Sam Vecenie of The Athletic is one of my favorite basketball writers. Definitely top-5. And when it comes to evaluating young talent, from college to NBA youngsters, very few can compete with his kin eye, knowledge, and writing skills. I'd say he alone is worth the annual fee for this fine sports medium.
So when he recently wrote more than 20,000 words on the best/most 50 promising NBA prospects still on their rookie contract (a top-50 rookie scale prospects ranking), it was a real pleasure to read.
Even more so since he put 5 Canadians on that list (all top-40 in fact):
For those without access to the content, here's a glimpse with the two Memphis Canadians (Morant at 7 and JJJ at 12 were naturally also on the list):
Brandon Clarke, F | 23 years old | Four years, $12.2 million, last two years team option
2019-20 stats: 12.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 62.3/40.4/78.5
Clarke looks like the steal of the 2019 draft after the Grizzlies got him at No. 21 overall. And it was all too predictable. I had him at No. 12 on my board, and thought he was a real lottery level prospect. In his lone season at Gonzaga, Clarke put up one of the best years of the last five years in college hoops. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.2 blocks per game while shooting 68.7 percent from the field and winning the WCC Defensive Player of the Year award. And the entire season, he somehow went under the radar. He was not even a semifinalist for any of the Erving, Malone or Abdul-Jabbar award lists for best small forward, power forward, and center in college hoops. He wasn’t a semifinalist for the Naismith Trophy, despite being indisputably a top-five player in the country. He made neither first nor second-team All-America. The college basketball media and awards voters just so persistently and consistently didn’t recognize what was right in front of their faces with the dominance of what he was doing. It drove me crazy for the entirety of the season. I don’t know how the industry as a whole simply just missed what he was doing.
Similar sentiment emerged from front offices when it came to Clarke as a draft prospect. Simply put, there hasn’t really been a player who has looked like him in a long time. He’s 6-8 without much length. He’s not quite a center because he’s not super strong, but he’s also not quite a modern, playmaking 4 because he isn’t an elite ballhandler. He has an 8-foot-6 standing reach that is more commensurate with a wing than a big. He hit just 26.7 percent from 3 last year. The sentiment from teams was they didn’t know what to do with him. He wasn’t quite a center, wasn’t quite a power forward. And if teams can’t figure out what box to put someone in, it becomes harder for them to figure out what to do with the player. Weird positional guys often fall on draft night because they’re the easiest to overthink.
Basically from the moment Clarke hit the floor in Summer League for the Grizzlies, it was clear the league made a mistake. He averaged just under 15 points and 10 rebounds on his way to leading the Grizzlies to the Summer title. Immediately in the regular season, Clarke established himself as a useful piece at the 4 position on both ends of the floor. He’s one of the few rookies league-wide who immediately proved he could be a plus out there, and because of it he should be named to the All-Rookie team this year.
On offense, Clarke is about as efficient as you’ll find. He has shot 62.3 percent overall this year. He immediately established himself as one of the best rollers in the NBA. He has scored 172 points on rolls to the rim, which is top 20 in the league. He has shot 74.3 percent on such shots, which is third-best in the league among high-usage rollers, behind Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel. He is similarly effective out in transition, where he can use his speed to cover big distances quickly and beat his man down the floor, while also getting that leaping ability to gather and leap.
The big thing that Clarke brings is an absolutely outstanding vertical leap. His pop off the ground is absurd. Despite his lack of length, he’s just so explosive and can legitimately leap over guys to finish. He posted a 34-inch standing vertical leap at the combine, the best mark of any forward or center since 2016, and tied for the fourth-best mark in the last 13 years. He’s helped enormously by playing with three guards in Morant, Jones and Melton who can put pinpoint passes on the mark on lobs. But Clarke helps them a ton by possessing real vertical gravity that opposing teams absolutely have to account for. If you don’t tag Clarke with the back-side help, it’s too late. He’s gone.
But here’s the other thing: as seen above, it’s not just the finishing at the rim. Clarke has tremendous feel for where defenders are going to play him. He knows how to quickly find the soft spot in the defense. And because he’s faster than any big man who’s going to play him — his 10.61 lane agility time at the combine was the fastest among forwards and centers since 2016, and fourth-fastest since 2007 — he’s a monster as a short roller because he has a terrific floater game. He uses that two-foot vertical pop to jump stop, sky off the ground and use little push shots to score. Among forwards and centers, only Nikola Jokic has scored more points off of floaters this season, according to Synergy.
On top of that, Clarke has morphed into someone who might be on a faster track toward being a shooter than expected. Clarke has hit 40.4 percent from 3 on one attempt per game this season. The 3-point shot is not likely to be an enormous part of his repertoire early in his career while he retains his athleticism, if only because that athleticism is already so lethal. However, the ability for him to pop beyond the 3-point line occasionally will be a big help to a Memphis team that, as mentioned above with Jackson, will need guys who can space the floor given their current situation on the wing and in the backcourt. It remains to be seen how effective Clarke will be going forward, but I think there is reasonable evidence to bet on him being able to shoot between his touch on floaters and his shooting this season from 3.
Let’s not sleep on Clarke’s defense, either. His athleticism shines here. Despite being the size of an average small forward, Clarke is a terrific rim protector due to how he prepares. He’s constantly in the right spot to contest, his mechanics for staying vertical are elite, and his vertical pop off the ground makes up for his lack of height and length. He’s also really good rotating over from the weak side and contesting. He hasn’t blocked as many shots this year as he did at Gonzaga, but he has only allowed opponents to shoot 55.9 percent at the rim, a solidly above-average number. Then on the perimeter, I thought he did a solid job of containing and being switchable against good guards. Overall, I would say his defense has been a slight positive this season — which is pretty incredible for a rookie. Very few get that kind of notice, given how difficult it is to adjust to defending NBA players, with different rotational responsibilities, on a court that by nature is much more spread out. Clarke profiles as a real long-term plus.
When I look at Clarke, I see him as something of a modern-day Kenyon Martin. For people who largely remember the back half of Martin’s career in Denver, where he largely was just a dirty-work guy on defense for good Nuggets teams led by Carmelo Anthony, that might seem like a lower-end outcome, but it’s definitely not. Remember: Martin won an All-Star game appearance with the Nets early in his career, and averaged 15 points, 7.5 rebounds, two assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in his first six seasons. Similar to Clarke, he was a monster athlete who wasn’t overly long, but was all sorts of switchable on defense. Martin also used that athleticism well on offense. But where Clarke has a chance to modernize that archetype of player is with his shooting and his ridiculous finishing around the rim. Martin played in a different era, but was never quite this efficient, and never developed from distance. If Clarke does that, he’s going to be a starting-caliber player who is a difference maker on really good teams.
4. Dillon Brooks, W | 24 years old | Four years, $36.6 million (signed three-year, $35 million extension this season)
2019-20 stats: 15.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 40.2/36.9/80.9
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Brooks’ game. I like guys who play with fire and energy. Guys who are confident and play with tenacity. Brooks certainly brings that. Still, I wasn’t sure how his game would translate to the NBA. At Oregon, he was largely a small-ball 4 in Dana Altman’s scheme, a guy who operated in the midrange and used his athletic advantage there against bigger guys. How would that translate at the NBA level, especially given that there were questions about him as a shooter? I ranked him at No. 50 on my big board, thought he was a solid second-round pick, and he ended up going No. 45 in the 2017 draft.
Ultimately, Brooks has worked out at an even greater level than I could have imagined. In his rookie season, he started 74 games and was a top-five first-year player in terms of minutes played. He missed most of last year due to injury, but stepped right back up to the plate this year and has been everything the Grizzlies need on the wing. Brooks is almost like the bridge from the grit-and-grind era to the current uptempo era of Memphis basketball. He brings the tenacity and edge they need every night. The confidence teams need sometimes to push through the tough stretches of a season. That knowing feeling that he’s going to make every shot he takes, even if he’s missed eight in a row. In that vein, he’s one of the ticking hearts of the team.
Brooks is comfortable taking on whatever tough assignments the team puts in front of him on the wing or in the backcourt. He’s not an elite defender, but he gets the job done in making life marginally harder for opposing wings and guards through sheer effort. He’s an above-average on-ball defender who can guard 2s, 3s and 4s with relative strength. He even will sometimes deal with 1s so the team can hide Morant. He’s best on the true 3s, where he can use his strength to body them up. But he just consistently works hard enough that he’s a positive there. Off the ball, he’s a bit less effective, as he has short arms and isn’t really a threat to get into passing lanes or go for strips. He’s not the quick twitch athlete someone like Melton is in terms of reactivity, and he’s not quite Josh Jackson in regard to his desire to induce havoc and fly around. He knows where to be rotationally for the most part and doesn’t destroy you when he’s out there, but he’s not making a positive impact when he’s off the ball like some of the other Grizzlies’ defenders.
Offensively, Brooks is a shot-maker who is fearless. If he’s open for even a split second, the shot is going up. If he gets a driving lane, he’s getting downhill in a hurry and trying to finish at the rim. He’s not particularly efficient, and I worry that sometimes he might think he’s a bit better than he is in a negative way, but this team also needs a wing who can consistently create shots like he can. He fills a legitimate role for them. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Brooks has a 50.8 true-shooting percentage this year, which is pretty rough for the guy who takes the most shots on a team. His shot selection is pretty rough at times, despite the fact that he’s a pretty solid passer. As a jump shooter, there are certain spots where he’s particularly most comfortable. If he gets to either elbow, or if he’s above the break on the right side of the floor, he’s really, really good. Those are areas where the Grizzlies should feel good about him getting shots, and he takes most of his jumpers there. The elbow has always been a sweet spot for him, too, going back to his days at Oregon. But around the rim, out further than the elbow in the midrange, on the left side of the floor? Brooks struggles pretty mightily. It’s a pretty stark shooting chart that matches the tape.
The struggles around the rim are ultimately what hold him back from being a consistent No. 3 option for this offense behind Morant and Jackson. He acts that way as it is, but for them to take the next step, he needs to be able to make shots at the basket. In the halfcourt this season, Brooks has hit just 45.5 percent of his shots, according to Synergy. That is 169th out of the 182 players who have taken at least 100 such attempts at the rim. And among guys who played on the wing, it is third-worst behind Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish. Having said that, I’m a bit skeptical that he’ll iron it out any time soon. The way Brooks plays is balls-to-the-wall without patience. It emanates from every part of his game. And it’s really hard to finish in the NBA that way when you also don’t have much length. Patience is what Brooks needs to learn around the basket.
Some of the statements here might make you think I’m not all that high on Brooks, but I do like him. It’s hard to find good on-ball defensive wings who can also create shots. His extension was well worth it. He really fills a need for the Grizzlies. And additionally, the money isn’t so expensive as to where if they find an upgrade on Brooks, they can’t move him into a sixth-man role. But I’m comfortable with him as a starter, and he fills a need. He just needs to iron out some of the rougher edges that bring down his efficiency. But at the very least, Brooks will play in the NBA for a decade because he’s tough, physical and a shot-maker. Whether he’s a starter long-term or slinks back into a lesser role at some point, that’ll be contingent on him slowing himself down a bit more while maintaining that edge.