CHICAGO — Nervously rubbing kneecaps that had just posted a 40.5-inch vertical leap, Brandon Clarke squeezed out a smile out of the left side of his mouth as he said, “I would love playing with KAT.”
An elder statesmen at this year’s NBA combine in Chicago, the 22-year-old from Gonzaga University told Zone Coverage that when he comes to Minneapolis for a workout in mid-June that he will post the vertical he anticipated: 42 inches.
“I had a really good meeting with them today,” Clarke said Thursday of his meeting with Timberwolves personnel. “I’m just looking forward to getting to work out with them. I think that I gave them a pretty good impression today during our interview.”
Maybe Clarke will need to sell Gersson Rosas at his workout next month, but the impression he has with draft pundits around the nation doesn’t need much work. The Athletic suggests Clarke’s athleticism and weak side shot-blocking ability would make him a frontcourt partner that “complements Karl-Anthony Towns perfectly.” NBCSports described Clarke as one of the most NBA-ready players in the draft, making Minnesota “exactly the kind of situation that Clarke should be best in.” Rotoworld recognized the volume of shots dedicated that will be dedicated to Towns and Andrew Wiggins next season, suggesting logic in “grabbing a player who doesn’t require a lot of touches offensively and is a plus defender.”
There are also the amateur draftniks — many who double as Timberwolves fans — that have taken to Clarke’s bounding for blocks on YouTube. The vibe that surrounds Clarke is one that mirrors the sentiment that surrounded Josh Okogie when he began electrocuting the Wolves’ defense last winter. Unfortunately, Clarke shares more than just springs and fire with Okogie. Clarke’s jumper, like Okogie’s, is at best improving and at worst broken. In 2017-18, Clarke took a redshirt season at Gonzaga where he took the time to work on what he called a “kind of broken” jumper.
“My form needed a really big tweak to it,” Clarke elaborated. “I was shooting on the side of my head, pretty much… I didn’t really shoot many 3s last year at GU because I didn’t really feel like I had to for the team. With that being said, that’s what NBA teams need, so I’ve been shooting it a lot these past couple months.”
In asking a few people in Chicago, those who have been watching Clarke closely over the past year say the shot has definitely improved. But that positive sentiment was universally followed up with a shrug that still questions how it will translate to the NBA — where arms are longer and closeouts come faster.
Again, it’s the same vibe I get from talking to talent evaluators about Okogie. They have no question that the defense is up to snuff but major questions linger about the offense ever being more than a handful of snazzy dunks.
“Every team is unsure that I can shoot it really,” said Clarke who has workouts scheduled with Boston (14th pick), Orlando (16th), Miami (13th), Detroit (15th), Charlotte (12th) and Brooklyn (17th) in addition to Minnesota.
Clarke calls the jumper his “biggest question mark,” but was quick to point out that the other side of the ball carries very few questions.
“I personally think I can guard the one-through-five,” Clarke continued. “Obviously, there are going to be some fives that I would struggle guarding, but I don’t think there are any one-through-fours I would have a hard time guarding… I think I would be just as good as anybody else guarding them.”
Clarke properly acknowledged that even in a smaller and faster NBA that size still matters and that his height — 6’7.25″ inches without shoes — brings some inherent issues. Think Robert Covington, an elite defender who at one inch shorter than Clarke can guard down positionally more than he can slide up to the bruisers.
The biggest physical red flag for Clarke is his wingspan. Of the 66 players at the combine, only 14 players measured a shorter wingspan than Clarke — and those prospects were all 6’4″ or shorter. With a wingspan of 6’8.25″, Clarke has really short arms. While people deliberate about lacking wingspan being a death knell, a reality is that many of the players who exceed defensive expectations — like Covington — have massive wingspans. Covington may be an inch shorter than Clarke but his wingspan (7’1.75″) is 5.5 inches longer than Clarke’s.
Clarke is also slight of build. Weighing in at 207 pounds Wednesday, Clarke is lighter than Covington was when he was weighed at the 2013 pre-Draft combine, weighing in at 209. Covington is now listed at 225.
“Obviously, the guys are bigger in the league so I’m gonna have to be bigger too,” Clarke said. “There are so many players that have changed their bodies once getting there. So I’m not really nervous about that.”
Like any prospect, there are elements of Clarke’s game that should inspire confidence for executives (and fans) just as there are things that will rightfully make them nervous. But there is a different angle to all of this that should be considered, particularly for the Timberwolves: roster fit.
Is ‘Best Player Available’ Best for the Timberwolves?
NBA-ready and a potential defensive juggernaut, Clarke may very well be the best player available when the Wolves are on the clock. The question that should be considered, however, with Clarke or any other big man projected to go late-lottery — like Jaxson Hayes, Rui Hachimura or Bol Bol: Why use a lottery pick on a big when you have Towns and Dario Saric?
The intense admiration for Clarke and his fit is a bit peculiar when the rest of the roster is considered. It’s not only Towns and Saric; when the lack of shooting pedigree for Okogie, Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Jeff Teague, Keita Bates-Diop — the majority of the Timberwolves under contract — the idea of drafting a player with shooting question marks, even if they are the best player available, isn’t exactly a no-brainer.
Beyond that, there just aren’t many minutes available in the Wolves frontcourt. Towns and Saric are going to be the mainstay of the bigs’ rotation diet, and then the Wolves have Dieng (as a backup center) and Covington (as a small-ball four) who figure to be heavily in the mix for the extra frontcourt minutes. This all comes before the possibility of re-signing incumbent bigs, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver and Luol Deng is considered.
The Justin Patton pick (16th in 2017) should serve as a cautionary tale. Yes, Patton didn’t work due to a glut of foot injuries, but the process of drafting a backup center when the Wolves had KAT was also, well, not a good process. Even if Patton would have been healthy there just wouldn’t have been many minutes available — ever.
Now, Clarke might not exclusively be a big. After all, he’s not that big. At the combine, the position he was listed at was small forward. But that position has issues on the Wolves roster as well. The minutes at the three will likely be split next season by toggling Covington and Wiggins. So, again, where does Clarke play if drafted? The G-League?
It’s not so much that Clarke is a bad prospect or that his lack of shooting should completely deter the Wolves from drafting him, it’s that a backup big without a jumper isn’t a need under the roster’s current construction.
The Wolves have a big ol’ screaming hole in the backcourt for creators. If we’re talking about needs, there just aren’t wings under contract who can consistently attack the basket with ball-control and finishing ability. Covington and Okogie are wings that lack wiggle; they have loose handles and are very deliberate attackers — when they’re driving, they’re driving. Wiggins has every athletic tool to attack, but his handle remains high as ever and he gets stripped on the regular.
As much as a player with Clarke’s skillset is being considered, so to should a player that fills holes in the roster. The problem with where the Wolves are drafting is that there just doesn’t appear to be a lot of capable wing creators. Still, names like Romeo Langford, Nassir Little and Kevin Porter Jr. should be considered if for no other reason than the Wolves not possessing many players with their theoretical skillsets.
At the end of the day, the Wolves need to add talent, and Brandon Clarke is talented. It won’t be a bad pick, per se, if the Wolves do take him, it will just make other roster adjustments necessary. Rosas should certainly be considering a path that includes Clarke, but there has to be other contingency plans because the Wolves — literally — can not afford to miss on what is, hopefully, their last lottery pick for quite some time.