This will be a piece addressing Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke and the fact that, as of now, he should be on the draft radar as a possible late 1st round flyer, at least for those unafraid of a little risk. (Not that any team will think about taking him there.)
I watched Duke-Virginia Tech to get a better glimpse of Jayson Tatum, who right now, along with Markkannen, is my least favorite of the consensus Prospects. Though I need time to watch for my tape before I say anything conclusive about Tatum. Not more than to ask if anyone else has seen that he has a lot of trouble clearing screens? And if so, does this happen in every game?
That was one of my main takeaways when watching the game. The other, who the fuck is Chris Clarke? And why do I not know about him already?
Early in the game, Clarke sticks Tatum and blocks him man-up after Tatum can’t get separation on a drive wide of the rim. Though it might have been Sy who actually got the ball. Or it might have been both from the angles I saw.
But upon first glance, it looked like Clarke. That wasn’t the first noteworthy thing Clarke did that game, as he was already handling and making passes at 6’6″. But that’s what first really made me take notice. Then after that, there was a whole litany of play that made me say, “Holy Shit!”
Chris Clarke later puts Tatum on skates in transition. Scraps occasionally with Duke’s Bigs besides. Is asked to match up with Tatum, Is asked to match up with Frank Jackson after no one else can glue him. Kennard on a couple of plays before that. (Kennard seemingly gets position on him a couple of times, but misses.)
Plus there’s hustle. There’s Energy. Rebounding. Quick decisions, which are mostly right. Playing some point at 6’6″. Leading the break and making the right play. Quick, solid passes in the half court which often lead to openings in the offense. When off the ball, Chris Clarke makes a solid cut or two. He runs in transition. And with all that, above the rim play.
And everything in only 16 minutes. Because somewhere in between all that Clarke ran into foul trouble, and ended up sitting most of the game. Most of the first half, and then after that third foul, most of the second, until Williams brought Clarke in to help close out the game.
Final line: 16 minutes. 5-5 shooting. 3-6 from the free throw line. 13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, one turnover, 3 fouls.
So I had to ask is this just one game? And if not, how is a clear NBA athlete with this much skill and feel going unnoticed?
Well, it’s not just one game. It’s half a season.
Chris Clarke Numbers and Some Highlights
Here are his advanced stats this year. (per Sports-Reference)
And here are Chris Clarke’s last six games. (Also per Sports-Reference)
This is a player to watch, even if he didn’t triple-double The Citadel. 13-12-10-2 in 29 minutes. If you want to just get the quick version. You can see Clarke make plays finishing, passing, contesting on D beginning around 0:55 in the video.
(In truth, the triple-double is not quite as impressive as the stat-line makes it seem. Not just because of the level of competition, but because half of the assists come either on simple outlets or in garbage time. Though some others display genuine vision and passing ability.)
Chris Clarke vs. NC State and What’s Not To Like
First, take everything I’ve written with a small grain of salt. I’ve only watched three games so far.
The third being Virginia Tech vs. North Carolina St. which I just finished. The Dennis Smith Triple-Double Game. (It was probably the Dennis Smith, Jr. triple double game because Sy didn’t play, and Virginia Tech has no Bigs besides.)
1) The Good: Before the score turned the affair into a broken game slop fest of pressing, trapping and fouling, I believe Clarke matched up on Dennis Smith, Jr. six times either on switches, in transition or out of a match-up zone. In these six chances, Clarke shut down Dennis Smith five times. (Two of these still ended in positive plays for Smith, Jr. Assists. One a three in the short corner. One a lob for a lay-up. But they were not the fault of Clarke.) Which is to say, Clarke has a decent frame and can definitely move his feet and stay with smaller, quicker offensive players.
On the one drive I’ve not yet addressed, Smith, Jr. beat Clarke on an up and under step through for a short floater. It was smooth and pretty. And if you want to see, this drive is on all the triple-double highlights.
I could be wrong, but believe it was the only time Smith, Jr. got past the free through line vs Clarke. And though Smith easily wins on the play, he doesn’t get past Clarke clean off the dribble. Just forcing Smith, Jr. to make a move like that says something. Because more often than not Smith, Jr. was just turning the corner on the whichever Hokie was covering him. Then proceeding to the rim without impediment.
(On a side note, Clarke has a tendency sometimes to get beat by his own aggressiveness. It’s exactly why Kennard, who didn’t end up finishing, got much better looks when matched up vs. Clarke than Tatum did. Going straight up toe-to-toe, Clarke looks like an excellent college perimeter defender, and perhaps a very good one should he make the NBA and continue to progress. But he takes himself out of plays at times.)
2) Other good stuff: Lots of drives, many of them successful at getting all the way to the basket, many of them drawing fouls, some of them creating passing lanes which created scoring chances. And that’s in keeping with Clarke in general. We see some real creation ability with his passing. We only saw five assists, but there were eight to ten assist opportunities created throughout the game.
3) The Bad: Chris Clarke was definitely overmatched in the interior against Abu, even getting blown by once from about 15 feet by the bigger player. (We see this from time to time, where a good, long first step by a bigger player can get the corner on a smaller defender, even if they are pretty good at defending elsewhere. It’s what Lebron does whenever Klay is matched up on him. And if Abu has faults, they are certainly not athletic.) I’m guessing Clarke was giving up 3″-4″ before even addressing weight and wingspan.
On another note, Clarke did pretty well guarding Yurtseven and Rowan, though he did let Rowan get a bucket by aggressively overhelping. I don’t know what Yurtseven is going to do against actual quality defenders if he can’t absolutely dominate a guy who stands 6’5″ or 6’6″.
4) More Bad: There was also a lot of sloppy play. At least two or three loose turnovers dribbling. Most of them entirely unforced.
That’s something I also saw in the game vs. The Citadel. Two relatively unforced turnovers. One on a dribble. One on a pass. Correctable errors, but errors nonetheless. Important to note, because often players don’t fix the problems in their games that should be correctable.
5) The Ugly: Clarke has absolutely zero jump shot. I saw one bad three vs. the Wolfpack, and it’s the only three I’ve seen Clarke take. He’s at 33%, but the more meaningful number is that he’s only shot 9 on the season. That’s an exceedingly low number at where we are in the season. Less than one attempt per game.
He’s also only 65.5% from the Free Throw line, with a negative progression from his Freshman to Sophomore year. And I’ve seen some ugly misses where the shots aren’t terribly on-line, even if they hit rim.
Hoop-Math does say Clark is 10-22 from mid-range, and only 1 of those 10 makes is assisted. 45.5%. Though, making an educated guess, I have a feeling these are more jumpers and floaters of the 3-10 foot variety than actual mid-range work, which might make a jumper from distance at least projectable.
Last Thing: There’s also the frame. Clarke was last measured in 2013. 6’5″ with a 6’7″ wingspan.
We’d guess there’s been some growth, but I’d guess not much. So let’s estimate he’s somewhere between 6’6″-6’7″ with a 6’7″ to 6’9″ wingspan. Those aren’t great measurements by current NBA standards, especially if he’s closer to the low numbers. Though they are similar to two more than respectable NBA players who, perhaps coincidentally, not only had similar college games but both played for Buzz Williams.
I say perhaps coincidentally, because it’s certainly possible that Williams knows how to spot players like Clarke. And beyond that, to put them into situations where they will flourish.
Two Meaningful Differences Between Butler + Crowder and Chris Clarke
1) Even though Clark looks to possess great strength in his body, it’s either not on the level of Butler/Crowder, or he doesn’t yet know how to leverage his strength against bigger players. In college, we definitely saw Crowder go up against bigger players and fair much better than Clarke did in this game. And I think the same was true for Butler, since he was basically forced to play Center a decent amount of time for that Marquette team on D.
2) Another potential difference. Both were much more proficient shooters than Clarke in different ways. Crowder fired about 300 three-pointers combined his junior and senior year. Butler didn’t shoot threes, especially not his sophomore and junior year, but he did make free throws at 77%.
But if Clarke can somehow manage to improve in this area, the baseline tools are there. He can dribble well enough that we can imagine a reasonable amount of improvement with practice. He’s sudden. He has good vision, timing and sense of where and when to make passes. He desperately wants to win. (That was perhaps the best quality Clarke showed in the NC St. game. Effort. Competitiveness. How hard he played to the very end.)
In previous pieces, I’ve spoken about Mikal Bridges. As a player who could potentially have some atypical growth. But the truth is, it’s unlikely. His handle right now could perhaps most aptly be defined as somewhat limited. Fine should Bridges be able to shoot threes at the next level. But not much otherwise. And atypical growth is not something you want to bet on. After all, it’s atypical for a reason.
That is to say, it’s the typical growth that’s more the concern for such players. Which in this case means shooting the ball from distance. That’s always going to be the concern for Bridges and other players of his ilk. Simply put, shooting, not dribbling, is the make or break skill for Bridges. If you think he’s a good bet to shoot, you value him highly. If not, you don’t.
There’s risk there, but it’s risk I’m fine with taking. As there’s some upside there as well.
It’s a fairly decent archetype for players to fall somewhere between the late lottery and the end of the 1st round: Defense + Frame + Athleticism + Smarts + Finishing at the Rim + Semi Projectable Three-Point Shooting that might allow the player to fit within an NBA offense.
That being said, the Chris Clarke archetype is perhaps more rare and has even more upside: The combination of size, athleticism, energy, defense and rebounding with enough dribbling skill and intelligence that the player can initiate from the perimeter.
You know, the Jimmy Butler archetype. But without any semblance of a jump shot. The thing that’s exciting is the combination of size, dribbling, suddenness, decision-making and effort. It’s something I’d be willing to take a risk on, likely at some point in the 1st, banking on good teaching. Though it’s highly unlikely any NBA team will think of things that way. Which is of course why a player like Clarke should return to school.
Yet I wanted to put him on the radar, since there’s a lot of impressive things about his game. And there’s legitimate upside if Clarke takes his jumper from non-existent to passable. As it was for Crowder in 2015-16, when he put up a +3 season overall, despite only shooting 33% from three. And almost all of that out of the spot.