Ernie Kent put the finishing touches on what has become a monstrously large 2015 class on Monday when 7-foot junior college center Conor Clifford signed a letter of intent to play at WSU in 2015-2016. He'll have two years to play two seasons.
If you read about Clifford's commitment on Monday, you already know WSU beat out Utah and South Carolina for the one-time UC-Irvine player. In fact, Clifford's coach at Saddleback College told Jacob Thorpe that Clifford had 55 scholarship offers, which seems kind of crazy until you remember that, yanno, he's 7 feet tall, which means that beyond the high major interest Clifford received, there probably isn't a mid-major in the country that wouldn't have loved to have him.
It's not that mid-majors don't have 7-footers -- they do. But 7-footers who can run the floor, catch the ball, and finish with some semblance of a post game are at a premium, and that's exactly what Clifford is and exactly why high major teams were after him. As you well know, you can learn a lot about the skill set of a player by simply looking at who has extended an offer, and the reality is that if Frank Martin wants a player, there's not a chance on earth that he's a stiff.
There's precious little video on Clifford, a fairly common plight when it comes to scouting junior college kids. That said, I was able to find one (almost) complete game of Clifford's from last year, in which he scored 12 points and grabbed 7 rebounds in a relatively easy 70-53 victory. Unfortunately, it appears the camera didn't start rolling until after Clifford had scored a few buckets, as Clifford shot 4-of-7 overall, but there's only one make in this video. However, there still are a few nuggets inside -- not enough to make definitive judgments, as it's only one game, but certainly enough to give us an idea of why the Cougs and other were after Clifford.
Of course the first thing everyone wants to know is what Clifford brings to the game offensively. He didn't get a ton of looks in this game, as Cypress employed a zone that resembled a box-and-1 apparently designed almost exclusively to limit Clifford's touches. (It did slow Clifford down; it didn't help Cypress win the game.)
That said, here are a couple of his touches -- he's No. 42 in black.
Notice how he used his wide body to establish position? That's something I saw repeatedly, including on this post catch where he draws a foul:
Now, for my favorite clip. I loooooooove this clip. Notice how he establishes position as the ball is reversed, then uses his feet in order to create space for a left-handed shot:
Yeah, Clifford missed this shot, but this actually is very encouraging. Nice footwork complete with a natural use of his left hand -- and despite this being the second clip with him using his left for a shot, I promise he's actually righthanded. This sort of thing probably is what you'd expect to see from him at WSU, as it's this sort of move that will come in handy to get shots off against the athletes he'll face in the Pac-12.
Ernie Kent notes that Clifford has a face-up game -- "He has the ability to put in ball screens and pick-and-pop and shoot the 17-footer," Kent told Jacob Thorpe -- but that wasn't on display in this game.
Clifford also appears to have some skills passing the ball. Let's start with a rebound and strong outlet pass:
And here are a couple of nice passes to cutters after Saddleback ran a set designed to get Clifford out of the paint -- taking defenders (plural!) with him. You'll notice Cypress paying so much attention to Clifford they forget to mark the guys running straight towards the rim from the top of the key:
Despite the modest numbers in the game, he had a really nice offensive performance. Clifford didn't force his shot, and he used the attention Cypress was directing his way to open up opportunities for teammates. I'm pretty excited to see what he might be able to do when opposing defenses aren't simply focusing all their energy on stopping him thanks to threats such as Josh Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu also being on the floor. I've got visions of Kent running high-low for days with Clifford and Hawkinson.
If you're wondering if Clifford is going to help the Cougars where they really need the most help -- defensively -- I didn't see much here to lend credence to the idea that he'll be an impact player on that end. I don't expect him to be a poor defender; I just didn't see a guy who intimidates at 7 feet tall. That said, this weakside block to start a fastbreak was awfully nice:
Still, after watching the game, he doesn't look to me like a guy who's going to block many shots in the Pac-12, and that's backed up by his stats: Clifford registered just 40 blocks in 35 games, a pretty small amount for a guy who towers over most junior college players. That's not a huge knock on Clifford; after all, if he also was a dominant defensive presence in addition to his offensive potential, he wouldn't have started his career at UC-Irvine, and he'd have been recruited more aggressively this year by programs of a higher pedigree than South Carolina and WSU. (Utah got involved late as Jakob Poeltl flirted with the idea of the NBA.)
He can move his feet for sure, but there were a few times where he either got a little out of position away from the basket and got taken advantage of by a quicker player, such as this play, where he sneaks a peek at a potential penetrator and simply loses track of his man, who sneaks out for a 3:
And then this play, where Clifford tries to hedge too soon and the guard reverses course, only to find Clifford's man rolling wide open to the bucket:
He also was a bit late on this weakside help, which he seems to realize, but not in time to avoid the foul:
There's some work to do, but based on this game, Clifford appears to clearly have the tools to, at the very least, be a competent defender. And maybe he blossoms into something more.
Overall, Clifford is a very good "get" for Kent and for the program, and it's the first real evidence we have that Kent's still got that fabled recruiting touch we all hoped for when he was hired. That's exciting.