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Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke follows own path to breakout season

UPDATED: Tue., March 19, 2019, 10:18 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY – Brandon Clarke wouldn’t change a thing.

Not back to when he was an accomplished but overlooked prep player in Phoenix who received exactly one Division I offer from a lower-level Mountain West Conference program.

Not back to when a late coaching change at his previous stop is probably the only reason he’s wearing a Gonzaga uniform today.

Not back to a redshirt year with the Zags when he revamped his shooting form to expand his paint-only production to the perimeter.

And certainly not to present day, after putting together one of the best seasons by a big man in program history, including the foursome in the NBA this year and nine who have collected NBA paychecks this decade.

“At San Jose State, it wasn’t a lot of fun losing those two years,” Clarke said. “I came here and it’s the exact opposite of that. It’s obviously the most fun I’ve had playing basketball. I’m just trying to soak up all these moments and live it up.”

Clarke and Rui Hachimura form what many regard as the nation’s best frontcourt, a unit made stronger with the return of Killian Tillie from a foot injury.

Hachimura’s pioneering journey – the son of a Japanese mother and Beninese father who will likely become the first Japanese native drafted in the first round – has been chronicled by dozens of TV and media outlets.

Clarke’s background isn’t nearly as exotic, though he was born in Canada. His meteoric rise – and we’re not talking about his high-flying hops – is impressive in its own right.

He was probably going to come off the bench until Tillie’s preseason ankle injury. Four-plus months later, Clarke is on watch lists for national player and defender of the year. Numerous mock drafts project Clarke as a first-round selection. SBnation.com has Clarke No. 2, behind Duke’s Zion Williamson and ahead of No. 13 Hachimura in its top 50 players in the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t know if I’m surprised,” GU coach Mark Few said. “We were with him all last year, so we knew that he had a real talent and what he was capable of doing. Pleasantly pleased with just how consistent he’s been and how he’s been able to deliver, not just on the defensive end but his offensive game has also grown.”

Clarke moved from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Phoenix when he was 3 years old. He played football for a few years before concentrating on basketball.

He started to blossom physically and on the court later in his prep career. He had a strong AAU summer circuit prior to his senior season at Desert Vista High, drawing interest from Division I programs.

Interest didn’t lead to many scholarship offers.

Clarke wanted to play his senior season without having to worry about his college decision. Santa Clara, Northeastern and San Jose State showed the most interest, and Clarke let each school know he was going to make a decision on a specific date in July.

“I only got one offer that day,” Clarke said. “It ended up being San Jose State, and I’m glad that it was. It all turned out great for me.”

Clarke, who was 6-foot-6 and 175 pounds at the time, had a huge senior season for Desert Vista. He averaged a triple-double, according to coach Tony Darden.

“He wasn’t as aggressive at the beginning of the season as he was at the end,” Darden said. “He was used to oversharing. I had to talk to him about using his ability to take over games.

“He was the man on that team and I think everybody knew it but him. It speaks to how modest he is as a kid and a player. You can still see that on the floor in how he shares the ball and sets screens.”

Despite putting up impressive stats and playing on a state runner-up, Clarke still was flying under the radar, He wasn’t all-state, a source of frustration for Darden.

“It was tough for him to get the recognition we thought he deserved,” Darden aid.

Clarke, a self-described late bloomer, kept producing in two seasons at San Jose State and this time his achievements brought recognition. He was the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman. He averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks to earn first-team All-MWC and All-Defensive team honors as a sophomore. The Spartans finished 14-16, the program’s best record since 2011.

Spartans coach Dave Wojcik resigned unexpectedly in July 2017. San Jose State was trending up, but Clarke, who had matured into a bouncy 6-8, 210-pound forward, decided to consider his options.

“I feel like I probably would still be there,” Clarke said, “but it’s hard to say.”

Clarke’s phone rang nonstop, from Pac-12 programs to national powers. He was surprised by the interest, but quickly settled on Gonzaga over Oregon and Washington State.

Clarke shattered the Zags’ single-season blocks record with seven games remaining in the regular season. He’s the team’s leading rebounder (8.4) and second in scoring (16.5). He leads the nation in field-goal shooting percentage at 69.3, a fraction ahead of Williamson. Clarke has improved his free-throw shooting percentage from 56.8 at San Jose State to 69.1 at Gonzaga.

Clarke had 21 points and nine boards when the Zags lost to Tennessee in a December thriller in Phoenix, including a stunning block at the rim of Yves Pons.

“I was going crazy,” Darden said. “Where I was sitting, I had my son with me and we had NBA scouts next to us with their computers. They were just looking at each other.”

Clarke had a number of family and friends on hand, including his mom and stepfather, Bryan Triplett, brother of professional golfer Kirk Triplett. The Triplett brothers attended Pullman High.

“I’m crying,” Bryan told the Arizona Republic after the game. “It can’t get any better. I’m just so happy. Other people appreciate his talent now. I’m a biased parent for many years and now, you know? Now everybody else out there knows how good he really is.”

Clarke has made a lasting impression on Darden and his 6-year-old son, A.J.

“I’m just so proud of him,” Darden said. “My son makes me DVR all of their games, so in the morning I’ll come down and he’ll be watching Gonzaga-North Carolina. I’m like, ‘You’ve watched it 50 times.’ He knows all the plays and he’ll say, ‘Watch this, watch this.’ ”

Everybody’s keeping an eye on Clarke, from scouts to national media. He’s one of the main reasons fourth-ranked Gonzaga is a national championship contender. The Zags open the NCAA Tournament against Fairleigh Dickinson on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

“I was definitely kind of salty I couldn’t play in the NCAAs (at San Jose State),” Clarke said. “There were some (tournament) games I’d watch, but it wasn’t like I was a crazy fan with all the TVs set up. It’s always kind of been a dream of mine. It’s here now. I’m looking forward to the moment.

“It was definitely weird at times, but I’m very blessed and I wouldn’t have changed my journey in any way.”

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