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NBA Daily: Early Returns: The Wildcat Quartet Is Here To Stay

Villanova’s quartet of former collegiate stars may not be stealing headlines just yet, but they’ve made strong early impressions thus far, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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After the final buzzer rang to commemorate Villanova’s second National Championship in three seasons, only one question remained on that fateful April evening: Would any of the Wildcats’ stars return to college? At the time, Jalen Brunson, the team’s steady leading presence and reigning College Player of the Year winner, was going pro no matter what, while Mikal Bridges was projected as a potential top-10 pick — that much was certain. But in the cases of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, their next move wasn’t always so clear.

DiVincenzo, the darling star of Villanova’s tournament run and eventual NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player selectee, went from second-round probability to lottery possibility. And Spellman, who had just finished up his redshirt freshman year as Big East Rookie of the Year, could’ve returned as a true focal point in an outstanding Jay Wright-led rotation. Both DiVincenzo and Spellman, eventually lured by the potential of earning first round money, took the leap — four months later, the quartet of Wildcats’ transitions to NBA-level basketball has gotten off to a strong start.

Bridges (No. 10), DiVincenzo (No. 17) and Spellman (No. 30) all went in the first round, while Brunson went shortly after at No. 33 overall. And although each player is dealing with different roles, changing nightly based on their opponent, injuries and franchise outlook, there’s reason to believe that this fearsome class of collegiate stars will be here long into the future.

The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks, in all likelihood, have their eyes set on seasons beyond 2018-19, and their current records reflect that. At 1-7 and 2-6, these two presumed basement dwellers will have a load of reasons to lean on Bridges and Spellman, respectively, as the year drags on. For Mikal Bridges, the most potential-laden prospect Villanova has offered up in some time, has progressively earned more on-court opportunities, even playing 20-plus minutes in four of his last five games. In a massive 30-point defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Halloween, Bridges put in his best shift yet: 16 points, three assists, two steals and a three-pointer on 6-for-9 from the field.

Head coach Igor Kokoškov has already deemed Bridges an important future cog and he projects an ideal 3-and-D two-way athlete. With the hard-nosed, defensive-minded Trevor Ariza to lean on, Bridges finds himself in a beneficial long-term situation thanks to the guidance, experience and opportunity ahead of him. If the Suns continue their plummet to the bottom, there’s almost an expectation that the seasoned, ready-made Bridges will break out in a big way before the campaign concludes this spring.

In Omari Spellman’s case, it’s been an up-and-down process, as expected, but the Hawks have only played two competitive games all season thus far. Often tossed out there with the result in hand, Spellman has had four efforts finish with a double-digit negative plus-minus — but his crown jewel performance so far, 17 points on 4-for-5 from deep, offers a glimpse at a bright career moving forward. Spellman, 21, boasts the profile of a versatile two-way big, a 6-foot-9 power forward that gobbled up eight or more rebounds in 22 of Villanova’s 40 games last season. In the Final Four, Spellman helped lead the way over the similarly-No. 1-seeded Kansas with 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Even better, the former Wildcat averaged 1.6 three-pointers per game at a 43.4 percent in his single collegiate season — so far, he’s worked hard to continue that success from behind the arc as well (1.0, 38.9 percent).

Spellman may not look like the unicorn stretch four-prototype the league has fallen in love with in recent seasons, but his game certainly does more than enough talking. With John Collins still on the shelf, Spellman can continue to build on his positive, surprise start to his hard-working professional career.

Two-time NCAA champion, Consensus National College Player of the Year, First-Team All-American, Bob Cousey Award winner and Big East Player of the Year. If that looks like a list of fantasy achievements, well, that’d be wrong, because those are the plaudits and accolades that Jalen Brunson hauled home as a dominant force at Villanova. In that championship-winning junior year campaign, Brunson averaged 18.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. His reward was slipping into the second round at No. 33 overall — his an age a factor, undoubtedly, but it was certainly to the Dallas Mavericks’ ultimate gain.

Brunson’s line may be the least eye-popping of the group to this point, but he’s playing important backup minutes for a team with true postseason aspirations. When Dennis Smith Jr. was out injured last week, Brunson earned his first-ever start against Kyle Lowry and the excellent Toronto Raptors. That night, Brunson held his own over 30 minutes with eights points and four assists — distinct early signs that the best is yet to come. On top of that, head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best modern-age coaches in professional basketball, recently said that he believes Brunson should’ve been a top-15 pick back in June.

He’ll continue to split time with veterans J.J. Barea and Devin Harris once the latter returns from injury, but Brunson’s careful and experienced hands will come in handy if Dallas wants to reach their lofty postseason goals. Brunson has just five turnovers through nine games, moves the ball well and plays within his role — and ultimately, that’s just the Villanova way.

The last stop on the Wildcat Express is Donte DiVincenzo, that late leaper turned lottery-bound shoo-in. When the Bucks selected him some four months ago, they viewed the guard as a key piece in a rotation set to challenge the conference greats. Now, if they figured that DiVincenzo would be the 7-1 Bucks’ second-leading scorer off the bench this early on — that might be a tad more unbelievable, but here we are nonetheless. Quickly, DiVincenzo and his two-way abilities (have we sensed a theme yet?) have earned the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Here are some fun tidbits on DiVincenzo in rapid succession: He’s finished with a negative plus-minus in just two of his eight contests; in four of their six victories his plus-minus was plus-15 or higher. Last week, DiVincenzo finished with 15 points in 18 minutes and a stellar plus-17 in the boxscore. DiVincenzo, who hit 2.1 three-pointers per game at a 40.1 percent conversion rate at Villanova in 2017-18, has failed to make at least one from deep on just a single occasion to start his NBA journey.

If there was any question of his current confidence level, the Bucks are already comfortable just letting DiVincenzo iso with the clock running down and letting the talented youngster pick his spots. As of Friday, DiVincenzo ranked 13th in points (8.3), seventh in field goal percentage (47.1 percent), fourth in made three-pointers (nine) and eighth in rebounds (4.1) for all qualified rookies. Just within the confines of Milwaukee’s roster, DiVincenzo’s offensive rating is fifth-best (113.3) and his defensive rating is fourth-best (95.5); while his plus-61 total plus-minus tops all rookies, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trailing far, far behind at plus-31.

For a prospect that looked destined to return for his senior year until that tournament coming out party, DiVincenzo has passed the eye test with flying colors already.

The short end of it is likely this: Sure, this talented Villanova quartet won’t steal the headlines from Trae Young, Luka Dončić or Deandre Ayton, but they’re well-practiced prospects with a place in the NBA. Whether it’s a heavy helping of praise from a coach — both new and old — or the steady trust of a league-leading franchise, these Wildcats have made their presence known through the first month of the season. All products from one of the most successful collegiate programs of the last decade, these proven winners often provide valuable contributions, even if those things don’t always show up in the box score.

And although these four franchises might be heading in completely different directions, one thing is for certain: Bridges, Spellman, Brunson and DiVincenzo are here to stay.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Atlanta Hawks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by analyzing the Atlanta Hawks.

Matt John

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Grading The Offseason - Atlanta Hawks

In case you haven’t been following along, Basketball Insiders has been running a new series called “Grading the Offseason.” So far, we’ve visited the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks.

This go-round, we take a look at the baby Hawks that reside in the ATL. Things are looking up in Hotlanta. After kicking off a rebuild a mere two years ago, it looks like a new and promising era of Hawks basketball is forming before our eyes.

It may be a while before they see the playoffs again, but Atlanta has something to build off of here. The future may be bright for the Hawks, but how they handle that future depends on how they handle themselves over these next few offseasons.

How did they do in this one? Well, let’s take it from the top.

Overview

Seeing as they were in year two of a rebuild, not much was expected from the Hawks this season. Mike Budenholzer bolted for Wisconsin. Dennis Schroder was traded for Carmelo Anthony, who was promptly waived. The Hawks had now moved on from its previous “star-less” era.

The real headline coming into the season was the new kid in town, Trae Young. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk swung for the fences on draft night when he traded away the draft rights to Luka Doncic for Young plus an additional first-round pick from Dallas. Everyone was divisive on Young coming into the draft. The consensus on him was that he was a high-risk/high-reward player because of his inconsistent freshman season at Oklahoma.

Trading him for Doncic, who may have been the most hyped foreign prospect possibly ever, was a gamble for the ages. For a while, it looked like that gamble was going to come up snake eyes.

While Doncic was drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd from the very start, Young’s NBA career started a little rough. From October to January, Young put up a respectable 16.5 points and 7.3 assists per game, but doing so on 41/30/80 splits when he was taking 14 shots in almost 30 minutes a night? Not too pretty.

But his fortunes changed once February rolled around. With a slight uptick in minutes, Trae started finding his groove. From there on out, he averaged 23.2 points and 9.2 assists per game on 43/36/85 splits, highlighted by 49/16/8 stat line in a quadruple overtime victory over the Bulls on March 1.

Did that change anything? Not really. The Hawks were still one of the worst teams in the league, but the team could pride itself on that it was fun to watch the youngsters go to work.

Young wasn’t the only one having all the fun. John Collins throughout the season established himself as one of the NBA’s most promising bigs, averaging a near 20/10 on the season while showing a somewhat progressing three-point shot (almost 35 percent). Young and Collins together made for one of the most exciting alley-oop pairs in the league.

The centerpiece to the Hawks’ next generation seemed to have arrived, but the team may have also brought in its reinforcements as well. Kevin Huerter’s sharpshooting garnered some recognition for the All-NBA rookie teams. DeAndre’ Bembry showed progress in his third year. Omari Spellman showed he could stroke it from three as well as a nose for the ball.

The veterans also deserved some shoutouts. Dewayne Dedmon proved himself valuable for the Hawks. Alex Len was productive given the cheap contract he signed last summer. Kent Bazemore did what he usually does. Jeremy Lin was fine in his role as a backup before he was waived. And who can forget the guidance from good ol’ Vince Carter?

Atlanta’s 29-53 record may have qualified it for the fifth-worst record in the league, but it was clear that the seeds had been planted and a winning culture was sprouting. Many will still go back and forth on the Young for Doncic trade, but Schlenk got his guy in Trae. Lloyd Pierce has so far proven himself a worthy successor to Mike Budenholzer.

So far, things are going right in Atlanta that there really wasn’t much they could do wrong this summer. The best moves they could have made was continuing to build on the good foundation they already have.

Is that what they did? Let’s find out.

Offseason

The one ace in the hole for Atlanta in the Luka-for-Trae deal was the top-five protected 2019 pick that Dallas also agreed to trade to Atlanta. The Mavericks tried in the latter half of the season to retain the pick, but after the success the team had with Luka running the show, it was too little too late.

When draft time rolled around, the Hawks had the fifth-highest odds to get the number one pick, and Dallas’ ninth-highest odds made it appear likely that the pick would convey. While Dallas wound up forfeiting the pick to Atlanta, lady luck didn’t do the Hawks any favors. When the lottery ended, the Hawks wound up with the eighth and 10th picks in the lottery.

But that didn’t stop Atlanta from going to work. A week or so before the draft, the Hawks agreed to trade Taurean Prince and a 2012 second-rounder in exchange for Allen Crabbe, the 17th overall pick and a protected 2020 first-rounder from Brooklyn. Doing this may have helped Brooklyn open up the necessary cap space to bring in two players on max contracts, but Atlanta’s motive was more than rational – it was all about asset accumulation.

It didn’t take long for Schlenk to cash in on these newly acquired assets. On draft night, the Hawks traded the eighth pick and the 17th pick as well as the Cavaliers protected 2020 pick to New Orleans for the fourth pick, which they would use to select De’Andre Hunter and landed them Solomon Hill. With Hunter, the Hawks have a promising 3&D wing who should complement Young and Collins quite well for the near future.

Atlanta still had the 10th overall pick at its arsenal. With it, they selected Cam Reddish, another boom or bust prospect – sound familiar? With the lack of top-notch prospects in this last draft, rolling the dice with Reddish seemed worth it. When the draft ended, the Hawks came away with a prospect believed to produce right away (Hunter) and one that may take some time to groom (Reddish).

Following the draft, the Hawks offseason has been pretty ho-hum. They haven’t exactly lit the world on fire, but they haven’t made any particularly dumb moves.

The first move that was made post-draft was sending Bazemore to Portland for Evan Turner. By doing this, the Hawks are giving Baze the chance to play for a playoff contender while getting back a reliable second unit playmaker who can be a positive influence on the youngsters in the locker room. Turner’s been well-liked by teammates and coaches alike in his previous two franchises, so he should at worst only continue what Vince Carter did last season.

By acquiring Crabbe and Turner, the Hawks seemed to have formed a pattern of trading for some of the most handsomely overpaid players from the 2016 Free Agency. That only continued when the team traded Hill and Miles Plumlee for Chandler Parsons. Atlanta did this with the intent of opening up a roster spot, and if Parsons suits up for the team, then anything positive he does is a bonus.

The one quasi-peculiar move the Hawks made was trading Omari Spellman, who was solid his rookie season, for Damian Jones. The rationale behind it might be that they had too many guys who played Spellman’s position in Atlanta, compared to Golden State who is trying to find any depth it can get its hands on.

The last prominent move made by Atlanta was adding Jabari Parker on a contract much cheaper than the one he signed with the Bulls last summer. Parker may wind up being one of the better economical additions of the summer, but that’s only as long as he’s the Jabari we saw in Washington. Not the one we saw in Chicago.

Even though their state as a team hasn’t changed too drastically, the Hawks may have had the most unpredictable offseason this summer. A fair amount of the moves they made probably won’t lead to much, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that said moves, for the most part, came out of nowhere.

PLAYERS IN: De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way)

PLAYERS OUT: Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams

What’s Next

The Hawks are now entering Year 3 of their rebuild. Though their roster has gone through a fair amount of turnover over the past month or so – outside of the young kids who are still hitting their potential – this roster is about the same when it comes to boasting talent as it was last year.

One distinct difference though is that Parsons, Crabbe, Turner and Len are all expiring this season, which could affect how motivated they are to play at their best this season. It could become a real question if any of the aforementioned players finish the season in Atlanta should the Hawks either stay the same or take another leap forward.

The Hawks have plenty of young talent with high enough ceilings to get them there that it honestly wouldn’t be surprising if they did. They are also young and inexperienced enough that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if no progress is made. Considering that they were showing progress towards the end of last season should make fans a whole lot more excited for what’s in store this season.

This will be a year in which the Hawks will get to see what works and what doesn’t. What might be the best part about this rebuild going on for Atlanta is that there really is no pressure on the Hawks right now to produce right away.

The goal for Atlanta should have been to add talented players who will only add to its youth movement and adding veterans who will only continue the winning culture the Hawks have established.

From the looks of things, they did just that.

Offseason Grade: B+

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NBA Daily: Grading the Offseason – New York Knicks

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the New York Knicks.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA offseason is dramatically different than it was as recently as a decade ago. In the past, the offseason began following the conclusion of the NBA Finals. And save for a few exciting happenings (e.g., the NBA Draft), the sports world moved on to other items of interest.

But presently, the first half of the summer is still very much the NBA’s. Until mid-July, that is. With the NBA finally ready to enter a lull in activity, we can safely begin assessing teams’ offseason moves. And with that, Basketball Insiders continues its “Grading the Offseason” series.

Spencer Davies kicked things off by assessing the Cleveland Cavaliers and David Yapkowitz graded the moves made by the Chicago Bulls. Next up is possibly the most polarizing team in the league – the New York Knicks.

Overview

The Knicks entered 2018-19seaason with low expectations. However, there was hope for the future with 7’3” unicorn-esque center (Kristaps Porzingis), their three rookies (Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier) and a boatload of projected cap space on the books.

Fast forward to the Summer of 2019 and the Knicks are in a surprising spot relative to last year. Their assumed core of the future was dealt a blow when it became clear that Porzingis wanted out of New York, resulting in a trade to Dallas. And while they failed to land a major free agent – despite freeing up the cap space for two max free agents – there is actually reason for optimism for the Knicks.

Offseason

Despite finishing the 2018-19 season with the worst record in the NBA, the new lottery structure led to the Knicks landing the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Fortunately, the third pick in the draft was a no-brainer regardless of who was making the selection. RJ Barrett – guard/forward from Duke – is a talented scorer and playmaker who will instantly become the best Knick at drawing fouls and creating off the dribble. Barrett can struggle with his efficiency and other aspects of his game, but he will show flashes of greatness throughout the upcoming season.

But that’s not all the Knicks did on draft night. As I discussed last week, the Knicks traded up in the second round to select Ignas Brazdeikis, a forward from Michigan. Brazdeikis entered NBA Summer League with a lot of questions around him, most notably his lack of foot speed and athleticism, and he answered them in a big way.

Brazdeikis proved he can contribute to an NBA team immediately. His shot-making, shooting ability, strength and motor all shined through in many of the team’s Summer League games. The Knicks may have hit another home run in the second-round, which makes them two-for-two in as many years (Mitchell Robinson was selected by the Knicks with the 36thoverall pick in 2018).

Speaking of Robinson, he flashed his potential throughout Summer League, too. He demonstrated good progress, posting 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 25 minutes per game — and winning first-team All-Summer League honors. Robinson has a lot to prove this season, as expectations have changed dramatically for the 21-year-old, but at least the Knicks have their center of the future.

Free agency didn’t go quite as well for the Knicks. Many experts felt that the team had a good chance at signing Kevin Durant and a second major free agent. But the Knicks struck out on superstar free agent signings.

And what’s more, the Knicks signed a number of players shortly after the start of free agency, which prevented them from absorbing unwanted salary in exchange for future picks (e.g., the Los Angeles Clippers received a future first-round pick for taking back Maurice Harkless from the Portland Trail Blazers). The narrative quickly became that the Knicks failed at free agency.

But perception and reality are not always one and the same. Ultimately, the Knicks were able to attach a second-year team option and/or signed free agents to one-year deals for six of their seven free agent acquisitions (with the seventh free agent being Randle, for whom the Knicks own a third-year option).

This means that very little – if any salary – is guaranteed beyond 2019-20, making all of the aforementioned players attractive additions to contenders come the trade deadline – many were likely attractive as of June 30, but most contenders didn’t have the requisite cap space to sign players like Portis, Payton or Morris after making major investments in superstars.

All of the Knicks free agent additions can contribute at a relatively high level – save for Bullock, whose health is still in question following a recent back surgery — for both the Knicks as well as a contending team down the line. And the Knicks can liquidate most of their roster and free up significant cap space to chase the likes of Anthony Davis and others in 2020 if so desired – and they may even get themselves additional assets in the process. So the Knicks’ 2019 free agency period could be viewed very differently at this time next year (or 2021), depending on if they are able to convince a star player or two to join their young core.

PLAYERS IN: RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris

PLAYERS OUT: Kadeem Allen, Mario Hejonza, Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet, Emmanuel Mudiay, DeAndre Jordan, Lance Thomas, Henry Ellenson and Billy Garrett

What’s Next?

The Knicks’ offseason is probably over considering they added nine players and will return six – with one exception being potentially working on a reunion with the recently-waived Lance Thomas.

The Knicks signed seven quality free agents who can all hypothetically be traded for assets or waived following the 2019-20 season. They also added two NBA-quality rookies, both of whom should carve out a role on the team. The team’s challenge will be picking a direction. Scott Perry recently scoffed at the notion that Knicks will tank in 2019-20. Thus, they may hang onto most of their signees for the entire season in hopes of getting their young nucleus playoff experience.

While playoff experience is great for any young player, it will be challenging for David Fizdale and the rest of the coaching staff to carve out a rotation that features all of the team’s young players. The Knicks will have to create lineups very deliberately, pairing youth with veterans so they don’t experience too much falloff when shifting from one lineup to another.

Another unresolved item remains: Frank Ntilikina. Rumors circulated in the lead up the 2019 NBA Draft that the Knicks were going to trade their former lottery pick, but Ntilikina remains with the team. Ntilikina’s time in New York might be nearing an end unless he shows significant improvement early this season. It is worth mentioning that Ntilikina showed up earlier in the offseason on social media sporting a smoother and more natural-looking shooting form.

One final improvement the Knicks will look to build on is their leadership. Credibility trickles down from the very top of an organization. While James Dolan has made questionable decisions over the years, the rest of the Knicks’ management is operating more thoughtfully than it has in years.

The team’s leadership and coaching staff remained entirely intact for the first time in what feels like decades – the Knicks have had five coaches (six tenures) and three Presidents (four tenures) in the past eight seasons. And while players win games, they are attracted to situations that appear stable and supportive. The Knicks and Scott Perry, Steve Mills, and David Fizdale began laying the foundation for this type of situation. They now need to demonstrate progress on the court to take the next step and possibly start to build themselves up as a free agent destination (outside of simply being the Knicks). Lastly, they need Dolan and the team to remain out of the news for negative reasons as much as possible, such as being in the news for a lawsuit against the City of Inglewood around contractual issues pertaining a new Clippers arena.

This wasn’t the offseason that Knicks fans were hoping for, but it wasn’t the disaster some portray it as either. The Knicks have the means to take a positive step forward this season and set the stage for bigger things in the future.

Offseason Grade: B-

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Wins Big In Vegas

Jordan Hicks had the chance to catch up with Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke, who discussed his transition into becoming a pro, his play during the tournament and skills he’s been working on.

Jordan Hicks

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No player had a better Summer League than Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Not only did his team win the Las Vegas Summer League championship, but Clarke was the Finals MVP and MVP of the tournament. In six games of action, he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He dropped 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in the championship game. He was dominant on both sides of the ball throughout the tournament. and there wasn’t really anyone playing that was capable of stopping him.

Accolades aren’t anything new to Clarke. In his lone year at Gonzaga where he transferred to after playing two years at San Jose State, Clarke was First Team All-West Coast Conference, WCC Defensive Player of the Year and WCC Newcomer of the Year. His play during Summer League could have very well earned Clarke significant minutes for the upcoming season.

So why did Brandon Clarke drop so low in the draft? Many had him pegged as a sure-fire lottery selection, but to the surprise of many dropped all the way down to 21 before Memphis traded up to get him.

Most point to the fact that he’s the size of a traditional wing in the NBA, but plays the four or even the five. He stands 6-foot-8 and matches that with a 6-foot-8 wingspan. In college, length doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does in the NBA. Still, after the way he showed out in Las Vegas, many teams are likely scratching their heads wondering why on earth they didn’t pick him up.

Due to the nature of the trade, Clarke wasn’t able to join the Grizzlies until it became official after July 6th.

“It’s getting off all the rust that I kind of had on me,” Clarke said. “Like I’ve said previously, it was tough at the start because I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t really do much with the team, but now I can play again and get used to playing team basketball.”

The rust wasn’t as obvious to the onlooker. There wasn’t really a single game during the 10-day event where Clarke looked fatigued, but his play definitely improved as the tournament went on.

The semi-final game against the New Orleans Pelicans was a tough matchup and eventually went into overtime. Clarke sealed the win with a go-ahead dunk in the closing seconds. When asked about the end of that game compared to a big, close college game, Clarke responded: “It felt pretty similar. The crowd really got kind of loud there in the end. I feel like it was pretty similar to what I’d feel in a big-time college game.”

Shortly after, Clarke was asked about his desire to actually win the tournament.

“It’s just basketball,” he said. “Every time that I play basketball I want to win so I think that we all feel that as a team. Even though it’s not a real NBA tournament, well it is, but it’s not [versus] the big-time NBA dudes. We all still want to win.”

He wasn’t just messing around, either. Clarke went back the following day and led his team to a W.

One thing that really differentiates Clarke from most other rookies drafted in the first round is his age. A lot of players that get drafted early on are younger. Teams draft them as projects based on their playing profile, size, abilities, etc. Clarke – thanks in part to his two years with San Jose State and one redshirt year with Gonzaga – will turn 23 this fall.

When asked if his age gives him an advantage, Clarke agreed.

“Yeah, I would probably say so. If I was playing right now and I was only 18 or 19 I could see why it would be tougher,” he said. “But me being almost 23, I feel like I played in many games that were just like this one tonight.”

There’s no doubt that Clarke’s large volume of collegiate experience will give him an advantage during the long NBA season. He’s played against high-level talent for three seasons in total and had almost four years to develop his various skill sets.

Clarke talked a bit about the process of ending his college career, the draft, and then summer league.

“It’s been a long journey really,” he said. “Lot’s of workouts, lot’s of time put in. But I’m here playing, it’s been super fun and I’m just really happy to get this feel of what NBA games are actually like. Just trying to get that feel back and get better at playing team basketball for the Grizzlies.”

Clarke could truly be considered the ultimate anomaly in today’s NBA. Sure, he’s super athletic, smooth around the rim, and has elite finishing abilities (he led the NCAA in field goal percentage last season). But he’s a big trapped in a wing’s body. There’s one skill that, if developed, could really bring his game to the next level.

“My shooting. That’s been something I’ve been working on a lot. If I can add that to my game I feel like I’ll be a much, much better player,” Clarke said. “There’s just so much I’ve added, but I’d probably say shooting is the biggest part and there’s still lot’s of steps I need to take.”

The fact that Clarke understands that already puts him ahead of the pack. Many players spend too much time developing skills that won’t give them longevity in the league. Clarke really has almost a complete package skills-wise, but becoming a better shooter would take his game so far.

The Memphis Grizzlies are 100 percent in rebuild mode. They have special pieces in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke. He could very easily emerge as a central piece to any success the Grizzlies have down the road.

Athleticism aside, it is clear that Clarke has all the intangibles of a great leader, and that alone could pay huge dividends to both himself and the Grizzlies organization in the seasons to come.

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