By W.G. Ramirez
For The Spokesman-Review
LAS VEGAS – As an All-American at Kentucky and 14-year NBA veteran, former NBA champion Tayshaun Prince can spot talent, especially if players mirror his game.
Prince’s greatest career moment may have been with 18 seconds left in a 2004 playoff game, when he chased down Reggie Miller and tallied Detroit’s 19th block of the evening, preserving the Pistons’ two-point lead. Detroit went on to win the title that year.
So, hearing he had an eye on Brandon Clarke during his lone season on the court with Gonzaga says something about the former Bulldog.
“I watched him a lot throughout the year, but more importantly in the NCAA Tournament,” said Prince, now the vice president of basketball affairs with the Memphis Grizzlies. “Once he started falling (in the NBA draft), we felt like it was right where we wanted to get him at.”
And with the 21st pick, via a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Clarke’s professional journey began.
Clarke has been playing with the Grizzlies in the NBA Summer League, impressing everyone from Prince, to head coach Taylor Jenkins.
While a majority of rookies are getting used to their respective team’s system, via an extended member of the coaching staff, Clarke has had the benefit of learning from Jenkins, who is also coaching the summer league squad.
Though he wasn’t able to participate with the Grizzlies until the NBA cleared the trade and it became official on July 6, Jenkins said Clarke coming in older than his rookie teammates, or even first-year players, has made the transition easier for last year’s West Coast Conference Defensive Player and Newcomer of the Year.
“He’s constantly asking the right questions, he’s absorbing a lot and got thrown in the fire and he’s picked it up really, really well,” Jenkins said. “Whether it’s through game experience or the film sessions that we have with him, he’s been adapting well. He’s fits everything that we’re gonna ask all of our players. There are some moments where it can be a little bit overwhelming, he’s processing so many things, but what I love about him is he keeps trying and competes so hard and just figuring it out on the fly.”
Clarke, originally viewed as a potential lottery pick, will be one of two highly touted prospects expected to have an immediate impact when he teams up with Ja Morant, the Grizzlies’ first draft choice at No. 2 overall.
“I’m still rusty, I have to get stronger, keep adding to my game,” Clarke said. “I’m in great shape usually, it’s just been tough because I couldn’t practice for about two weeks. I’ll pick it up eventually.”
Clarke said the team has asked him to simply go out and play hard, which shouldn’t be tough considering where he finished his college career. It’s more so about learning the team’s style and playbook, yet another thing he should pick up rather quick considering how tedious Gonzaga coach Mark Few can be with his players.
“I don’t know everything about the offense yet, but I can pick it up pretty fast,” said Clarke, who averaged 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per game while shooting 68.7% from the floor with the Zags. “For myself, I expect to make every shot I take in the paint, get blocks and boards. I still get pretty upset when I miss easy shots, but it’ll all come back.”
Which takes us back to Prince, who is all too familiar with Clarke’s potential.
Prince said despite critics questioning his jumpshot heading into the draft, he’s always been high on the 6-foot-8, 215-pound Canadian-native, because he plays at a high level, with a lot of energy and is capable of making big plays.
“He has a great opportunity to impact the game in so many different ways, whether it’s defense, screening and rolling, catch and lobs, making plays around the basket,” Prince said. “We know he’s a high field goal percentage guy around the rim. And young guys that are coming into this league, when you want to get minutes right away, you got to be able to affect the game in different ways than just putting the ball in the basket and we feel that he can do that. He makes game-winning plays.”
Perhaps, like one of the greatest blocks in NBA Playoff history.
W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez