Orlando Magic 2019 NBA Draft Preview: Gonzaga Bulldogs’ Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke play above their size

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 30: Rui Hachimura #21 and Brandon Clarke #15 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate after a play against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the second half of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at Honda Center on March 30, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 30: Rui Hachimura #21 and Brandon Clarke #15 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate after a play against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the second half of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at Honda Center on March 30, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The Gonzaga Bulldogs have long been the little engine that could in the NCAA, playing bigger than they are. Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke exemplify this.

Length and wingspan are the buzz words this time of year, especially for the Orlando Magic.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman famously quipped after last year’s draft, “Long night, long players,” seemingly in on the joke that he surely created in drafting Mohamed Bamba, Melvin Frazier and Justin Jackson. Mohamed Bamba had set the NBA Draft Combine record for wingspan and both Melvin Frazier and Justin Jackson were among the leaders at their position.

Wingspan for wingspan’s sake is not the point of these drafts. Otherwise, UCF Knights center Tacko Fall would be near the top of draft boards.

The point of all this is to have players who can play above their position and defend multiple positions.

A long wingspan allows a player to close down gaps, force passes out wider and make up for any mistakes. Jonathan Isaac was a rookie that made a ton of positioning mistakes, but he still had value defensively because he could recover quickly.

Iowa State Cyclones guard Talen Horton-Tucker has an otherworldly length for a player his size and ended up playing a lot of power forward because of it. That is the power length has.

For him, it might not translate to the NBA. Size still matters. A player can use length to make up for a lack of height, but the ability to put on weight and hold your own on the block or on drives is still just as important on defense.

Length limits mistakes, but size still plays in the league. Especially among post players.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs know all about playing above their weight class. They are sort of the length of college basketball programs. They are a small school in a small conference that plays taller than it is. That has been Gonzaga’s method for a long time.

They punch above their weight class. That was the case for their two likely first-round picks in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke.

They fully represent who Gonzaga is as a program. As they prepare for the NBA, both players will have to show they can punch up another weight class as undersized big men capable of playing taller than they are.

Hachimura is a 6-foot-8 big man with a 7-foot-2 wingspan (he was not at the NBA Draft Combine). He averaged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in leading Gonzaga to a No. 1 seed last year. Hachimura is a strong player with good defensive instincts and can extend out to the mid-range to hit jumpers.

He can score on the move, but will not extend out to the 3-point line. That is not a big part of his game.

But he does a lot of things really well. He can score and break down any defender at the college level in the low or mid-post with an array of moves. And then sometimes he is just able to use his brute force to get to the basket.

Hachimura is built like a traditional power forward. He is strong in almost every area and can work the low post. That helps make up for any athleticism gaps he has, especially operating without space.

But the 3-pointer just is not part of his game. He is not a confident shooter from outside (he took only 76 3-pointers in his three-year college career). If Hachimura added that to his game, he would be an incredible player.

That could ultimately hold him back as the league emphasizes 3-point shooting more and more. His other skills will still play, but that element is vital in the NBA.

The good news for Hachimura was that he was able to showcase a lot of his defensive and offensive skills because he had a perfect compliment next to him in Brandon Clarke.

Clarke averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. Like Hachimura, Clarke is listed at 6-foot-8, but he uses his athleticism to block shots. He has just a 6-foot-8.25 wingspan, as measured at the NBA Draft Combine, but he was still an effecitve defender and shot blocker.

Clarke displayed great timing on the glass and blocking shots. He is able to hold his position and has good instincts to find space and attack the basket. Clarke works hard to get everything he has and that trait will serve him well.

But like Hachimura, he is a bit undersized to play the position that he was best at in college. In college, undersized bigs like Clarke can thrive, using their strength and athleticism to beat defenders. Clarke has the talent and ability to do that. But translating it to the NBA will be difficult.

Again, like his teammate, shooting was a problem. Clarke made only 26.7 percent of his 3-pointers and he was not likely to venture outside of the paint.

All that great timing, especially as a shot blocker, might work well at the collegiate level, but it has to translate to the NBA. And there his lack of physical traits — height and length — will come into play.

Without a consistent jumper, Clarke will find it difficult to fit in perfectly in the NBA. Especially at his size. There is only so far you can punch up in the NBA.

And that is the question both Hachimura and Clarke have to answer. How far can the two “punch above their weight class,” as it were? Can they both overcome their height and the winds of the modern NBA to make an impact in the league?

This is what Gonzaga has done throughout its time in the limelight. The Bulldogs have always been more than everyone expected. The little engine that could that everyone doubted and played with the big boys. Not just played with the big boys, but beat them.

The vaunted Duke Blue Devils’ first loss came on a blocked shot from Brandon Clarke on R.J. Barrett and Rui Hachimura there to clean up the miss and impede Barrett’s progress to the basket. Those two were a wall in the paint in college and could fend off the best players in the nation.

They can serve that role in the NBA. They are solid fundamentally on defense and have good footwork on both ends of the floor. They can figure out how to beat opponents just on maneuverability.

Both should have their moments defensively as smaller big men. They can both play bigger than they are — even if Clarke’s physicality is not bigger than his height.

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But that is not enough in the NBA. Size still matters. And without the shooting element, both Clarke and Hachimura will find it tough to carve out more than a reserve or specialist role in the league.