirt year as a launching pad to the league in ultimately choosing the Spokane redshirt factory.
“I think there are parts of my game that I need to take a year off to work on,” Clarke said. “Last year, I played over a thousand minutes, too. That’s more than most players should play.
“I’m wanting to go to a college that’s known for good red shirts too, want to go somewhere where I can practice my shot, get stronger, get bigger … I can get ready for that next level, which is playing on a pro team some day. I just really want to use that year to sharpen my game.”
The decision paid off for all parties involved, as Clarke’s brilliance around the rim was a major part of another dominant Gonzaga team. He was one of the country’s most efficient offensive players (69.2% eFG) and best shot blockers, and cemented himself on mock drafts early in the year, particularly after helping the Bulldogs knock out Zion’s Duke in Maui.
That wasn’t always obvious throughout his career, not when he took second-billing upon signing at San Jose State, not after a great two year run in the Mountain West and not even after signing with one of the country’s power programs, especially in developing players. There aren’t players with Brandon Clarke trajectories lurking in every mid-major league, but you could’ve said that about Brandon Clarke at various points in his college career.
You didn’t need more reasons to enjoy mid-major basketball, but Clarke shows there’s always a chance — even if it’s a tiny one — that you’re watching something special every night.