MikeCheck: Rookie Clarke packs outside-the-box mentality and skillset for Grizzlies' training camp
MEMPHIS – The question came in three parts, yet seemed intended to squeeze Brandon Clarke in to a box.
How do you see your game projecting at the next level?
What position do you see yourself sliding into, and what do you feel your skillset is in the NBA?
Clarke faced those questions three months ago, two minutes into his press conference in Brooklyn after being selected with the No. 21 pick in the first round of June’s NBA Draft. Soon, his rights were traded to Memphis in a package to consummate a deal with Oklahoma City.
Amid so many moving pieces – and despite the swirling mix of excitement and uncertainty that engulfed the moment – Clarke knew exactly what he’d bring to the NBA. Yep, even before he knew exactly where he’d be bringing it. One other thing was certain from that moment. No boxes were necessary.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 14: Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies stands on the court during a semifinal game of the 2019 NBA Summer League against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Grizzlies defeated the Pelicans 88-86 in overtime.
“I can play the four and three,” Clarke said at the time of both forward positions. “I can play some five (center), too. More than anything, (my role) will start with just playing defense, really. I can block shots, guard pretty much anybody on the floor, in the paint. My shot is getting better and better. There’s lots of stuff I’ll do to help my team win games.”
In short, Clarke’s likely position with Memphis is simple: it’s wherever he’s needed to help win games.
After a breakout summer spent putting action behind those draft night words, Clarke will embark on his first NBA training camp on Oct. 1 as arguably the most intriguing player on the Grizzlies’ roster. That’s a lofty projection considering Memphis also drafted dynamic point guard Ja Morant with the No. 2 pick in June’s draft and returns power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. coming off a NBA All-Rookie First Team season.
Clarke is a fascinating blend of versatility, upside, explosiveness and mystery. The 6-foot-8 combo forward from Gonzaga aims to build on his MVP performance at July’s MGM Resorts Summer League, where he led the Grizzlies to a title among a field of the NBA’s top draft picks and key young prospects.
It was also cool just to get a feel for the coach and how he coaches from the bench, how he coaches players on the court and just what type of guy he is. So it was a great time getting a feel for him and the players.Brandon Clarke
“I thought it was fine, really,” Clarke said as he reflected on his effort at summer league, where he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.8 blocks over six games. “It’s faster, definitely. But I really shouldn’t have an issue fitting in. I’m a player that can fit into that kind of (NBA-level) speed pretty well. Obviously, the guys are bigger so I’m going to have to be bigger, too. There are so many players who have changed their bodies once they got (to the NBA). I’m not really nervous about that. I’m just really looking forward to playing against bigger guys and better competition.”
With a rapidly improved shot that now comfortably extends to NBA 3-point range, Clarke heads into training camp as a legitimate ‘X-factor’ for the Grizzlies. The efficiency, athleticism and defense that allowed Clarke to lead the NCAA last season in field goal percentage and total blocked shots should translate well at the NBA level. That’s especially the case on a Grizzlies team planning to play a free-flowing, open-court style catered to a young and developing core under first-year coach Taylor Jenkins.
And should Clarke continue to build confidence in his 3-point shooting after knocking down 55.6 percent on a relatively small sample size in summer league, Jenkins will find it difficult to keep him off the floor in spite of significant depth at the forward spots.
Morant is destined to be the franchise’s point guard of the future, which likely comes with a clear path to a starting role. Meanwhile, Clarke enters camp facing competition at the forward spots from veterans Kyle Anderson and Jae Crowder as well Jackson, Yuta Watanabe, Bruno Caboclo and Ivan Rabb.
Jenkins won’t overwhelm his rookie draft picks from the outset of camp, but does have specific expectations for Clarke and Morant to build a solid foundation and embrace what comes each day.
“Those guys are going to have so much thrown at them (and) the number one thing I expect from them is their professionalism,” Jenkins recently told Grind City Media. “I want them to come in and know what it means to work, learn the game at this level. Their lifestyles have completely changed. They’re not in college anymore. They’re professionals. Getting them to really understand that, and as that process is unfolding then they’re learning a lot about themselves as players. It’s ‘Where do I fit in? What’s my role on this team?’ We don’t want to fast track anything.”
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 15: Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies blocks a shot by Jordan McLaughlin #26 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the championship game of the 2019 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 15, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The process of establishing himself as a professional is well under way for Clarke, who found a home in Memphis a couple of miles from the team’s FedExForum arena and practice facility. He’s been working out and conditioning throughout the summer while growing acclimated to his NBA city.
“The city and the fans have been really, really great to me,” said Clarke, who was raised in Phoenix but was born in Vancouver during the Grizzlies’ initial seasons in Canada. “First off, I’m just really, really blessed to be here. I’m just grateful. The summer has been so much travel for me, so to finally just be in my city is really awesome.”
Clarke believes he’ll head into camp next week with a bit of momentum, having already gotten a chance to bond with Morant and Jackson over the summer, as both sat out of summer league play but were there to support the team. Clarke did get to work directly with Jenkins, who coached the summer team.
So training camp should be a relatively seamless transition.
“Just to bond with my teammates and have some vets come down, too, is something that was really cool,” said Clarke, who celebrated his 23rd birthday this month. “It was also cool just to get a feel for the coach and how he coaches from the bench, how he coaches players on the court and just what type of guy he is. So it was a great time getting a feel for him and the players.”
Now, Clarke will bring into camp the same ‘prove-it’ mindset he took into the draft three months ago.
“Back then, it was all about just asking me about my work ethic and how much better I can get,” Clarke said of the questions he’s faced – and addressed – along the way. “How am I going to get better at the stuff that I don’t do that well? And I’m just trying to show that I’m here to get better every day.”
That’s been the case all summer for Clarke.
Expect the same when he shows up at camp, too.
Minus any boxes.
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