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

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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.

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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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NBA Power Rankings: New year, same old Steph Curry

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NBA Power Rankings: New year, same old Steph Curry

While the NBA certainly had a parity-filled 2018, 2019 could be a different story. We still have every team in the West sans Phoenix competing for a playoff spot. But we are quickly approaching the NBA trade deadline and the buyout period. This when NBA teams will start to make their moves, whether it be dumping salary or adding a valuable rotation piece to boost playoff hopes.

And as teams start to fill out their rosters, we will start to see the back-end of the NBA draft lottery standings take shape. Squads like the Nets and Kings are close to ending playoff droughts but a few moves could heavily determine if they will be headed back to the draft lottery.

The MVP race has also been extremely close for most of the season, with several candidates looking like serious contenders. But with Giannis Antetokounmpo attacking the rim with aplomb, Kawhi Leonard achieving a career-high in points (45) and James Harden literally carrying the Rockets to wins every night, the MVP race is starting to clear up as well.

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But there is one name—that has less than a 5 percent chance to win MVP according to Basketball-Reference's 2018-19 MVP Award Tracker—to watch this week specifically, and that is none other than two-time MVP Stephen Curry. 

Steph has played in less games than all the other MVP candidates, so he is fighting an uphill battle. And the fact that he is just barely leading his team in scoring because of the presence of Kevin Durant does not help him. But storylines rule all when it comes to NBA MVP races, and the narrative of the Warriors looking more vulnerable than usual can get flipped quickly if Curry goes supernova.

In the Dubs win over the Suns on New Year's Eve, Curry poured in 34 points on a hyper-efficient 64 percent shooting from the field to go along with 9 rebounds and 4 assists. And that night—just like so many others this season—showed that Curry is just as good as he was during his back-to-back MVP seasons, and that he is clearly the most important player on this team. 

The Rockets and Warriors play on Thursday at Oracle Arena. The showdown will be huge as a matchup between several MVP hopefuls (if you throw in Durant). And between Harden's play as of late and the fact that the Warriors got blown out by Houston in their only other matchup so far this year, you can definitely expect to see both squads—and Curry specifically—get off to a quick start. 

That game is just one of many this week that will go a long way towards painting a better picture of the NBA's hierarchy. Check out our latest update in the NBA Power Rankings right here

NBA Power Rankings: Changing of the guard atop the East

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NBA Power Rankings: Changing of the guard atop the East

The 2018-19 NBA season is up and running—literally and figuratively—and so far the franchises pegged by pundits for early season success have done well, with the more shocking factor being how easy their dominance has looked. The league leader in Pace factor are playing almost 8 possessions per game faster than last year's top-ranked Pelicans squad.

The Bucks, Ratpors and Warriors (all +10 or better in terms of point differential) are far ahead of the pack, and these three teams along with the Denver Nuggets have stood out early on. 

The teams expected to do well that have struggled out of the gate included Houston, Oklahoma City and LeBron's young Lakers squad, that sits at 2-5 entering Monday night.

Injuries have played a factor, with OKC and Houston missing games from their former MVPs (Westbrook and Harden), but a lack of familiarity has plagued many of these squads that are still awaiting the return of top rotation players.

With everyone around the league nearing the 10 games played mark, we organize where the upstart teams fit into the big picture right here.