Brandon Clarke

High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft

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USA TODAY

High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft

We see this type of story every year. A player who received little attention during the college basketball season parlays a strong finish and impressive athletic testing results into a rapid climb up NBA draft boards.

Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke is one of the players making that kind of jump this year. The 6-foot-8 Clarke was projected as a second round pick at the start of the season, playing in the shadow of his more acclaimed frontcourt mate Rui Hachimura as the Zags won another West Coast Conference title and advanced to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament.

Clarke started receiving some first round buzz late in the season and really caught the attention of NBA scouts with a 36 point, eight rebound, five block performance against Baylor in a second round NCAA tournament game. His numbers for the season are impressive: 16.9 points per game on 68.7 percent shooting from the field, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. And, he followed that up by testing out No. 1 at his position at the NBA Draft Combine with a 34 inch standing vertical, a 40.5 inch max vertical, and a 3.15 second three-quarter court sprint.

Still, in today's three point centric NBA, some teams are concerned about Clarke's limited shooting range, with most of his points coming within 10 feet of the basket. Clarke says that won't be an issue when he gets a chance to work out for teams over the next four weeks.

"Honestly, it's really just about getting a lot of reps," Clarke said. "I've been getting up so many reps with the NBA ball, from the NBA three, and I've been shooting it really, really well. I'm really hoping that teams get to see that, and know that I've been working on it, and taking pride in getting better every day. If I can just keep on getting better, and teams can see that, I think it will help me out a lot."

Clarke is now considered a possible top-10 pick, with several mock drafts having him going to the forward needy Washington Wizards at No. 9, ahead of Hachimura, who may have received a promise from the Timberwolves at No. 11. There's no question Clarke is an explosive leaper who should have an impact at the defensive end from Day 1.

"Blocking shots is something that pretty obviously I'm good at. I was top 3 in the country last year for college basketball," he said. "So, with that being said, I think I'm only going to get better at it. Just something I can bring to any team I get drafted to pretty quickly."

Just about every college player has to adjust to facing bigger and stronger players once they get to the NBA. It’s one thing to dominate against the likes of Pacific and Pepperdine, but can Clarke succeed against some of the elite power forwards in the NBA? He understands the importance of hitting the weight room this summer.

"That’s something that I would love to do. Obviously, the guys are bigger in the league, so I’m going to have to be bigger too," he said. "There are so many players who have changed their bodies once they got there, so I’m not really nervous about that. I'm just looking forward to playing against bigger guys and better competition."

Would the Bulls consider Clarke at No. 7? There is a need for an athletic power forward to play behind Lauri Markkanen, but Clarke's skillset is eerily similar to all-time Bulls draft bust Tyrus Thomas, and that in itself will probably drop him on the team's draft board. Unless the Bulls trade down, their pick will likely come from a group that includes Coby White, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter.

Like so many other players in the 2019 draft, Clarke falls into the risk/reward category, with his ability to develop a consistent outside shot critical to his long term success. Still, it's been a remarkable climb for a player who was lightly regarded by most NBA teams just a few short months ago.

Around the association

You couldn't help but feel a little bit sorry for Golden State All-Star guard Klay Thompson, who was informed after practice on Thursday that he failed to make one of the three All-NBA teams, potentially costing him $30 million on a max contract this summer.

With so many talented guards in the league right now, it's hardly a slight that Thompson failed to finish among the top-6 in media voting. Who would you leave out among the guards that made it? Steph Curry and James Harden were the first team choices, with Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving on the second team and Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker third team selections.

An obviously agitated Thompson didn't appreciate receiving the news from the media, and openly questioned how Golden State's run of five-straight Finals appearances didn't carry more weight with the voters. Thompson said it wasn't a big deal, and he would rather win a championship than make an All-NBA team. But knowing how much money he just lost had to be a painful pill to swallow, especially considering a guard from a non-playoff team like Walker was voted to the third team, making him eligible for the super max contract Thompson just lost.

Speaking of Walker, will that All-NBA honor wind up being his ticket out of Charlotte? Hornets' general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team will do everything possible to keep the three-time All-Star, but the price tag for a max extension is now a lot higher, and the small market Hornets may decide they're better off not committing huge dollars to their 29-year-old point guard.

Charlotte has been unable to build a consistent winner despite a number of high draft picks and the ill-fated five-year contract given to Nicolas Batum. Bringing Walker back on a super max deal would lock them into the current roster for the foreseeable future, and given the fact Charlotte has missed the playoffs in four of the last five years, is that really the best strategy? If the Hornets decide to move on from Kemba, teams like Indiana, Dallas and the Clippers will be waiting with ample cap space to offer Walker a four-year max contract.

As we've seen with the explosion of quarterback salaries in the NFL, it seems like every offseason brings a new record contract. How about this factoid from ESPN'S NBA Insider Bobby Marks, who tweeted; earning All-NBA for a second consecutive season now has Giannis Antetokounmpo eligible in the summer of 2020 to sign the largest contract in NBA history. The five-year extension starting in 2021-22 would be worth $247.3 million and carry a $42.6, $46.0, $49.5, $52.9 and $56.3 million cap hit.

There's no question the Bucks will gladly offer that super max extension to a 24-year-old superstar who still has room to grow as player. Giannis is expected to win his first MVP award this season, even though the current playoff series against Toronto is showing how badly he needs to add a consistent jumper and improved free throw shooting to his game. Antetokounmpo's freakish skills and Mike Budenholzer's offensive system have made small market Milwaukee a legitimate championship contender, which is no small feat in a star-driven NBA where players routinely make decisions about their futures based on factors that have very little to do with basketball. Right now, Giannis is happy in Milwaukee and the Bucks are lucky to have the best young player in the game.

Of course, NBA teams wouldn't be paying those kind of salaries if the league wasn't making record profits. Business is good, especially after the new TV deals that went into effect a few years ago. And, with the advent of legalized gambling potentially opening up even more revenue streams, NBA owners will see the value of their franchises continue to soar.

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Future Bulls? Top NBA prospects to watch in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

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USA TODAY

Future Bulls? Top NBA prospects to watch in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

The Bulls will have a top 10 pick for the third consecutive season and it’s likely that the next piece of their rebuild is playing in the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

A handful of our Bulls analysts – Mark Schanowski, Mark Strotman, Michael Walton and Joaquin Carrig – have picked out 12 of the top prospects in this year’s class who you can watch during March Madness.

The list is done in order of when each player’s team tips off, so don’t be concerned that Zion Williamson isn’t leading things off. All times listed are Central Time. TV channels are listed in parentheses.

Thursday Games

Ja Morant, PG, Murray State – 3:30 p.m. vs. Marquette (TBS)

Stats: 24.6 points, 10.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 50.3% FG

Scouting Report: This could be the most entertaining opening round game on the schedule, featuring the top-rated point guard (Morant) against Marquette’s explosive scoring guard Markus Howard (25.0 points per game). Howard has been slowed lately by a left wrist injury but told reporters he should be fine physically for the tournament opener.

Morant averaged 24.6 points and led the nation with 10.0 assists per game during his sophomore season at Murray State, but questions persist about whether he can put up those kinds of numbers against elite competition. Marquette will present a tougher challenge defensively than any team Morant faced in the Ohio Valley Conference, especially with shot blocker Theo John waiting to protect the rim on Morant’s drives to the basket.

You can look for 6-foot-5 junior Sacar Anim to get the primary responsibility for guarding Morant on the perimeter, but keeping the lightning-quick guard from getting into the paint and drawing fouls will be a total team effort.

Marquette slumped badly late in the season, losing 5 of its last 6 games, but the Golden Eagles are used to playing against high caliber competition in the Big East Conference. NBA scouts will be watching closely to see how Morant performs under the high-pressure atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament. – Schanowski

Keldon Johnson, SF, Kentucky – 6:10 p.m. vs. Abilene Christian (CBS)

Stats: 13.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 38.8% 3FG

Scouting Report: A consensus five-star recruit, Johnson has disappointed for those who expected gaudy numbers. But when it comes to being quietly efficient and productive, Johnson is your guy.

He does most of his work attacking closeouts, coming off of pin-down screens and on simple catch-and-shoot opportunities. Johnson is averaging 17.6 points per 40 minutes and shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point range. His 44.9 percent free throw rate is a testament to how good he is at using his 6-foot 6, 211-pound frame to draw contact on drives. Johnson isn’t the fastest or most explosive athlete, but he makes up for it with a herky-jerky dribble-drive game and an awesome floater.

Any team that falls outside of the top-7 will have to take a hard look at Johnson. He can fit in any system, and has untapped potential as a shot-creator and defender. – Walton

P.J. Washington, PF, Kentucky – 6:10 p.m. vs. Abilene Christian (CBS)

Stats: 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 51.5% FG

Scouting Report: PJ Washington is without a doubt the best player on this year’s Kentucky team. Washington came back to Lexington for his sophomore year and has improved across the board.

He is averaging 20.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 40 minutes. Washington’s excellent passing ability and newfound 3-point stroke--41.9 percent through 33 games--make him a great fit for NBA offenses. Although he is still a work in progress on the defensive end, his 7-foot-3 wingspan leaves plenty of room for defensive improvement. The closest comparison at the moment would be where Chris Bosh was as an NBA prospect at Georgia Tech.

A hard worker and physical force on the floor, Washington is sure to be a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft. – Walton

Rui Hachimura, PF, Gonzaga – 6:27 p.m. vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (truTV)

Stats: 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 60.9% FG

Scouting Report: For some reason, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura hasn’t generated a lot of excitement among draft analysts, falling out of the lottery in many mock drafts. 

All he did during the regular season was average 20.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting an amazing 61 percent from the field. Hachimura only attempted 32 shots from 3-point range, but he made 15 of them (46.9%). He’s an underrated ball handler for a power forward and has the ability to finish in traffic. Maybe it’s the caliber of competition Hachimura faces in the West Coast Conference that has scouts a little wary at this point, but the talent is obviously there. 

Even if Hachimura doesn’t fit the NBA profile of a “stretch 4,” he could start climbing up draft boards around the league if he is able to string together a number of big games on the way to leading Gonzaga to the Final Four. With the Bulls in need of a back-up power forward, Hachimura could be an option if their pick lands in the 6-8 range. – Schanowski

Brandon Clarke, PF, Gonzaga – 6:27 p.m. vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (truTV)

Stats: 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 1.2 steals, 69.3% FG

Scouting Report: While Rui Hachimura’s stock has been fairly steady throughout the college season, the Zags’ other starting forward has been a steady climber because of his off-the-charts athleticism. When you watch a Gonzaga game, you can’t help but notice the guy wearing No. 15 jumping over the top of everyone for rebounds and put-back dunks. 

Because he does most of his work close to the basket, Clarke is shooting 69 percent from the field, averaging 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and a very impressive 3.1 blocks per game. The 6-foot-8 junior has been all over the map on mock drafts, from late lottery to mid-second round. He’ll get a chance to show college basketball fans and NBA scouts if he’s more than just a runner and dunker during the upcoming tournament. 

Never underestimate what a great NCAA Tournament showing can do for an athletic player’s draft stock. Bulls fans won’t forget how Tyrus Thomas came out of nowhere in 2006, leading the front office to pass on LaMarcus Aldridge when they had the second pick in the draft. Clarke won’t crack the top-10 this year, but he’ll probably be featured on a lot of highlight shows over the next three weeks. – Schanowski

Friday Games

Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech – 12:30 p.m. vs. Northern Kentucky (TNT)

Stats: 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 48.5% FG

Scouting Report: Culver has consistently been listed as a top 10 prospect in NBA mock drafts with a smooth two-way game that should be even more effective at the pro level.

The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 18.5 points during the regular season, shooting 48 percent from the field and 32 percent from the 3-point line. The Red Raiders earned a share of the Big 12 regular season championship, but then got bounced out of the conference tournament in the quarterfinals. Does Culver have the ability and temperament to raise his game under the NCAA tournament spotlight? Can he create his own shots against elite perimeter defenders?

These are the questions NBA scouts will look to answer while the No. 3 seed Red Raiders try to duplicate last season’s run to the Elite 8. Culver could wind up being a top-5 pick by showing an ability to score consistently against defenses designed to stop him. He wears No. 23 and has a body type similar to former Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler. Could Culver eventually be as good as Butler? That’s what NBA decision makers are still trying to figure out. – Schanowski

De’Andre Hunter, SF, Virginia – 2:10 p.m. vs. Gardner-Webb (truTV)

Stats: 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 53.0% FG, 45.7% 3FG

Scouting Report: If there's a power rankings for tired draft cliches, "3 and D" has been on a steady rise the last few seasons. So pardon us for fanning the flames, but it's exactly what De'Andre Hunter brings to the table. He has an excellent frame at 6-foot-7, 222 pounds, and plays a physical brand of basketball on both ends of the floor.

He's the best perimeter defender in this year's class and - here comes another cliche - will defend multiple spots on the floor. He has the instincts, the toughness and the quickness to become an elite defender at the NBA level. Oh, and he's shooting nearly 46 percent from beyond the arc this season. He doesn't create much for himself - then again, he hasn't had to in Virginia's offense - but is physical enough around the rim that he won't be a one-trick pony at the next level. Remember, too, that his raw numbers take a hit in the Cavaliers' slow-paced offense. Every NBA contender needs a player with Hunter's skill set. – Strotman

Zion Williamson, PF, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 1.8 blocks, 69.3% FG

Scouting Report: He does everything. If you're not familiar with the best NBA prospect since LeBron James, the previous sentence is all you need to know. Williamson is as unique a prospect as we've ever seen, with a 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame and the ability to jump out of the gym, blow by defenders with a lightning-quick first step and defend at an incredibly high level.

You've seen Zion highlights of him ferociously dunking in transition, but the reality is he's so much more than that. He's an outstanding passer, has great footwork once he gets into the paint and might even be better defensively than he is on offense; it gets overlooked but Williamson led the ACC in steals per game and was fourth in blocks per game. Question whether his jump shot will be an issue at the next level (he made just 17 of 54 attempts). You're in the minority. Williamson is a can't-miss prospect who is going to change an NBA franchise in three months. – Strotman

R.J. Barrett, SF, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 45.7% FG

Scouting Report: He's been entirely overshadowed by Williamson, but let's not forget that it was Barrett who led the ACC in scoring. He's a natural with the ball in his hands and does an excellent job getting to the basket, averaging nearly 6 free throw attempts per game and scoring in a variety of ways. He also proved to be a plus passer, with much of Duke's offense running through him. He averaged 4.1 assists, including seven game with seven or more helpers (and the fourth triple-double in Duke history). His decision making needs some improvement but that can be chalked up to being 18 years old. There's always room for a scorer and ball handler in an NBA offense.

How he'll play off the ball in the NBA remains a question mark, as he shot just 30.4 percent from deep and was a totally different player without the ball in his hands. He's far from a finished product but there's still plenty to like about his game. He'll be a top-3 pick in June and has the ability in March to go off for 30 points at a moment's notice. – Strotman

Cam Reddish, SG, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 13.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 32.7% FG

Scouting Report: The talk all summer and early in the fall was that Duke could become the first program to have players selected first, second and third overall in an NBA Draft. Then Cam Reddish's freshman season began and that talk disappeared. While Zion Williamson was becoming the future of the NBA, and R.J. Barrett was leading the ACC in scoring, Reddish struggled to find any success in his first year at Duke. Touted as a sharpshooter with excellent length, Reddish shot less than 33 percent from beyond the arc and outside of his game-winner against Florida State never really had any impact moments.

That being said, Reddish is still a perfect NBA fit. Despite his struggles he's still an excellent shooter and one that comes standing 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. There's plenty of reason to believe the NBA's spacing and pace will open up shots for him, and once he fills out more (he's listed at 218 pounds) should be a plus defender at the NBA level. He's had his struggles but it wouldn't surprise anyone if he caught fire for a few games in March, reminding everyone why he was a potential top pick just a few short months ago. – Strotman

Nassir Little, SF, North Carolina – 8:20 p.m. vs. Iona (TNT)

Stats: 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 46.4% FG

Scouting Report: Expectations were high for freshman forward Nassir Little, a five-star recruit out of Florida, when he signed his letter of intent to be a Carolina Tar Heel.

However, Little’s freshman campaign has not gone as anticipated. Despite his raw athleticism and star potential, Little has never cracked Roy Williams’ starting lineup, struggling to fit cohesively into UNC’s offensive system.

With that being said, Little is an important reserve, averaging 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game on one of the premier college basketball teams in the nation. That combined with the NBA currently favoring his combo-forward style of play, means Little is still projected to be drafted mid-to-late first round in most mock drafts.

Unless Little quickly materializes into a top-five pick, the Bulls interest in the forward remains low. Especially considering Chicago filled their glaring void at small forward with the acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. earlier this year. – Carrig

Coby White, PG, North Carolina – 8:20 p.m. vs. Iona (TNT)

Stats: 16.3 points, 4.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds

Scouting Report: While Little’s stock has fallen, Coby White’s has never been higher. The 5-star recruit has gone from likely returning to the Tar Heels for a second season to becoming a potential lottery pick.

White started all 33 games at the point for UNC, averaging 16.3 points and 4.2 assists per game. His 76 three-point makes are a Tar Heel freshman record.

As a result, White made the ACC All-Freshman team and only received second team All-ACC honors because of the absurd amount of talent in the conference this season.

White is the engine that led this UNC team to win a share of the regular season ACC title and if the Tar Heels go deep into March, he will be a main reason why. As a result, most mock drafts are projecting the young guard to go in the 5-10 range.

If the Bulls don’t land a top-3 pick, which likely means missing out on Murray State’s Ja Morant, White could be a very realistic alternative to address their weakness at the point guard position. – Carrig