GRITGRINDGRIZZ: ‘Energy guy’ Brandon Clarke’s game mature beyond his years

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Every successful NBA team needs an “energy guy.”

More often than not, the energy guy can overcome offensive limitations through hard work – specifically, the dirty work of defense and rebounding, but it’s more than that. The best of them are able to energize their teammates and an entire arena. They can impose their will on the game without scoring a basket. In fact, reliable scoring from an energy guy is almost considered a bonus.

Lee Eric Smith

But “energy guy” isn’t a role that players typically seek out. Before they arrive in the NBA, most players were “The Man” at lower levels, and they hope to be “The Man” in the NBA. The “Energy Guy” usually emerges after players adjust their game – and their career expectations. It can take years for players to adapt to being a role player in the NBA, let alone be happy with it.

Which brings us to the Grizzlies’ Brandon Clarke. On paper, he’s a rookie. But his game is showing the maturity of a grizzled veteran.

Among rookies, Clarke ranks in the Top 10 in points (12.7 per game). His 5.9 rebounds a game makes him No. 2 among rookies. And among rookies who play more than 20 minutes a night, Clarke leads all in shooting percentage, shooting 66.6 percent from the field.

And that’s in just 21 minutes per game. Extrapolated out to 36 minutes and Clarke would be a reliable double-double, averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds. His 22.87 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) makes him the top rookie in his class – ahead of second-place Ja Morant’s 19.50 PER.

“B.C. is off to a heck of a start,” said Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins.

Some of that is simply a function of playing time – The Grizzlies are playing all of their young players significant minutes as they rebuild. Put it like this: L.A. Clippers rookie Terance Mann is only getting about nine minutes a game on a projected title contender. Getting a chance to get on the floor certainly will help you grow.

But make no mistake about it: Clarke was a steal when Oklahoma City drafted him at No. 21 – and he became an even bigger steal when Memphis traded their No. 17 pick Darius Bazley to get him. And the reason is, he seems to be that rare rookie who already knows his role in the  NBA – an “energy guy” – and probably more.

“It’s just really how I play basketball,” Clarke said Tuesday, after the Grizzlies beat Miami 118-111. “It’s just how I was taught. I’m definitely glad I was able to pick it up fast. That’s just a credit my coaches and my teammates helping me.”

Indeed much of Clarke’s impact comes from a lethal combination of athleticism and pure effort. Clarke’s timing and springy leaping ability help him snag rebounds while opponents are still on the floor. He’s long and athletic enough to defend multiple positions. But Morant said Clarke’s motor never stops.

“That’s my guy. He just comes on the court and he’ll do whatever,” Morant said. “You see him all over the court – blocking shots, rebounding, scoring. He just does it all. He just does whatever coach asks him to do, and when he comes off the bench, it just brings that energy to us.”

Jenkins said it’s hard to predict how long it will take a player to adjust to the NBA, but credits his young players like Morant, Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. with having a special mix of raw talent, work ethic and coachability.

“Every player is different. The transition to the NBA is an interesting one,” said Taylor Jenkins. “Everyone comes from different backgrounds – underclassmen or upperclassmen; one-year player or four-year player; in college or overseas. You know, it’s just a credit to their work.

CLARKE’S LAW OF EFFICIENCY
Take good, high percentage shots at the rim, preferably uncontested. Don’t take bad shots. Crash the glass for rebounds.
By embracing those simple fundamentals, Brandon Clarke has already become one of the most efficient players in the NBA. Not only do Clarke’s springy legs help him create space for his jumper in the paint, he’s a beast on the glass as well.
The former Gonzaga star takes 75 percent of his shots in the paint or at the rim – but he’s also displaying his accuracy from the arc, and particularly the corner 3. The chart’s shows ZERO baseline jumper attempts – indicating Clarke already knows long two-pointers are to be avoided.

“They just focus on getting better,” he continued. “They (don’t feel) entitled just because they were drafted here, expecting everything to come their way. They’re hungry, they want to get better and they are coachable.”

On offense, Clarke seems to intuitively know where he’s most effective and seems to only shoot from those places. Clarke shoots 75 percent of his shots in the paint, where he’s shooting an eye-popping 71 percent.

In other words, he mostly only takes good, high-percentage shots – which is a big part of the reason he makes so many of them. And even when he’s not in the paint, he’s selective about his shots, which is why he’s shooting above 50 percent from almost everywhere else he pulls up.

“He allows us to get out and run,” Morant said. “Because he’s able to block out, rebound and still beat everybody else down the court. And it just opened up our offense because he can knock down the 3, too.”

NBA pre-draft scouting reports dinged him for his shooting ability, but he’s even showing mastery of the all-important corner 3. Clarke is shooting 50 percent from the arc on the season and 67 percent over the last 10 games.

“I mean, I guess it’s a good thing to be told that I don’t play like a rookie,” Clarke said Tuesday, after the Grizzlies 118-111 win over the Miami Heat. “The game just feels so much, like, easier now, really.

“At the start, it felt super fast and the pace was really fast,” he said. “But now it’s just kind of like slowed down a bit, and it’s gotten much easier. I just hope it keeps on going.”