When the year began, the Gonzaga names listed for early entries into the NBA Draft consisted of Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura. Halfway through the season, Brandon Clarke has forced his way up multiple NBA Draft big boards by the virtue of his highlight style of play, blocking shots and dunking on fools as if it is going out of style.
All of this success might make Clarke the next Gonzaga big man to depart for the NBA early.
Clarke transferred to Gonzaga from San Jose State as someone who seemed to be a lunch pail sort of guy. He cleaned up on the glass and he got his points. His jump shot was a thing of not-beauty, and both the San Jose State coaching staff and the Gonzaga coaching staff spent time reworking it into something usable.
All of the hard work throughout the redshirt year has paid off—Clarke is averaging pretty much career highs in every statistical category available. Most importantly, he is third in the country in player efficiency rating (PER), and second in the country in overall box plus/minus. The one player above him in both categories? Zion Williamson.
When you look at Clarke’s overall package, it is pretty clear that he has the natural ability and talent to play at the higher level, as demonstrated by the biggest block of the college season.
Clarke can jump to the moon and back. The spring in his step has him averaging 3.3 blocks per game, and he is on pace to shatter Gonzaga’s single season record for blocks. He is second in the country in that category.
His agility, lateral quickness, and lightning-quick reaction times allow him to be a versatile defender. Opposing players cannot isolate Clarke out on the wing and expect to beat him to the rim. This combination of size and elite-level athleticism has turned Clarke into one of the most fearsome rim protectors in college basketball. NBA scouts have started to take notice.
On offense, the amount of work the coaching staff put into his shot has paid off. Clarke is shooting a staggering 68.9 percent from the floor, the third-best mark in the nation. His speed and athleticism mean he can cut, drive, pick, roll, do pretty much everything he needs to, to get to the hoop. In fact, that is where he generally ends up.
That isn’t to say Clarke’s offensive profile is a fit for the NBA straight away. If Clarke gets drafted, it is based on the strength of his defensive prowess and his offensive awareness. Offensively, he isn’t as versatile as required to earn consistent time in the NBA quite yet. Clarke has only taken nine shots from further than 17’ away from the hoop this season, according to Synergy Sports. His bread and butter, which he does with ruthless efficiency, is around the hoop. Although players can survive on that skill in college, the position-less nature of the NBA requires players to demonstrate that range.
Perhaps the biggest sign that points to an early departure this season is the genetic makeup of the current Gonzaga squad. Unless it is the darkest timeline, Rui Hachimura will most likely depart early for the NBA. Killian Tillie has half a year to showcase what made him a potential top-20 pick last season. Josh Perkins and Geno Crandall will graduate. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are picked as title contenders this year because everything is falling into place. Next year, although the Zags will be good, they won’t be this good.
If you are Clarke, and you are a potential first-round pick, why would you spend another year at Gonzaga, with the risk of injury, not getting paid at least $1 million for your services? As much as us fans think we know what is best for all of our early-entry departures, the fact of the matter is clear: Now that Gonzaga is getting really good, players will leave early because it is in their career’s best interest.
Clarke still needs to develop his offensive game more, but his willingness to completely re-work his shot should leave NBA brass hopeful. His free throw shooting isn’t the best, but hey, when has that stopped any forward in the NBA?
Many of Gonzaga fans began this season excited about the prospects of Clarke, but he was often an after thought once Hachimura, Tillie, or Norvell was mentioned. On a team of good players, Clarke has played like the best, and there is a very good chance this will be our only year of watching him play in a Gonzaga uniform.