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Brandon Clarke Is a Positional Enigma—and Gonzaga’s Best Hope for a Title

The bouncy junior is a center in a small forward’s body. But that isn’t an indictment, it’s high praise. He’s had a historic season, and maximizing his talents will be the key to both a Bulldogs championship run and figuring out his place in the NBA.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Gonzaga has never had a big man like Brandon Clarke before. The mid-major school has gone from David to literal Goliath in recent years by churning out NBA-bound big men, including three lottery picks (Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis, and Zach Collins). None had Clarke’s freakish athleticism, which allows the 6-foot-8, 215-pound junior to play far bigger than his size. Clarke is an elite defensive player coming off a breakout offensive performance (36 points on 15-of-18 shooting) in a second-round win over Baylor. The Zags have done everything as a program but win an NCAA championship. They will need Clarke at his best to take the final step, which means putting the right types of players around him. That will be just as crucial for him to live up to his potential in the NBA.

Clarke is having a historically great season. The records at Sports-Reference.com go back to the 1992-93 season, and no player in that time has matched his all-around production: 17.0 points on 69.9 percent shooting, 8.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 3.1 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game. He’s a hyperefficient offensive machine who protects the rim better than most future NBA centers. His block rate in his final NCAA season (11.1 percent) would put him at no. 14 among the 49 big men drafted in the lottery since 2004. His combination of block and steal rates (2.4 percent) would put him at no. 9, between Joel Embiid and Myles Turner. That should not be possible for a player the size of a typical NBA small forward.

Clarke has a rare combination of athleticism, motor, and basketball IQ. He doesn’t need to tower over everyone else on the floor: He makes up the difference by jumping really high and really fast. He has incredible timing when contesting shots, rarely fouling even though he spends so much time hanging in the air. Clarke plays hard but never out of control, and he’s almost always in the right position. Like all great defenders, he anticipates rather than reacts to the offense. He roams all over the court, and he is as comfortable defending the 3-point line as the rim. His ability to switch screens and stay in front of guards on the perimeter gives a new element to the Zags defense, which has traditionally been built around funneling penetration into less-mobile interior defenders.

His offensive success is built on the same foundation. Clarke plays to his strengths. He rebuilt his jumper from the ground up while redshirting last season. The improvement is clear in his free throw numbers: He went from shooting 56.8 percent on 3.9 attempts per game from the free throw line in his first two seasons at San Jose State to 68.5 percent on 4.3 attempts this season. He’s still not a great shooter. He just doesn’t take shots that he can’t make. Clarke is only 4-of-14 from 3 (28.6 percent) this season, but he takes 62.8 percent of his shots around the rim, where he shoots 81.7 percent, according to the numbers at Hoop-Math.com. His finishing ability goes beyond his athleticism. Clarke also has an incredibly soft touch that allows him to score with even a sliver of separation from his defender.

His whole offensive game was on display against Baylor on Saturday. Clarke is far more than a lob threat. He’s a capable ball handler and passer with a positive ratio of assists (1.8 per game) to turnovers (1.4), and he has the second-highest usage rate (23.7) among their starters. Clarke can score with his back to the basket or when he’s facing up. It doesn’t matter if defenders play off him. He eats up any space with one or two dribbles and then spins off their body for a one-handed hook shot or a pull-up jumper. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Clarke is in the 97th percentile of players nationwide as a post-up scorer (on 78 attempts) and in the 90th percentile as an isolation scorer (on 24 attempts). There was nothing the Bears could do to stop him:

His competition will get steeper as Gonzaga advances in the NCAA tournament. Baylor put a 6-foot-5, 230-pound forward (sophomore Mark Vital) on him and refused to send help on defense. Gonzaga has a rematch with Florida State, the team that knocked out the Bulldogs last season, in the Sweet 16 on Thursday. The Seminoles are coming off a huge win over Murray State, where they used waves of players with NBA-caliber length and athleticism to bother Ja Morant. Clarke will have his work cut out for him inside against a team that starts a 7-foot-4, 268-pound center (senior Christ Koumadje) and brings a 6-foot-10, 250-pound big man (sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele) off the bench. Their primary defender on Morant was a 6-foot-7, 215-pound wing (senior Terance Mann) nearly as big as Clarke is himself.

The Florida State game will be a preview of the challenges that Clarke will face in the NBA. The Seminoles are one of the few teams he has faced that has the personnel to match up with him. He’s a 22-year-old with the physique of a 10-year NBA veteran who has overwhelmed most of his opponents. There aren’t a lot of NBA-caliber big men in the West Coast Conference. Some of the only times that he struggled on defense this season came in nonconference matchups against Duke freshman Zion Williamson and Tennessee junior Grant Williams, both of whom had the strength to get into his chest and neutralize his leaping ability. Clarke played only 23 minutes against Duke because he was saddled with four fouls.

In this positionless era of the NBA, Clarke might be the closest thing there is to a tweener. He can play spot minutes as a small-ball 5 at the next level, but it’s hard to see him being able to match up with guys like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns over the course of an entire game. The problem for Clarke is that he doesn’t have the shooting ability to play on the perimeter on offense, which has become almost a requirement for every position but center. The dramatic improvements that he made as a shooter this season are encouraging, but it’s hard to bank on him improving to where he could space the floor in an off-ball role. The only path for him to start early in his NBA career will be if he plays next to a stretch big man who can shoot 3s and defend 5s.

Clarke is a different twist on undersized bigs like Sabonis and Julius Randle, elite scorers who don’t have the length to protect the rim or the shooting ability to space the floor. He should be able to do so many different things well that he will be worth fitting into a starting lineup on the next level. There are not many players in the NBA with as much defensive upside as Clarke: He has the potential to be an elite perimeter stopper who can switch screens across four positions and wreak havoc as a weak-side shot-blocker. Clarke could have the defensive impact of guys like Andre Roberson or Draymond Green while being a far more explosive offensive player. Neither of those players scored nearly as well as Clarke did in college. One of the closest statistical comparisons for his two-way production is Shawn Marion.

The key to maximizing Clarke is letting him play in space, which Gonzaga doesn’t do as well as it could. He is started next to Rui Hachimura, an athletic 6-foot-8 junior combo forward who will be taken in the first round of this year’s draft. Neither are prolific outside shooters: Hachimura attempts less than one 3 per game. The two have been able to dominate on size and athleticism alone for most of the season, but that may not work as well against Florida State or some of the other elite teams they would face if they advance.

Clarke has been more effective in the limited minutes he has played next to Killian Tillie, a 6-foot-10 junior who has missed most of the season with foot and ankle injuries. Tillie, an NBA prospect in his own right, is shooting 42.9 percent from 3 on 2.2 attempts per game this season. The numbers (per hooplens.com) when the two play together are staggering: The Zags have an offensive rating of 134.0 and a defensive rating of 65.0 in 115 possessions. Hachimura was the WCC Player of the Year, but he’s worse than Clarke in every facet of the game. He’s not as good defensively, he doesn’t score nearly as efficiently, and he averages fewer rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game. He is the one who should sit if Gonzaga needs to open up the floor.

There is an opportunity cost to playing a non-shooter like Clarke. It’s hard to find room to play more than one player like that at a time in the NBA, and most teams prefer to slot a bigger player in the non-shooting role. Clarke’s inability to shoot 3s at this stage of his career means there will be a lot of situations that don’t make sense for him at the next level. He has too much going for him to be a bust, but his ceiling will depend on whether the team that drafts him commits to building around him. Clarke can show that he’s worth the investment over the next two weeks. The best chance for Gonzaga to win an NCAA championship is for it to spread the floor and let Clarke be the best version of himself.