NBA Frontcourts of the Future: Jaren Jackson Jr. & Brandon Clarke

“The NBA is a guard-oriented league.”

Modernized spacing concepts lead to wider driving lanes, making it easier than ever to be a guard. The trends are certainly changing towards skill and versatility over size and strength.

So, why are teams still investing in high-caliber frontcourt tandems?

In a five-part series here at TBW, we dive into rosters that are banking a lot of money and/or valuable draft picks on a collection of young frontcourt talent (under the age of 25) as hopeful foundational pieces while bucking (and sometimes, re-writing) the trends. Thus far, we’ve featured the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks in their efforts to build around young bigs.

This series can be viewed under a speculative lense as much as an analytical one. Do these forms of team-building lead to championship-caliber teams? Is there too much redundancy in today’s game by having two big men who may be best-suited to play the center position in crunch time? What makes a certain team’s frontcourt pairing unique enough to spite those trends?

In other words, fit is just as much a driver of this conversation as talent.

Stewing in Memphis is a frontcourt that has the potential for defensive dominance. So much of the pairing between Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke—two first-round selections by the Memphis Grizzlies in consecutive years—is based on their ability to succeed on that end of the court.

Before they even play together, Clarke and Jackson have a high bar to leap and the potential to do so.

Jul 15, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke (15) reaches for a defensive rebound against the Minnesota Timberwolves during second half of the NBA Summer League championship game at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball isn’t played on just one end of the court, however. There are no designated hitters, no defenders or strikers that only play one side of the ball. The terror-inducing presences of Clarke and Jackson on defense will only go as far as their ability to coexist on offense.

Second overall pick Ja Morant will play a large role in that story as well.

The Grizzlies have made it clear by drafting Clarke that they plan to work him and Jackson side by side. The question still needs to be asked: Is this tandem and style of roster-building one that can bear championship-caliber fruit?

Clarke took a large step forward in proving doubters (such as myself) wrong at Summer League, both in terms of his overall impact and his jump shot. The MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League, Clarke made four triples and was solid when stretching defenses.

What caused hesitance was the combination of a large enough sample to develop doubts about Clarke’s jumper and a feeling that the mechanics were somewhat disconnected. His track record on pick-and-pops in college was spotty.

He was 7-23 (30.4 percent) during his final two years of collegiate play, which is not terrible. But he was roughly the same shooter in spot-up situations (34.8 percent), a low rate from the college line.

Moving back a few feet could either prove disastrous or important for a shooter like Clarke, who has a slower release. The added distance could hurt his accuracy, or the extra space could give him more time to wind up when he’s open. The difference between the two is impossible to predict with certainty.

The mechanical issues, particularly with Clarke’s lower body and with the stiff, robotic-like launch he had at Gonzaga were clear. The first minute of our scouting video for him at TBW highlights as much:

Look at how he shot at Summer League and none of those fears disappear. Clarke’s leg kicks are still inconsistent, he has a stiff gather into a light hop for his shot and his overall flow is a bit off.

He does seem to be better with more space, meaning NBA upside is probable on the horizon. But the teams in Vegas were sagging hard off Clarke and rarely closed out with intent.

All defenders opted to stay down, only leaving their feet once Clarke was airborne. Some would even stop short and forego getting a hand up, living with whatever result occurs:

While Clarke could vault himself into being a passable perimeter option, who knows how he adjusts to defenders that actually respect him and crowd a bit more?

The appearance that space will aid his jumper only goes as far as the space defenders want him to have.

Clarke turns 23 before playing in a regular-season game and will be 27 at the conclusion of his rookie contract. Those traits dropped his draft stock but should not have clouded judgment on his jump shot.

Loads of professionals have experienced variance, either positive or negative, in their outside shooting later in their careers. To write off Clarke’s shooting for the long-term because of his age would be a mistake. Shooting is one of the easiest skills to teach a prospect, and if Clarke becomes competent in this area, he’s going to be a very good basketball player.

Where the Gonzaga product really thrives is as a rolling big, and no offensive frontcourt compliment coexists better with a gravity-taking roller than Jaren Jackson Jr.

Last year’s fourth overall pick was a First-Team All-Rookie member while scoring 19.0 points per 36 minutes. While he’s a long and lanky finisher with upside off the bounce, Jackson may be the best shooting big in the last few draft classes.

He nailed 40 percent from three in wins as a rookie, and 38 percent in Memphis’ FedEx Forum, according to Basketball-Reference’s shooting splits page. There is a fantastic amount of upside for Jackson to continue thriving as a mismatch 4 or 5, and his shooting will allow Clarke to be more of a roller than a popper when involved in ball screens.

Jackson’s jumper is also a tad unorthodox in terms of form, but he’s proven himself effective over a long period.

Jaren just needs space to beat other bigs one-on-one. He and Marc Gasol played well together: The Grizzlies were +2.2 per 100 possessions when the two shared the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass lineup metrics. The starting group—with Gasol, Jackson, Mike Conley, Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson—was a defensive dynamo and outscored opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions.

Gasol was a shooting big that sucked defenders onto him. Both he and Jackson operated inside and outside, so it did not matter who guarded them; At least one would have an interior advantage. Jackson’s strength was going past stiffer bigs and just knifing into the lane one-on-one:

The spacing surrounding Jackson’s drives radically changes when Clarke joins him.

Routinely at Gonzaga, teams would ignore Clarke on the perimeter and be helpers off him. Since watching the Gonzaga Bulldogs face the Florida State Seminoles in the NCAA Tournament, I’ve been certain that in a tight game or a playoff series, teams that face Clarke and another big will guard him the same way Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles did.

Florida State went under every action and played so far off Clarke he looked like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. His primary defender, Christ Koumadje, did not leave the paint to challenge Clarke when he had the ball outside the three-point line. He moved his feet and used his length to dissuade the 6’9″ Clarke from finishing over him.

He even went underneath a two-man action only twelve feet from the hoop, the ultimate sign of disrespect:

Clarke was subbed out at the 17:32 mark of the first half, less than three minutes into game action. Not exactly the type of substitution that gives you confidence in his abilities, is it?

The Seminoles would even switch matchups and drop off Clarke with guards.

Routinely, a wing or guard that defends a big on the perimeter will pressure him, knowing he has the quickness to stay in front and can disrupt what is likely a below-average ball handler. Florida State forfeited that strategy and sagged with guards. Watch now-Los Angeles Clipper Terance Mann do the same thing after switching onto Clarke:

For a full forty minutes, Florida State dared Clarke to make an offensive impact with the ball in his hands and from the perimeter. They clogged the lane, sagged off him, made him hesitate and played his spin. They lived with his floaters, rarely left the paint, utilized as much length on him as possible and prevented him from making a single hi-lo entry to Rui Hachimura. They ignored him late in the clock on pick-and-pops.

Clarke was 6-15 from the field with two assists and three turnovers in 34 minutes:

Even if it did not provide them victory, the Seminoles found a flaw that NBA scouts cannot ignore. Clarke swallows up spacing if he does not develop a jumper, making that development the single-most-important skill to be gained.

At the 21st selection, Clarke is a worthwhile gamble due to all the other facets he brings. But opponents will stick their center on Clarke and their 4-man on Jackson. Even if Jackson has a post mismatch one-on-one, Clarke’s man will be dropping off to clog driving lanes and be a weak-side shot-blocking presence. The same goes for face-up drives from the wing; simply turn Jackson into a passer and live with the result elsewhere.

Jackson was able to thrive next to Gasol due to the Spaniard’s outside shooting. Ignore Gasol, and he’d pick-and-pop you, he’d spot up or he’d initiate offense at the elbows, slicing and diving opponents.

Until his jump shot becomes reliable, Clarke can only drive and engage in dribble handoffs at a high clip.

Now four-fifths of the way through this series on youthful big man pairings, the Grizzlies stand out as the best example of why playing two posts together can be dangerous.

In order to thwart teams’ who field multiple wings and only one big, the abilities of both posts must simulate those of both wings and bigs. If they do not, one end of the court will be sacrificed in favor of the other.

Jackson and Clarke have a good opportunity to grow together and complement each other. But what the Grizzlies sacrifice by trying to force them to work—in the way of shooting and how its absence affects Jackson in the post—can just as easily impact their future in a negative way.

While I love their defensive dynamics, Jackson is too talented and too young to stifle by surrounding him with poor spacing, a ball-dominant guard and no touches in one-on-one situations.

Meanwhile, Jackson is three years younger than Clarke, making him the prize to build around and Clarke the supporting role. The Grizzlies need shooting wings to surround both long-term, particularly if they are going to try and jam them together for long stretches.

First-year head coach Taylor Jenkins, a shrewd player development guy, will have his work cut out for him.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Synergy Sports Tech, Basketball-Reference or NBA.com stats, and are current as of August 4, 2019.

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