Ja Morant was a fan of Brandon Clarke before the two broke into the NBA together with the Memphis Grizzlies.
While the eventual No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA draft was turning heads at Murray State in Kentucky, Morant used to keep tabs on what Clarke was doing across the country at Gonzaga, a college basketball power in Spokane, Wash.
“I’m gonna tell y’all a crazy story. I used to watch Gonzaga play, just watch Brandon play,” Morant told reporters at a shootaround on Friday. “One time I told my dad, ‘Just imagine him in the pick and roll with me, where I could just put it by the rim and he could just go and get it.’
“Draft night we end up drafting him, my dad was like, ‘Yo, you remember what you said after your season about Brandon?’ I’m like ’Yeah.'“
Like Morant, the Grizzlies saw something in the Vancouver native other teams missed when they traded up two spots get Oklahoma City’s 21st pick and draft Clarke. Both of the Grizzlies’ first-round selections have become part of an exceptional core of young players in Memphis that includes second-year big man Jaren Jackson Jr., and third-year Canadian forward Dillon Brooks.
“Whoever passed up [on Clarke], messed up,” Jackson said after a Dec. 14 game that saw Clarke drop a then-career-high 25 points in a 128-111 win over Washington (he scored 27 four days later in a loss to Oklahoma City).
Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins added: “He’s definitely a top-10 pick, if you’re redrafting this.”
Clarke, Morant and Jackson were all named to the Rising Stars Challenge, a game for first- and second-year players on Feb. 14 as part of all-star weekend. Clarke was one of four Canadians named to the World team, along with Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, New Orleans’ Nickeil Alexander Walker and New York’s RJ Barrett. Morant and Jackson are on the opposing U.S. squad.
“He’s just a special guy. He’s just got a different motor,” Morant said. “He comes in on the floor, probably get a rebound, beat everybody down the floor and get a dunk. He just does whatever he can to help the team. Block shots, rebound, score, his signature floater in the middle where he just looks away then put his hand by the rim, just shoot it up.
“Just a great talent, man.”
Clarke was 10th in rookie scoring heading into Tuesday night’s games with an average of 12 points a game, with Morant leading at 17.3 points. However, Clarke coming off the bench means he’s getting his points in fewer minutes than those ahead of him on the list. When prorated over 48 minutes (as if he played entire games), Clarke (26.4 points for every 48 minutes) trailed only Morant (28 for every 48 minutes) among rookies.
Clarke is second among rookies with a field-goal percentage of 61.9 and in rebounds at 5.7 a game.
“I think it’s been kind of this case all season where he just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” Jenkins said after the win over Washington. “I think he’s got great chemistry with his teammates and plays at a great pace. He just fits our motion style where the ball is just constantly moving and people are moving and he obviously makes some highlight plays out there. But, he’s just super efficient, which is just kind of a byproduct of him being who he is.
“It’s just great. He’s not trying to force anything out there. He just takes what the defence gives him.”
The Grizzlies are unexpectedly challenging for a playoff spot this season, thanks in part to the chemistry among their young players. Memphis entered Tuesday’s action in eighth place in the Western Conference, two games ahead of hard-charging Portland.
That didn’t stop Morant from a little smack talk against his soon-to-be opponent on all-star weekend.
“Wish my guy BC could have been on the [U.S.] team with us, but he’s on the other end so we got some smoke coming for him,” Morant said. “You heard that BC? We got some smoke coming for ya, me and Jer.”
SHOTS FIRED All is not completely rosy in Memphis, where former NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala has declined to suit up for the Grizzlies after being traded from Golden State over the summer. That hasn’t sat well with Brooks, who had strong words for the 16-year veteran. “I cant wait till we find a way to trade [Iguodala] so we can play him and show him really what Memphis is about,” the Mississauga native said after the Grizzlies’ 96-82 win over Detroit on Monday.
ON THE MEND Both Denver guard Jamal Murray and Barrett are expected to make their return this week from ankle injuries. Murray, from Kitchener, Ont., was listed as questionable before Denver’s game Tuesday night against Portland. He was averaging 17.6 points, 4.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds a game entering Tuesday. Barrett could be back Thursday and has said he wants to play in the Rising Stars game. The rookie from Mississauga is averaging 14.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game.
BOUCHER’S BACK Just when it seems Montreal’s Chris Boucher will be relegated to the deep end of the Raptors’ bench, a front-court injury puts the lanky centre back in the fray. This time he has filled in admirably while Raptors centre Marc Gasol tends to a hamstring injury. He had 15 points, five rebounds, two steals and brought huge energy off the bench in Toronto’s 129-102 rout of Chicago on Sunday. That came after an eight-point, seven-rebound, three-block performance in a 105-92 win at Detroit on Friday.
CHECKING IN Sacramento guard Cory Joseph turned back the clock on Thursday. The veteran point guard from Pickering, Ont., had 16 points, seven assists and was a game-high plus-28 coming off the Kings’ bench in a 124-103 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Gilgeous-Alexander has cooled off a bit, going four games without a 20-point effort. However, he has averaged 8.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks over that span. Thunder guard Luguentz Dort is getting high praise for his defence, but the Montreal native impressed with 23 points, including five three-pointers, in a 120-100 win at Sacramento on Wednesday.
KEEP AN EYE ON The Raptors will need Boucher to continue his strong play when they put their 11-game winning streak on the line Wednesday against the visiting Pacers. The two teams square off again Friday at Indiana.