ANAHEIM, Calif. — A game featuring three potential first-round NBA draft prospects is not so unique in and of itself, particularly in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
But the collection of rising stars headlining the 2019 West Regional final between Gonzaga and Texas Tech—Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura, and Jarrett Culver—each arrived at this point following wholly unique paths.
“I’m really blessed to be here and be a Zag, really,” Clarke said following his 15-point, 12-rebound, five-block effort in Gonzaga’s 72-58 Sweet 16 win over Florida State on Thursday. “It’s something I didn’t see coming.”
Who could have seen it coming, really? Yes, Clarke averaged 17.3 points per game at San Jose State in 2016-17, but his output could have been written off as a case of the proverbial big fish in a small pond.
As for shining in the NCAA Tournament, which for Clarke includes a 36-point outpouring in the second round against Baylor, San Jose State last went dancing in 1996. That was three years before the remarkable, 20-year run of tournament appearances Gonzaga’s still riding today.
The Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, has evolved from the ultimate underdog in 1999, to a juggernaut in 2019. A win over Texas Tech in the West Regional final would send Gonzaga to its second Final Four in three seasons, an opportunity earned avenging its Sweet 16 loss to the same Florida State team it beat Thursday.
As for why Gonzaga succeeded in 2019 where it failed in 2018, Hachimura summarized it simply: “We’re better than last year.”
Part of the Zags’ improvement is Clarke. He sat out 2017-18 as a redshirt transfer. A year ago at this time, however, few could have realized just how dramatic of an impact he could have. As a result, he’s climbing up NBA mock draft boards. Yahoo! Sports tabs him as the No. 7 overall pick.
Clarke combines old-school post skills, like a soft scoring touch around the rim, shot-blocking instincts, and tenacity on the glass, with the attributes the modern NBA loves. He can face up and shoot jumpers, as well as attack off the dribble and distribute to teammates.
Boasting such an intriguing, all-around game begs the question: How did an NBA draft prospect land at perennial cellar dweller San Jose State?
“[Recruiting] isn't an exact science and guys develop at different levels and at different times in their life,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “At that particular time I don't know that Brandon was quite looking like an elite-level prospect.”
For one thing, Clarke was listed at 6-foot-7 coming out of Phoenix’s Desert Vista High School. He’s grown, listed at 6-foot-8 but is closer to 6-foot-9 in reality. He’s also had an opportunity to cultivate his game at Gonzaga—not just as a star for the Zags this season, but practicing against Johnathan Williams and Hachimura as a redshirt a season ago.
And that collection of talent mutually benefited. Few players in college basketball have taken the strides as a player that Hachimura has. On Gonzaga’s Final Four team in 2017, he averaged just over two points per game appearing mostly in mop-up duty.
Last season, he primarily came off the bench, but scored in double-figures at more than 11 points per game. The improvement was undeniable, and his on-court production mirrored his transition to American life.
The native of Toyama, Japan, has demonstrated a more comfortable style with the media in his time at Gonzaga. This week in Anaheim, he moved seamlessly from giving Andy Katz of NCAA.com a lesson in Japanese, to answering a variety of questions from the American media, to holding court with the many reporters covering his exploits for the audience in Japan.
After mastering the English language and developing into a bonafide media star, the last thing for Hachimura to do is continue to develop his jump shot. He’s already a relentless presence on the glass and in the paint, and his ability to attack the rim off the bounce is a newer element added to his repertoire since coming to Gonzaga.
Hachimura is poised to become the first-ever Japanese player taken in the NBA draft. As a projected first-round pick, Hachimura is also likely to be the first Japanese player to make any measurable impact in the league, as predecessors Yuta Tabuse and Yuta Watanabe saw limited opportunities in the Association.
Of the 2019 West Regional’s NBA prospects, Texas Tech’s Culver followed the most traditional path to potential pro stardom, though he’s hardly a prototypical blue-chipper.
The chip when it comes to both Culver, and Texas Tech in general, is the classic chip on the shoulder. It’s a phrase various Red Raiders have used repeatedly during their time in Southern California, alluding to their preseason projections as a possible last-place finisher in the Big 12 Conference.
Such quick dismissal of a team that reached last year’s Elite Eight would understandably foster some resentment. However, Texas Tech was a team losing four of its five starters, including an NBA lottery pick in Zhaire Smith.
Culver blossomed from a reliable, part-time starter in 2017-18, to the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2018-19. He’s a combo-guard in the same vein as former teammate Smith, and he plays with a toughness reflective of the identity Red Raider coach Chris Beard preaches.
“We don’t have any McDonald's All-Americans. We don’t have anybody on our team that has been given anything. Jarrett Culver has worked for everything he’s been given,” Beard said.
Indeed, Culver’s a player who drives to the rim with a reckless abandon. His ability to finish in traffic and under duress contrasts well with the ooh-and-ahh-inducing passes he routinely delivers.
At 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game, Culver is one of the most well-rounded players in college. And he came to Texas Tech as just a three-star prospect. He will leave as a likely lottery pick.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.