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Draft Radar Part One: Brandon Clarke

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Checking out the Gonzaga big man and how he could fit in Minnesota

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Portland Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a season of turmoil for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It begun less than a week before training camp when All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler requested a trade and subsequently sabotaged the team by taking games off and showing up when he wanted to. It continued when former head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau lost complete control of the squad, things got worse when crucial rotational pieces Robert Covington and Tyus Jones succumbed to season-derailing injuries. And it came to a head when general manager Scott Layden failed to make any kind of splash at the trade deadline.

Now, Minnesota can somehow still make the playoffs, but at three games under .500 it’s going to an uphill battle. With the franchise’s history, it’s probably better to stay on the safe side of predictions and assume they are headed to the lottery.

With the Anthony Davis trade request sending shock waves through the league, everyone from owner Glen Taylor down must make a legitimate effort to make sure their franchise face Karl-Anthony Towns is put in a better position to hang around.

History strongly suggests that Minnesota will not be able to garner those kind of team-altering assets from the free agent pool, so they have no choice but to swing hard and connect on a draft-night home run. Last year’s first-round pick Josh Okogie seems like a nice start, and second-round pick Keita Bates-Diop still has potential bubbling up inside him. However, with the team cannoning towards the cold embrace of the 2019 lottery, grabbing another young, potential-laden kid is a must.

Expiring contracts like Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, and Derrick Rose (all who seem unlikely to return) leave gaps in this team that need to be filled. And the odds suggest that Minnesota will land somewhere between the 8th and 14th pick, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they can pick up a real difference maker to nab one of those spots and help provide Towns some peace of mind.

So who should they be looking for specifically? Over the next few weeks we will take an in-depth look at five different youngsters who should be all over the Timberwolves draft radar. First up, Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke.

After a move from San Jose State and 603 days without playing in an organized college game, redshirt junior Brandon Clarke has been making tsunami-sized waves in his first (and likely last) year at Gonzaga University.

At 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, the explosive 22-year-old will fit snugly into the power forward position, with an ability to play center in small ball lineups. He is currently averaging 16.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3 blocks in his 27.3 minutes per game.

Strengths

. Defensive Instincts and Versatility

The thing that immediately jumps off the screen when you watch Brandon Clarke is his ability to impact the game on the defensive end of the floor. Oozing with size, strength and athleticism, the Bulldog looks as sure as any to translate his gifts into substance when he hits the big leagues.

At the rim, Clarke is a menacing sight for would-be scorers. He has a mind-boggling knack to arrive on the help side at just the right moment, often resulting in a field goal attempt being completely eviscerated. Unlike a lot of shot-blockers, he often follows up his work by corralling the defensive rebound — an underrated part of interior defending.

Swats like the one below seem like out of the box highlight plays, but Clarke makes them on a regular basis. He tracks opponents like a heat seeking missile, and launches their shot away at any chance he gets:

He averages a stunning 4.4 blocks per 40 minutes, despite standing at just 6-foot-8. However, that’s not the only area he impacts the game defensively. He switches quite seamlessly between guarding power forwards and centers, matching lower body strength with impressive lateral quickness.

He isn’t going to be able to effectively guard the Kevin Durant’s and Paul George’s of the world (yet), but it won’t be surprising if he can hold his own guarding the small forward position against certain match-ups.

Watch here as he switches out of the pick-and-roll defense on to the ball-handler, effectively shadows him, forces him into a contested shot, and swallows up the block:

His defensive expertise don’t going unnoticed in the NCAA defensive metric leaderboards either. As it stands, Clarke ranks third in the nation in defensive win shares, third in defensive rating, and fourth in defensive box plus/minus, per Sports Reference. He has also set Gonzaga’s single-season block record, already.

College-level defense doesn’t always translate into the NBA, but Brandon Clarke is as sure as anyone not named Zion Williamson to make that leap in this class.

. Face-up Game

On the flashier end of the court, Clarke has a bunch of potential, too. While he accumulates most of his points from getting to the open spot along the baseline (dunker’s spot), he also has a budding face-up game out of post-up situations.

He can occasionally unleash some clumsy dribbling and clunky hands, but for the most part he is a walking bucket in face-up game. Clarke packs a variety of moves and counter-moves in his tool belt — mid-range jumpers, floaters, spin moves, up-and-unders, and hammer dunks.

Below, you’ll see one of his prettiest moves. After catching the ball on the right block with his back to the basket, he takes a power dribble, pirouettes around his defender with ease, and floats home a teardrop.

Not something you see every day from a big man:

Every night Timberwolves fans are treated to the mastery that Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson can do when facing up their defender, and Clarke has a similar sort of potential.

He will get plenty of putback and lob buckets purely off his athleticism, but the ability to take his man mono e mono is certainly one of his more intriguing qualities.

. Hustle. Energy. Athleticism

When you look at some exciting big men around the league like Montrezl Harrell or Clint Capela, they have one huge intangible in common: Hustle plays. Not just occasionally or when it will result in a highlight. All game. Every Game.

Brandon Clarke is cut from the same cloth. In any average Gonzaga possession, you can catch him hunting passing lanes and getting out in transition with freakish acceleration for a power forward. You will spot him diving to keep the ball inbounds, or vehemently jostling for position to keep his opponent off the glass.

With a quick second and third jump, he frequents the offensive glass, and usually needs more than one body to stop him from gobbling up boards and second chance points:

When a player wants to impact winning as much as Brandon Clarke does, it’s hard to keep him bogged down. Even when the shot isn’t falling or the shot-blocking isn’t there, the 22-year-old will find a way to make his presence felt.

Minnesota’s fan base has already fully embraced Josh Okogie for his similar traits, so Clarke would undoubtedly be a huge hit if he was to fall into the Twin Cities.

Weaknesses

. 3-point Readiness

In the age of pace and space NBA basketball, it’s becoming imperative for all players to have a 3-point shot. You can get away with it if you defend and rim-run like Clarke does, but your potential ceiling skyrockets as you stretch your range further away from the basket.

In Clarke’s case, it would be surprising if he doesn’t eventually develop at a semi-reliable long-rage stroke. As for know though, it’s tough to see him making an impact immediately from behind the arc.

So far this season Clarke has launched just 12 3-point attempts. Making four of those (33%) triples is a good sign. When he is left alone he has shown he has a very workable stroke, one that can undoubtedly be shaped into his offensive repertoire:

The defense is tighter in the NBA, though. And young players tend to stick with what they do best, instead of trying to stretch the limits of their game. In his early years, it’s unlikely we see Brandon Clarke jacking triples, which is a slight blemish on a game that has so many reasons to swoon over.

. Offensive positioning

When Clarke is facing up and getting buckets, or riding the baseline for drop-off dunks and layups, he seems like the perfect offensive force. However, he often gets caught in no man’s land in offensive sets.

It’s a lonely island where he is unable to get adequate post position, while simultaneously blocking his teammates from driving to the rim unimpeded. In the clip below, he is walling off the entire lane instead of spacing the floor in a more advantageous position, forcing Corey Kispert to jack a stepback jumper instead of having a lane to the rim:

This is a scenario that arises far too often during Gonzaga games, and one that will need to be corrected if he wants to become a truly positive offensive player in the pros. With 3-pointers going up at a unfathomable rate, lane-cloggers just don’t have the same sort of impact they once did.

The good thing is that Clarke’s two main weaknesses tie together. If he can improve his long-range shooting, he will feel more confident standing outside of the paint and making himself an option.

For now, he will have to find ways to give his teammates clearer runways to the coalface without having a knockdown 3-point stroke. It’s not a huge weakness, but with a game as tantalizing as Clarke’s, it’s only the little things that can be nitpicked.

Fit With Minnesota

Despite being older than the usual early-lottery pick, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Brandon Clarke’s stock rise out of Minnesota’s grasp as the draft gets closer. He is good to great in a number of areas, which gives him a relatively high floor. If he can maximize his strengths and improve on his weaknesses, his ceiling could be just as mouth-watering.

With Taj Gibson likely to bolt to a contender in the offseason, the Timberwolves would have a gaping front court hole. In fact, the Zags big man has shades of a longer-armed, uber-athletic Taj Gibson in him. Dario Saric is an obvious solution as a starter, but Clarke would be a great backup, with the potential to overtake Saric as he grows into his NBA game. He could even play the five next to Saric when Towns is off the floor.

If you stuck Clarke next to KAT, you get an elite rim protector that can clean up any mistakes that are made by the Wolves franchise player — just like Gibson does now. Minnesota currently sit 20th in overall defensive rating, but with a Tyus Jones/Josh Okogie/Robert Covington/Brandon Clarke defensive core, that could soon change.

Offensively, Minnesota don’t take or make enough triples to challenge the league’s elites, which won’t be helped by Clarke’s addition. However, with a solid shot base and a workable stoke, he could easily become a good enough shooter to move the needle. It doesn’t hurt that he can provide positive impact in a number of other ways offensively.

Overall, the Wolves should be thrilled if Clarke lands at their feet.