2024 NBA Draft: Can UConn’s Donovan Clingan force some tough decisions?

Detroit Bad Boys

Connecticut center Donovan Clingan stands to solidify his NBA standing in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four, set to tip off in Phoenix on Saturday night.

A win on Saturday against Alabama could serve to show NBA front offices how Clingan, a 7-foot-2 behemoth, can handle defending a Crimson Tide team that can be described as trigger-happy from 3-point land.

Following that up with a win on Monday in the championship potentially against Purdue could showcase Clingan’s ability to defend Purdue’s Zach Edey, a back-to-back National Player of the Year and behemoth of a potential lottery pick in his own right.

After helping the Huskies to a championship in 2023, the sophomore listed at 280 pounds enters his second straight Final Four appearance ranked No. 3 on my latest big board, 11 spots higher than any other returner in the class.

In fact, I think Clingan could be such a good pro that if the Detroit Pistons miss out on a couple certain other prospects by the time they select, he could force the team to make a decision at the position:

Continue riding Jalen Duren, who is averaging over 13 points and 11 rebounds in his second NBA season at age 20, or select Clingan, who is significantly bigger but is only a few months younger than Duren and will have over 125 fewer games of NBA experience.

So what makes Clingan worth the consideration?

When it comes to size, Clingan is four inches taller with a two-inch wingspan advantage and 30-pound weight advantage. He carries it well and hardly ever gets moved off his footing, which he could prove for the world to see in a potential championship matchup against Purdue.

He’s also a much better defender than Duren, and it showed in UConn’s Elite 8 win over Illinois:

He was a catalyst in the Huskies ripping off a 30-0 run in the middle of an Elite 8 matchup, something that hadn’t been done in any Division-I game in the last three years. The Illini had settled on a gameplan of “attack Clingan inside” and he was showing them why that was a terrible idea, shutting the best offense in the country down completely.

Call it a halftime adjustment if you want to, but Illinois finally was getting swayed from its gameplan after Clingan racked up four blocks in the first half, and the Illinois offense stagnated because of it, leading to zero points over nearly an hour of real time.

Clingan’s size forces him to mainly play a drop coverage, although it’s not as low of a drop as you might see from a Brook Lopez for example because Clingan has the coordination to keep his feet under him as he adjusts to drivers and backdoor cutters, as well as continuing to maintain his ground against other centers.

Offensively, he dominates where you might expect a big man to. He’s 96th percentile in Division-I post efficiency at 1.193 points per possession as well as 83rd percentile as a roll man, scoring 1.286 points per possession.

That’s the kind of efficiency Monty Williams would love to see from Cade Cunningham’s potential pick-and-roll partner.

Additionally, Clingan does not have the same turnover issues that Duren has, turning the ball over just three times more over 72 games than Duren did in 29 collegiate games. Duren averages 2.1 turnovers per game this season in Detroit, which is more than Clingan’s two season averages combined — 1.8 per game.

Clingan’s elite offensive game can be boiled down to two factors: his elite hands which mitigate any potential turnover issue, as well as his elite footwork inside, intelligently using his length to get the best shot as quickly as possible and with the best possible balance.

It’s that mix of coordination and imposing physical stature that makes me believe in Clingan’s All-NBA potential. I don’t think he’ll be as good as a Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid; those are generational players. But he could fill their place as best centers in the league when they’re on the decline.

I think of Clingan as a bigger, better Clint Capela. And one of the things Clingan will have to continue to improve upon to make sure his career doesn’t hit the same ceilings as Capela is free throw percentage.

He has improved from 51.7% to 57.4% in his sophomore season and has made two out of three spot-up 3s this season, so the touch is there or at the very least improving.

The percentage is one area Duren has him beat, shooting 78.6% at the stripe this season, although Clingan gets to the line 11.3 times per 100 possessions (yielding 6.5 points at 57.4%) and Duren gets there just 4.7 times per 100 possessions (3.7 points at 78.6%).

Scouting this class very closely at a lackluster top of the draft, the only player that would be above my Pistons-specific board is France’s Zaccharie Risacher, solely because of the perimeter offensive creation aspect he brings at 6-foot-8 that Detroit is lacking.

But Clingan should be right there in the thick of the conversation no matter where the pick lands.

It’s tough when that decision could mean relegating Duren to the bench or even off the team completely, but I think Williams and Cunningham both would see the value in a truly impressive center prospect.

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