DALLAS – Brandon Clarke’s first NBA All-Star Weekend figures to be a special experience.
On Friday, the ex-Gonzaga standout will suit up alongside former teammate Rui Hachimura for Team World in the 2020 Rising Stars Game at Chicago’s United Center. Clarke will play against current Memphis teammates Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, the favorite to win NBA top rookie honors, who are on the U.S. squad.
Among Clarke’s teammates in Chicago could be Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ reigning NBA Rookie of the Year who is a league MVP candidate in his second year.
“That would be really cool,” Clarke said. “Obviously, he’s a really dynamic player, an awesome passer, so playing with a player that can pass that well is always really, really fun.”
Clarke, 23, was the 21st pick in the 2019 NBA draft by Oklahoma City, which then traded his rights to Memphis. He quickly got his feet wet in summer league, racking up four double-doubles in helping lead the Grizzlies to the league championship.
That was his first time playing alongside Morant, the No. 2 pick in the draft out of Murray State, and even over six months later, this ex-Zag finds himself awed by his talented teammate’s array of skills.
“It’s been a blast, and more just watching him grow every game, watching things that he’s done that I haven’t seen from a teammate ever,” Clarke said. “The things that Ja can do on the court are super, super awesome. It’s really cool that I’m a part of that.”
In 46 games, Clarke has made two starts for the Grizzlies. In 21.8 minutes per game, he is averaging 12 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists.
After a slow start to the season, Memphis has caught fire, winning 14 of its past 17 games. For first-year Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins, the bench’s strong contributions, to which Clarke is a prominent contributor, is one reason for their recent surge.
“Super efficient on both sides of the floor. He’s an impactful player in terms of winning,” Jenkins said of Clarke. “He goes out there and makes winning plays. Offensively, you don’t have to run a whole lot of plays for him. He plays off his teammates so well. He picks his spots – when to be aggressive, when to score, play make for his teammates.”
Clarke’s rather seamless transition shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched him last season, when he averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.1 blocks per game for the Bulldogs.
Clarke credits Gonzaga head coach Mark Few for helping lay the foundation for the NBA success he’s experienced.
“I would probably just say habits,” Clarke said. “They really instilled some really good habits in me that have carried over to the NBA like defensive stuff, being on the boards. The kind of stuff lots of other rookies haven’t learned.”
Although basketball is now a full-time job, Clarke finds time to keep tabs on the Zags and isn’t surprised to see them ranked in the top two, even with him and Hachimura now in the NBA.
“They have such a good coaching staff, they’re just able to get talent back really fast,” Clarke said. “That’s the reason why they’ve been so great the past like 21 years.”
Clarke still loves watching the Zags play and offers his thoughts on two prominent current Bulldogs.
“Yeah, it’s been really fun to watch him (Filip Petrusev) this year,” Clarke said. “Just a really big, strong guy who can shoot it. Also has a really, really good touch and he’s been blocking shots, too, which has been awesome to see.”
He heaps similar praise on the talented shoulders of Killian Tillie, who he feels also has an impressive upside.
“Just a great guy who can pretty much do it all,” he said of Tillie. “On the floor, I feel like there’s nothing that he can’t do, whether if that’s guard the one through four or five. Obviously, he’s a really good shooter, too, and his touch from the paint is also really great. I feel like if he just keeps on playing hard and keeps on getting better that he’ll be great in the future.”
Clarke’s transition to the NBA, on the court and off, has gone rather well for this former Bulldogs standout. He’s one of four rookies on the Grizzlies roster, which means he must endure some rookie rites of passage to pay his dues in the league.
Those rites haven’t included lugging around the dreaded pink backpack, which usually features a children’s character like Dora the Explorer or My Little Pony, announcing the carrier’s rookie status to the world.
But you won’t hear Clarke complaining about the rookie rites he has endured.
“Yeah, I pretty much do whatever they ask,” he said. “There’s times when I have to get them food, grab them towels, grab our bag. But our team is pretty young. We don’t really have many vets, so they’re always telling me that I got it easy.”
Clarke has already made a strong impression on his new teammates and his new coach, who likes what he’s seen.
“He’s still got a lot of stuff that he’s learning, making the transition from college to the NBA, but he does everything with the mindset of ‘I’m going to impact winning,’ and that’s his probably biggest characteristic,” Jenkins said. “He’s super unselfish, super competitive, but I love the fact that when he goes out there, he makes a difference on both ends of the floor.”
Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.
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