Sleeper Deep Dives: Donovan Clingan
Donovan Clingan has been extremely impressive in limited minutes this season. He could be a second round steal for a team this year--or a potential first round pick in the future.
Donovan Clingan entered the 2022-23 college basketball season with an uphill climb ahead of him to shine in his first year of college. The Bristol, CT native was the highest-ranked recruit in UConn’s 2022 class, finishing 37th in the RSCI for the 2022 class, but Adama Sanogo was the starting center heading into the season and was set to be the primary option for UConn. With Sanogo in front of him, Clingan needed to be spectacular to even earn his way into the rotation.
At this point in the season, Clingan has cleared that bar and then some. He is currently averaging 8.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 2.0 BPG on 71/0/52 shooting splits in just 13.8 minutes per game of playing time. Clingan’s per-minute numbers are staggering, but you don’t even need to dig into those numbers to see Clingan on the leaderboards—he is currently tied for the Big East in blocks at 46. Georgetown’s Akok Akok is co-leader with Clingan, with well over twice as many minutes played compared to the young UConn big man.
Clingan’s draft stock for this year is still quite low—he finished outside of the Top 50 on the most recent $DRFT rankings compiled by our own Corey Tulaba, and he finished at #58 on V3 of our No Ceilings BIG Board. There is a very good chance that Clingan returns to school for another year, especially given where his draft stock sits at this point in the season.
If he decides to remain in the 2023 NBA Draft, however, he could be a steal for a team late in the second round. Clingan has already proven that he can be absurdly efficient as a backup center, but there is plenty of room for him to continue to grow. He could easily be a first round pick next year after a season starting for the Huskies; if he declares for the 2023 NBA Draft, any teams looking his way could save a ton of draft capital by taking him now, before his stock rises even higher. So…let’s dive deep!
Offense: Spectacular Efficiency
Donovan Clingan might not have had much of a role in UConn’s game plans heading into the season, but he has taken advantage of his minimal playing time to put up some crazy numbers on the offensive end. His combination of size and strength enables him to finish through nearly anyone around the basket, even as he’s coming into his own when it comes to his body.
As our own Nathan Grubel noted in his Draft Risers article last month, Clingan has transformed his body since high school, and the results are clear. While he does have a little bit of “baby giraffe” syndrome when it comes to his coordination, he is already much more mobile than he was in high school. He’s rapidly transformed from an immobile big into someone who’s pretty quick for his 7’2” and 265-pound frame. When you combine that improved mobility with his bruising screens, soft hands, and preternatural cutting instincts, you end up with a dangerous offensive arsenal.
Clingan might not always be the most fluid player yet, but he is very smooth most of the time; his awkward moments look much more like “18-year-old still growing into his body” awkwardness than any real lack of basketball fluidity. Even with those occasional baby giraffe moments, he is much quicker than your average 7’2”+ behemoth cutting to the rim or running out in transition:
Clingan’s basic box score numbers look incredibly impressive in his limited minutes, but his advanced numbers might be even more positive in terms of the indicators for his potential NBA future. Clingan averages a remarkable 1.121 points per possession (PPP) on offense overall, good enough to put him in the 94th percentile offensively, per Synergy. The play type breakdowns further bolster his NBA case; Clingan most frequent play type on offense is cuts, and he averages a mind-boggling 1.583 points per possession on those plays, once again putting him in the 94th percentile. He grades out in the 55th percentile or better on Offensive Rebounds (64th percentile), post-ups (68th percentile), pick-and-roll roll man possessions (55th percentile), and transition plays (88th percentile). All of the details above back up the tale of the tape: Clingan does pretty much everything that you would want a complementary offensive center to do—with two key exceptions.
The first exception is the one that’s easiest to work around: the shooting. Clingan has struggled at the free-throw line this season, and he also missed the one three-point attempt he’s taken this season—which is also one of two jump shots he’s taken from any distance all season. The form isn’t the ugliest shooting stroke in the world, but he’s a long way away from being even a mid-range shooting threat:
The jump shot issues are an exception in terms of his otherwise excellent scoring touch, but those concerns are also not a particularly big deal in the long term. It would help his game if he could become more of a pick-and-pop threat, of course, but ultimately, he doesn’t need the jump shot to come around given the rest of his skill set on offense.
The free-throw shooting woes, however, are a potential long-term concern. Clingan isn’t quite in early-career Andre Drummond/late-career Steven Adams territory from the charity stripe, but it’s safe to say that it’s a problem. His 2.7 FTA per game and his excellent 0.583 free-throw rate are positive signs overall; however, his 52.4% mark from the line will make it easy for opposing defenses to decide that hacking Clingan around the basket is much better for their defense than letting him actually shoot the ball.
The other concern with Clingan is his passing. He has just eight assists so far against 24 turnovers—a troubling number, especially given his free-throw woes. The two combine in a particularly unfortunate way; defenses know that they’re better off fouling Clingan than letting him go to work, and they can also get away with pressuring him or even doubling him down low and daring him to make the kickout pass.
To be clear, Clingan is not an unwilling passer by any means. For the most part, he’s getting the ball and being expected to score as a play finisher. He can make the right reads when he gets his head up, and he’s even thrown a few nifty passes this season that, while not likely to end up on highlight reels, might be signs of more passing potential for him than the raw numbers show:
While Clingan still has room to develop as a passer, and while he needs to improve as a shooter (at least from the free-throw line), those are ultimately the exceptions to his offensive game. Some shooting and passing growth from Clingan could lead to him taking on a larger role in the future, but that shouldn’t detract from where his game is right now. He’s already a spectacularly efficient offensive center and pretty much an ideal backup big. The two counter-arguments to “pretty much an ideal backup big” are certainly areas for improvement, but Clingan as he is right now is still worth at least a second round look—especially when you factor his defense into the equation.
Defense: Rim Protection Menace
Donovan Clingan has put up some special offensive performances this season, including two 20-10 games—both in less than 22 minutes of playing time. However, he isn’t quite demolishing the opposition on the offensive end to quite that degree every night. Where he does demolish everyone all the time, though, is on the defensive end.
Part of the supporting evidence for Clingan’s occasional offensive stumbles being growing pains rather than long-term stiffness is how under control he looks on the defensive end. Despite his eye-popping shot-blocking numbers, he often does his best work when he doesn’t block the shot. He stymies opposing big men around the basket, doesn’t bite on pump fakes very often, and slides his feet laterally exceptionally well for someone his size. Even though he’s pretty clearly a drop defender, he does surprisingly well for his size on the rare possessions when he is forced out to the perimeter to deal with a jump-shooting opposing big.
The result of his combination of fluidity and rare discipline for an 18-year-old shot-blocker is that Clingan is an absolute defensive force in the paint, constantly forcing his opponents into terrible shots while remaining in position to either box out or grab the rebound himself:
In addition to his crazy defensive rate numbers when it comes to basic box score stats, the advanced numbers back up the tape when it comes to Clingan’s numbers on the defensive end. In addition to being tied for the Big East lead in blocks, he’s also 17th in Defensive Win Shares with 1.1—despite not even cracking 15 minutes per game. Clingan has also allowed just 0.618 PPP on defense this season, grading out in the 91st percentile, per Synergy.
Here’s an interesting advanced stats query for all of you (I’ll try to limit the filters here so that this is as far from cherry-picking as such a thing can be). How many players have reached the following thresholds since 2008?
Minutes Percentage ≥ 30%
True Shooting Percentage ≥ 65%
Offensive Rebound Percentage ≥ 15%
Block Percentage ≥ 15%
The answer, per BartTorvik? Two: Houston’s Ja’Vier Francis (another underrated big man destroying the competition in his limited minutes) and Donovan Clingan. Add another filter for Defensive Rebounding (Defensive Rebound Percentage ≥ 30%), and Clingan stands alone.
Admittedly, there’s probably a reason why this sample size only includes two players from this season: most big men who are this effective in limited minutes usually get more minutes as the season goes on. However, the counter-argument is also telling: Francis and Clingan are playing behind presumptive Top 10 pick Jarace Walker and team scoring leader Sanogo, respectively, which might actually make their situations this year especially rare in college basketball history. Take the query where Clingan stands alone and drop the Block Percentage threshold in the query to 10%, and Udonna Azubuike’s senior season at Kansas enters the mix.
Simply put, there hasn’t been a season in recent history where a big man who was as absurdly effective on both ends as Clingan has played such a small portion of his team’s minutes. One could argue that it’s a conditioning issue, but the numbers don’t support that hypothesis; Clingan has cracked 20 minutes twice this season, and he put up a double-double in both games.
The only real issue for Clingan on the defensive end has been his fouling—he might be less jump-happy than most shot-blockers his age, but he could still stand to be a bit more disciplined in the paint. He hasn’t fouled out of a game yet, but he has picked up four fouls in three separate games, including a four-foul performance that kept him glued to the bench for all but nine minutes of UConn’s recent loss to St. John’s.
The fouling issues are concerning in the longer term, but they shouldn’t be anywhere near enough to sully Clingan’s defensive skill set. If he ends up working his way into an NBA starting lineup in the future, it will be even more imperative for him to cut down on his foul rate.
For now, though, Clingan brings so much to the table on the defensive end that his foul rate is less important than it might be for a less defensively gifted big man—especially given that his fouls are usually not the egregious kind that leads to a coach immediately pulling a young big man. Clingan already does a great job of keeping his arms up instead of hacking, and he’s better than most at avoiding selling out for the shot block. It’s more of the little ticky-tack fouls than it is some fundamental flaw in his defensive awareness, so it’s more of a matter of cleaning up some things instead of rethinking his defensive philosophy. That’s certainly a good thing, since his defensive presence outside of those fouls is overwhelming and quite a sight to behold.
The UConn Huskies have struggled recently after their red-hot 14-0 start to the season, dropping six of their last nine to fall to 6-6 in the Big East and 17-6 overall. Clingan has had a few rough outings in conference play, but he’s been far from the biggest culprit; his best game of the season came against Marquette on January 11th, when Clingan put up 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, five blocks, and two steals in 21 minutes in an 82-76 UConn loss. While the Huskies are still ranked #24 in the country (as of the 1/30 AP poll) and are on track for a high seed in March Madness, their recent swoon has tempered expectations a bit after the sky-high start.
Donovan Clingan could cement himself as a prospect for the 2023 NBA Draft with a strong close to the season, especially if the Huskies return to their early season form after their recent cold streak. If he has a couple of great games in March Madness, he might even convince an NBA team to take a look at him before Adam Silver hands the reins to Mark Tatum for the second round of the draft this June.
Even if Clingan simply keeps it up down the stretch run of the season, though, he is worth considering now rather than waiting for him to show out next year. Simply put, he’s already proven that he can succeed as a backup center who’s incredibly effective in short spurts. That kind of player is worth an early second round flyer on their own—even with the replacement level at center being higher than it’s been in a long time, getting 10-15 productive big man minutes on both ends is worth that flyer.
If Clingan’s development stalls out here, he’s an excellent rim protector who can clean up the offensive glass, set screens, roll to the rim, and catch lobs. The question now is this: what more can Donovan Clingan become? He’s already transformed his body since high school—could he be even more devastating on the break with a few years in an NBA weight room? Could his increased mobility allow him to be more than just a drop defender in time? Could he develop a jump shot and expand his range, or work on his playmaking game to allow him to more effectively feed his teammates out of the post?
Some of those skills listed above could develop, and even minor improvements in those areas could vastly alter the long-term outlook on Donovan Clingan as a prospect.
Even if those developments don’t come to pass, though, Clingan has shown that he can be spectacularly effective as a backup center. If he does declare for the 2023 NBA Draft, front offices around the NBA would be wise to try to take a chance on him later in the draft this year rather than waiting for him to break out next season. After all, the price for Donovan Clingan might never be any lower than it is right now.