When in the spring of 2017 Brandon Clarke decided to leave San Jose State, he had specific needs in mind for his next destination. First of all, he wanted to play for a winning program. Second, he wanted to go to a place where the coaching staff could help him improve.
Clarke exceeded his wildest expectations at Gonzaga.
He’s the latest example of the cruise-control program Mark Few has built in Spokane. These days, fans and pundits don’t mention Few’s name when power conference coaching jobs come open. That’s because, through a combination of mining the underrated Pacific Northwest area for high school talent, recruiting internationally, and nabbing the occasional transfer like Clarke, the Bulldogs have transcended the mid-major tag their affiliation with the West Coast Conference would suggest and have earned a place among the game’s elite programs.
During a redshirt year in 2017-18 and his only season playing for the Zags, Clarke not only got a taste of the program’s success -- he made major contributions to an NCAA tournament Elite Eight run.
Clarke, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound redshirt junior, put up monster numbers, leading the nation in field-goal percentage (.694) and blocked shots (117) and averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds. And then there’s this: Clarke blocked the same number of shots he missed (257 of 374). How efficient is that?
His season’s handiwork was duly recognized -- Clarke was chosen a third-team All-American, first-team All-WCC and the league’s defensive player of the year and newcomer of the year.
I think to say he's just an athlete is incorrect
Clarke managed all that with a combination of physical gifts and mindset. With a 6-foot-10 wingspan and leaping ability -- at the NBA’s Chicago Combine, he finished tied for third with a standing vertical of 34.00 inches and tied for fourth with a max vert of 40.50 inches -- Clarke is a fearsome shot blocker. A “reconsider” is not an official statistic, but there’s no telling how many victims of one of Clarke’s rejections turned down other shots for fear of suffering the same, embarrassing fate.
“I’ve always had great timing,” Clarke says by way of explaining his prowess as a rim protector. “I have a really quick jump. It was something I was good at least year. And this year, I got even better at it.”
Offensively, Clarke was a dunking machine and low-post operator who, per KenPom.com, made a staggering 70 percent of his two-point shots, ninth among all Division I players. For that success ratio he credits an understanding of the game and his own abilities, as well as his new teammates in Spokane.
“A lot of it is basketball IQ,” says the native Canadian who played his high school ball in Arizona before signing with San Jose State. “I’ve always been somebody that didn’t like forcing up bad shots. This year, I was really good at making the shots I was taking. And I had teammates who made it so the floor was spaced and I could operate inside more. And playing with good passers made it that much easier.”
It’s the job of NBA scouts and draft analysts to pick apart a player’s game and define their weaknesses. Though Clarke has been forecast as a mid first-round pick and even a lottery selection by some, everyone points to his tweener size and his lack of a consistent jump shot. But those people weren’t at Gonzaga practices every day.
“He has developed himself,” Few said during the NCAA tournament. “He's done a great job from the time he decided to transfer -- before he got up to Gonzaga -- because the clips that I watched him when he was at San Jose State when my assistant Brian Michaelson brought him to me, he said, ‘Coach, he's athletic. He has a knack for making stuff happen around the rim, but this shot is broken, and it cannot be fixed.’
“By the time he got to Gonzaga I was like, ‘I don't know about that. I think it may be okay.’ And he worked extremely hard on it. Brandon did and the staff did, and now it's to the point where he can shoot the ball out at the 3.”
Clarke’s junior year 3-point stats were meager -- 4-for-15 for 26.7 percent -- but are no longer relevant. He’s spent every day since Gonzaga’s season ended working on his jump shot and his ball handling. Clarke thinks he can guard all three frontcourt positions in the NBA, but he wants to be able to play them, too. And if a team wants to use him at the three, he knows he has to keep defenses honest by being a 3-point threat or able to score off the bounce.
That was already evident to Texas Tech coach Chris Beard before his team, the eventual nation runner-up, tangled with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
“I think to say he's just an athlete is incorrect,” Beard said. “He does a lot of things on both ends of the floor.”
Clarke’s work in the gym has begun to pay dividends.
“I’ve been shooting it really well from the NBA 3 line,” he says. “And now I feel like I can make every midrange shot I take. I’m looking forward to having these shots become better weapons for me.”
Clarke was also third among Gonzaga players in assists, averaging nearly two a game, and third in steals. He envisions an NBA role similar to that of the player he’d most like to emulate and studies often on film -- Golden State’s Draymond Green.
“He isn’t a guy that likes to force up shots,” Clarke says. “And he’s a really good passer. That’s the kind of stuff I can do.”
Clarke doesn’t care where he’s taken in the draft, preferring only to go to a team where he fits the system. Since transferring to Gonzaga and hitting the fast-forward button on his NBA dreams, Clarke has just enjoyed the journey.
“I had a really fun year,” he says. “The only thing I’d have changed was us going farther in the NCAA tournament. But it was a great season, and we did so much as a team. I really couldn’t see it having gone any better for me.”
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