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‘I’m cool being second place to him’: Brandon Clarke prepared to hand over Gonzaga blocks record to Chet Holmgren

SAN FRANCISCO – It was at this very venue, the Chase Center in San Francisco, last December when Brandon Clarke was notified another prolific Gonzaga rim protector was beginning to make a run at his school record for blocked shots in a single season.

Clarke wasn’t naive enough to think his record would hold forever, but maybe at least a handful of years. Then again, he’d also watched his share of Chet Holmgren highlights.

“I thought it would be there longer, but I’m cool with it being him because he was the No. 1 recruit coming out of high school,” Clarke, now a third-year player for the Memphis Grizzlies, said on Dec. 23 at the Chase Center after a game against the Golden State Warriors. “I’m grateful to watch him play for the Zags, so if he breaks it, it’s awesome.”

In 2018-19, Clarke redefined what it meant to be an elite shot-blocker at Gonzaga, compiling 117 in his lone season with the Bulldogs after transferring from San Jose State. It took Clarke only 24 games to barrel past Austin Daye’s previous single-season record of 70 blocks, and he’d quickly become the first player in school history to reach 80 blocks in a season. Then 90. Then 100. Then 110.

Ultimately, the count stopped at 117 – a West Coast Conference and school record – as Clarke and Gonzaga bowed out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament with an Elite Eight loss to Texas Tech.

Now with 115 blocks, Holmgren is on the brink of taking ownership of the record, needing only two to match Clarke or three to surpass him on Thursday in Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 matchup against Arkansas at the Chase Center.

Holmgren’s chase began with a resounding defensive effort against Dixie State when the freshman rejected seven shots in his college debut to match Przemek Karnowski’s single-game school mark, making it feel like a matter of when, not if, the 7-footer would take down Clarke’s record.

“There’s going to be some breakdowns and the ball’s going to get inside, so it’s nice to have him rotating over, and for a first game, I thought he was spectacular all around,” Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson said after the Dixie State game.

“But obviously, the shot-blocking was special to tie that record in your first true game is pretty cool.”

If Holmgren blocks at least two shots on Thursday – something he’s done in all but three games this season – he’ll tie the shot-blocking milestone in only 32 games, five games faster than Clarke did in 2018-19. The freshman from Minnesota may have the record already and may have been able to create a bigger gap between himself and Clarke, if not cancellations against Washington, Pacific and Loyola Marymount.

Holmgren is averaging 3.7 blocks per game, which ranks fourth nationally, and he’s redirected 11 shots through two games in the NCAA Tournament, stuffing seven against Georgia State and four more in the Round of 32 against Memphis – a few of those against the Tigers’ 6-11, 250-pound projected lottery pick center Jalen Duren.

By comparison, Clarke blocked 3.1 shots per game during his record-setting 2018-19 season.

“He’s just a one-of-a-kind player, the way he’s built, his feel for the game is real good,” Clarke said. “He’s 7-foot-whatever, his arms are very long. That’s not really something I had back in the day. My arms weren’t that long, I was only 6-8. So I wish I was that tall being able to block those shots, but if my record is to be broken by him, I’m fine with it because he’s a great player and I’m cool with being second place to him.”

The exceptionally athletic Clarke set Gonzaga’s shot-blocking record as a 6-8 forward who could trampoline off the floor to reject shots that he may not have been in position to track down otherwise. His vertical leaping and defensive prowess have helped make Clarke a key rotational piece for the Grizzlies, who sit second in the Western Conference.

Holmgren has the built-in advantage of height, along with a wingspan that’s been measured between 7-5 and 7-6. Still, he’s far from the only 7-footer in college basketball and yet one of only six players nationally who’ve surpassed the triple-digit mark in blocked shots this season.

“He is such a presence down there, and it helps our defense a lot when covering up mistakes or just when we have a breakdown defensively, he’s always there to kind of clean it up and take care of it,” frontcourt mate Drew Timme said earlier this month. “It’s definitely huge.”

Timme suggested college basketball statisticians not only chart shots blocked, but also shots altered. The mere threat of Holmgren has kept many of Gonzaga’s opponents out of the paint, settling for lower-percentage perimeter shots. A recent story in The Athletic noted that Memphis scored 26 points in 17 possessions (1.52 points per possession) when Holmgren was on Gonzaga’s bench versus 52 points in 51 possessions when he was on the floor (1.02 ppp).

A projected top-five draft pick, Holmgren is springy for his size, superb when it comes to blocking shots both on and off the ball and has exceptional timing – perhaps the most vital aspect of good rim protection.

“Everyone’s different, but I would say timing is probably the biggest part of it,” Clarke said. “For him, obviously his arms are crazy long and he’s tall so that’s going to help him. But having his timing, and his feel for the game, is what really makes him great at it and why he’s probably No. 1 in the country right now, if not top three in the country at it. For me, it was just timing and being able to get up quick and read the person I was guarding.”

Zach Gourde, a proficient GU shot-blocker in the early 2000s, has been impressed with another aspect of Holmgren’s ability.

“He manages to disrupt so many shots without putting himself in a compromised position where he’s likely to draw fouls,” Gourde said. “He shows exceptional body control, he’s able to change directions and rejump very quickly. Brandon Clarke was an amazing athlete, but Chet and Brandon block shots in very different ways. Chet’s more about position, more about being long and making sure he’s leaving enough space that he’s not picking up fouls whereas Brandon would just go up and find the ball.”

From 2000-03, Gourde blocked 86 shots in a Zags uniform. The number ranks No. 10 at the school, but Gourde figures it’s only a matter of time before he’s pushed off the list completely given the type of athlete GU’s been able to recruit over the last decade.

“The athleticism Gonzaga manages to put on the floor at all positions every day, obviously there’s a reason they’re at the No. 1 and 2 spots in the country every year,” Gourde said. “They’re putting athletes on the floor that not only have amazing athletic ability but also have a technical understanding of the game that allows them to go and do things just like that.

“Yeah, I mean these guys are blocking more shots in a season than I did in a career.”

Clarke’s record may stand for only 48 more hours. Pending Gonzaga’s success in the NCAA Tournament, Holmgren may have a chance to reach 125-130 blocks by the end of the season.

It’ll beg another question: How long until another Zag takes aim at the record?

“You always expect it’s going to take a long time, but Brandon Clarke’s record was not set that long ago and Chet’s not going to blow it out of the water,” Gourde said. “So, there’s no reason we couldn’t see another athlete of either one of their calibers come through reasonably soon. We’re in the position where we have pretty good choices of who we’re recruiting these days.”