The Prospect Overview: You Have to Deal with Noah Clowney
Maxwell examines Alabama Prospect Noah Clowney, and how his success parallels the rise of famous musician Yanni! PLUS: Tons of Big Board movement and Quick Hits!
There are always “you had to be there” moments in pop culture. Imagine if you were in a coma for all of 2013, and after waking up, you heard “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?).” Then, someone told you it reached the top fifteen on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be rather puzzling! The “SO RANDOM” humor of 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite would seem downright bizarre today and wouldn’t have clicked with audiences if it had been released a decade earlier. But it was a phenomenon when it was released, its momentum and societal impact like a snowball rolling down a hill. Or try explaining to someone who wasn’t alive in 2008 that this was once a cool style of t-shirt:
For me, the biggest, “wait, what?” pop culture phenomenon was Yanni. For the uninitiated, Yanni was a guy who looked like he’d be on the cover of a filthy novel that you’d find on your aunt’s bookshelf, and he made songs that sounded like hold music. And he was SUPER famous.
It wasn’t until I recently listed to an episode of the Decoder Ring podcast that I learned about how Yanni rose to prominence. He’d been making new-age instrumental music for a while and was successful within that niche. However, it was a difficult niche to break out of, because generally, people don’t choose to listen to music that sounds like something you would hear on an elevator. Yanni had an idea, though. The Three Tenors were an opera trio who found massive popularity after a special of theirs aired during the PBS Pledge Drive. Looking to take the same path, Yanni filmed a special titled “Live at the Acropolis” from a 2,000-year-old theater in Athens.
People ate it up. It was one of PBS’s most popular programs ever. Yanni sold more than 7 million copies of the video of his performance. It peaked at number five on the Billboard charts and stayed on the charts for 114 weeks. Suddenly, Yanni was a guy you had to know. It didn’t matter if you didn’t know who he was a year ago, it didn’t matter if you liked him, and it didn’t matter if you were prepared for him. Yanni had arrived, and now, you had to deal with him. The same can be said for Noah Clowney.
Ranked 74th in the 2023 recruiting class via the RSCI metric, the 6’10” Noah Clowney wasn’t exactly a nobody before stepping onto campus at Alabama. Still, he wasn’t cloaked with heavy expectations the way other freshmen big men like Dereck Lively, Kyle Filipowski, and Kel’el Ware were. Despite that, there is an argument to be made that Clowney has become the most modern, consistent, and reliable of that group at this point. Over the last five games, Clowney is averaging 14.0 PPG, 10 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.4 BPG, and 0.4 SPG. He’s scoring efficiently, with shooting splits of 56.8/39.1/61.1. These games were largely against good competition, too. You can quibble with South Dakota State, sure, but Houston, Memphis, Gonzaga, and Mississippi State are all high-level opponents.
There are two more reasons to be highly encouraged by Clowney’s production. The first is that he didn’t play on one of the major AAU shoe circuits. As a result, he’s doing this with fewer reps against loaded rosters during his development. If anything, Clowney should be struggling against more consistent size and better athleticism. Instead, he’s quickly acclimated, and he’s thriving. The second factor, and the real icing on the cake, is that Clowney is one of the youngest freshmen in college basketball. Clowney is 18 years old, and he won’t turn 19 until July. This is a guy who could easily be a high school senior and has less experience against tough opposition than his peers but is still producing as well as any of them.
College production doesn’t guarantee NBA success, though. Let’s get into the details and why his game profiles so well for the modern pro game.
One of the most simple but important questions about any big man prospect is this—can they finish at the basket? For Noah Clowney, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Clowney is shooting 72.1% on twos for the season, a tantalizing number for a young big. Per Synergy, he’s making 68.3% of his shots at the rim in the halfcourt. Clowney gets off the floor with ease. While he’s quick and light from the ground to the rim, he still goes up with the intent to send the ball home hard. His timing for 45-cuts and ability to position himself in advantageous places in the dunker spot have both come along nicely throughout the season. Those are both key developments for a young, 6’10” prospect. He’s agile, so his decisive cuts are impactful rather than plodding. This off-ball activity is another thing defenders have to be preoccupied with.
While Clowney can dunk the ball home, he’s displayed a beautiful level of touch when he can’t simply jam the rock through the circle. Per Synergy, Clowney has made 61.5% of his layups at the basket in the halfcourt. Even when the lowest-hanging fruit isn’t available, Clowney can still convert. He’s willing to embrace contact, but he also has real craft with the angles at which he releases the ball, and he does so softly. Clowney can finish with power, but he doesn’t need to. It’s a subtle but valuable brand of versatility that is often overlooked.
Through 12 games, Noah Clowney has converted 28.2% of his 3.3 three-point attempts per game. Recently, he’s heated up, as I previously noted that he is 39.1% over his last five games. Typically, big men are slower to develop their outside shot than their wing and guard counterparts. For Clowney to be hitting at this sort of clip so early in his life at his size is impressive. It’s a smoother stroke mechanically, and it tends to be consistent in terms of how it looks. Occasionally, he’ll release the ball at a lower angle, but generally, it’s a clean, high release up top. He could speed up his release by having more bend in his knees before the catch and removing the dipping motion, but those are luxury problems for a 6’10” 18-year-old. Clowney has also demonstrated a basic understanding of where to position himself on the perimeter off the ball to maximize spacing for his teammates while simultaneously getting himself more open. If he doesn’t draw his big man out of the paint, he can make them pay. His mobility and nose for cuts (72nd percentile on Points Per Possession off cuts, per Synergy) add to his game, too. Should he develop into an average or above-average three-point shooter at the NBA level, it will accentuate his skill as a cutter.
The biggest statistical issue for Clowney right now is his assist and turnover numbers. As it stands, he’s averaging 1.0 APG and 2.1 TOV. It’s not great! The good news is that I’m optimistic about him curbing the turnover problem. Watching through all of his turnovers, the biggest thing that stuck out was how often they were the result of the ball getting knocked out of his hands. That’s definitely concerning for a big man, but it’s a simple fix that boils down to grip strength and awareness. Given how much room his frame has to fill out and how young he is, it’s not the end of the world. I’m a firm believer that everyone can get stronger. That holds even truer for younger players. Getting more reps against better opposition should help the awareness issue.
Right now, I wouldn’t categorize Noah Clowney as a consistent passer. He doesn’t always make the right read. When he’s on the go, he’ll often place the ball too close to where his teammate was as opposed to where they were going to be. But when examining prospects, especially bigger ones, the flashes are important. The two clips above both stood out to me. In the first, Clowney catches the ball in the paint, but there’s heavy traffic. While he may have been able to turn and dunk it quickly, he deserves credit for having the floor mapped in his head. Clowney knew he had a wide-open teammate in the corner, and Clowney got him the ball in a hurry. That teammate was Mark Sears, a 42.9% shooter from long range. A clean corner attempt for him is a high-quality shot, even if you’re upset with Clowney for not going up with the ball. The second clip is even better. Alabama is getting some early offense going. Clowney catches it in the corner and doesn’t have the best shot available. Though his baseline drive finds him running out of room in a hurry, Clowney uses his long arms to sling a one-handed pass to a cutter for an easy bucket. Clowney’s recognition, creativity, and use of his size were all sublime on that possession, and they are the type of thing I’d like to see more often. He can get simple, basic assists out of handoffs, but on the go passing and more dynamism would significantly raise his ceiling.
If you’re going to play the 5 in certain lineups, rim protection is of great significance. Without that, it’s difficult to string together a formidable defense. Clowney has a solid starting point. His defensive attentiveness is solid, allowing him to see when attackers are getting into the paint. Physically, his agility and speed off the ground allow him to spring into position and get up to contest shots at the basket. In the last clip of the video above, his awareness enabled him to shut down a clever cut that would have resulted in two points against bigs who don’t have his same sharpness. He has the minor flaw of biting on fakes a bit too often, a common trait among young big men that is nowhere close to a deal breaker.
Something that stood out as I went through the film was how many of Clowney’s blocks came in transition. His motor runs high. If he makes a mistake, he’s not going to sulk or hang his head. Few young big men show the same fervor as Clowney when it comes to getting back on defense. Coaches love that sort of thing, and that matters when it comes to getting opportunities. You can reliably count on Clowney to play the right way and do the little things on an effort level. He’s going to run hard rim to rim, whether it’s to get his own dunk or to stop the other team from getting one.
A big part of the case for Noah Clowney hinges on his ability to guard on the perimeter. There is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that Clowney is far from consistent on this front. He can be too upright and play with his feet too close together. Remember, though—it’s about the flashes. And the flashes are exciting! When he’s engaged on the ball, Clowney does a good job of sliding, keeping his chest out, and preventing drivers from blowing past him.
Off the ball, it can be a little bit dicey, too. But this is where Clowney’s motor and tools come back into play. On the play above, Clowney ends up way out of position. He went to hedge on a screen where his man was setting a ghost screen. This is what the X’s and O’s community refers to as an “uh oh.” Now, Clowney’s man, Jarace Walker, is wide open in the slot. Alabama’s man in the corner rotates to help, and Walker recognizes this, skipping the ball to a wide-open Terrance Arceneaux in the corner. Clowney does his work to get back in the play, though, sprinting to the corner the instant Walker even considers moving the ball there. The end result: Clowney swats Arceneaux’s corner three out of the air. This is what makes Noah Clowney so enticing! The play started with him making a mistake and ended up with a highlight. His understanding of how offenses flow, work ethic, and ability to cover ground prevented an open that few other freshman bigs would have been able to contest.
There is definitely a rawness to Noah Clowney’s game, and that makes it easy to envision less favorable outcomes. If he doesn’t put on the mass to play the NBA five, he’ll desperately need to add more ball skills to stick as a four. If the outside shot trails off, interest in him as a “this year” prospect could fade. Still, he’s one of the most interesting “tools bets” in this class. He has size at 6’10”, he’s an excellent mover, and he’s already a productive player for a great college team. Add in his youth and lack of high-level experience relative to his peers, and it’s fair to wonder if he has more upside than many of the other big men who were projected ahead of him at the start of the year.
Should Clowney enter the 2023 NBA Draft (and the way things are trending, I’d imagine he will), the team that picks him should demonstrate patience. I believe Clowney is more ready defensively and offers more upside than a player like Zeke Nnaji did in 2020, though Nnaji was given more scoring opportunities. The motor that Clowney displays on the floor has me believing that he’s going to try his hardest to hit his best potential outcomes. If he does, he’s the quintessential modern big man—a low-maintenance floor spacer who finishes efficiently, protects the rim, and can hold his own in space. I don’t think it will happen right away. He has to get stronger with the ball, play more alert on the offensive end, and hone his defensive technique on the perimeter. But these are workable fixes. Plus, he’s surprised me with his readiness before.
I wasn’t prepared to be writing about him at length in January, but here we are. We have to deal with him. The good news is that there is room for all of us in The Clowney Car, even if it doesn’t look that way from the outside.
The Expanding Big Board
1. Victor Wembanyama (1)
2. Scoot Henderson (2)
3. Ausar Thompson (5)
My recent OTE deep dive left me way higher on Ausar Thompson than I was going in. While his three-point shot still isn’t totally consistent (33% on the year), he has made improvements to his form. The overall motion is smoother and less mechanical/clunky. The biggest jump for me, though, has been as a passer. While his defensive recognition has always been wonderful, I’ve always felt that Ausar takes a little bit longer to make reads on offense. He was still advanced for a young player his height, but he needed to slow down before delivering the ball and didn’t make reads as quickly as a true point-forward type. Now, Ausar is doing more as a passer on the go at his top speed. He’s more fluid with the ball in general, too. His handle can still get a little wide, but he’s a more seamless mover who is playing at a faster pace. There is more one-handed, live-dribble passing in traffic and the halfcourt than there was last year. While his mid-range shot and pull-up game is still shaky, his footwork in that area of the floor has come along nicely, allowing him to get better looks.
4. Amen Thompson (3)
Amen Thompson, on the other hand…I’m starting to have some concerns. He’s only hitting 20% of his threes on the year, and unlike Ausar, his shot actually looks worse than it did a year ago. There’s a hideous hitch at the top where he moves the ball to the side before releasing it. His percentage is rough in a vacuum, and the film tells an equally frustrating story, as teams are totally ignoring him on the perimeter. So, we’re ultimately looking at a low percentage on what should be high percentage shots. Additionally, Amen struggles at the rim in the halfcourt. He’s contact averse, and he contorts away from defenders, forcing him to take worse angles at the cup. It leaves me with real questions about what he does as an offensive player in the halfcourt. It’s great that he gets into the paint, and I love his creativity as a passer, but if teams ignore him on the perimeter and he’s struggling to convert at the cup against high schoolers, where does his scoring gravity come from?
This all sounds harsh, but I’d still prefer betting on Amen than anyone else behind him at this stage. He’s a truly special athlete with the ability to read the game at warp speed. Amen is unbelievably sleek with how he looks off his passes and has no problem slinging out of a live dribble. Defensively, he has an uncanny ability to stay in front of his man and can fly into help position like few others. To say he’s fast off the floor as a weakside rim protector would be an understatement. I still like Amen as a prospect a lot; I’m just more concerned than I was a few weeks ago.
5. Cam Whitmore (4)
I’m not panicking about Cam Whitmore at this point, but I’ve been a little frustrated. I need to be patient, though. He’s working his way back from injury, and this Villanova squad isn’t on the level of their teams the past few seasons. It’s a tougher situation than I expected. Still, he’s had some brutal misses from three, his handle gets ugly when he has to put the ball on the ground for a prolonged period of time, and his defensive balance is puzzling at times. In their game against UConn, he had some nice moments staying in front of Hassan Diarra, a small, quick guard. Against Marquette, though, he struggled with directional changes, and it felt like he fell down a million times. While the commentators noted the floor conditions were rough and that the floor was being swept often, it didn’t feel like anyone else was struggling to the same extent.
There are three keys to Whitmore leaping back up the board, potentially to the number three spot. The first is finding more consistency as a shooter. The second is playing with more defensive consistency and looking better in space. The last is to get his interior passing going again. During the high school all-star game circuit and the FIBA America U18s (which, to be fair, wasn’t against great competition), Whitmore was able to punish help defenders when he got to his spots. We haven’t seen that from him yet at Villanova, but there’s no reason to believe it still isn’t in him. Whitmore has plenty of time to solidify and even improve his stock.
6. Nick Smith Jr. (6)
7. Anthony Black (7)
8. Jett Howard (8)
9. GG Jackson (unranked)
GG Jackson, welcome to The Expanding Big Board!
I wrote about GG Jackson at length earlier in the season, and it’s been more of the same for the young freshman. At 6’9”, Jackson has an absurd amount of wiggle for his size. His crossovers, offensive footwork, and handle all look like they would belong to a smaller, more experienced player. The fact that he just turned 18 and is carrying the load for a high-major program without embarrassing himself on a nightly basis is beyond impressive. Jackson would be deserving of a lottery look if he was merely holding his own. Instead, he’s been fantastic. He’s posting 17.2 PPG on 42.2/37.3/65.2 splits. His pre-college film was mid-range heavy, but the fact that he’s hitting such a good mark from three on 5.2 attempts per game is beyond encouraging. Defensively, he’s done a good job of staying engaged. He has the mobility to rotate and scramble at a high level. On the ball, his footspeed allows him to guard tight on smaller players. He’s a seamless elevator at the rim to block shots, though he’s more frequently on the perimeter, given South Carolina’s roster construction.
There are two things I’d like to see from GG Jackson. I mentioned his pre-college shot diet being mid-range heavy in the last paragraph, and that’s still a bit of an issue. GG has loads of shake and good strength, but he’s still too likely to play east-west, settling for pull-ups and stepbacks. Given his physical profile and dribble craft, I’d like to see him at the rim more often. The second thing is a tired talking point by now—he’s not a great passer. Even if he has a 3-on-2, he’s still too likely to take the shot himself. I’m not totally out on this part of his game developing, though. Yes, 0.6 assists per game is a scary number. But still, Jackson is still acclimating to a much higher level of competition. As the game slows down later in the year, it will be interesting to see if growth comes along. Brice Sensabaugh has recently turned a corner in this sense, better recognizing the leverage his scoring creates and punishing defenses with his passes. There’s no reason GG couldn’t do the same. Additionally, GG doesn’t have much help from his teammates. South Carolina is ranked 333rd in Division I for 2FG% and 260th for 3FG%. Keep in mind, GG cannot tally assists by passing to their best option, himself. I want to see passing development, but it’s not a total dealbreaker yet.
10. Brandon Miller (9)
11. Jarace Walker (10)
-I’m becoming increasingly enamored with Jordan Hawkins. He has heaps of shooting gravity, launching an obscene 16.3 three-point attempts per 100 possessions and hitting 39.8% of them. He’s also a dog on defense. His 2.0 STL% and 1.8 BLK% profile nicely, but the film tells an even better story. He’s a determined hustler who will dive for loose balls and is constantly mucking things up. His feet and strength allowed him to wall off Colby Jones on occasion. Hawkins needs to improve at the rim, where he’s merely an okay finisher but a poor leaper, and some added passing when he’s chased off the line would be the icing on the cake.
-The Memphis Grizzlies often look for a specific set of statistical indicators:
eFG% > 57
DREB% and AST% > 14
BLK% and STL% > 2.
One high-major player is demolishing that model.
eFG% = 66.9
DREB% = 17.4, AST% = 18.3
BLK% = 2.9, STL% = 2.8
That player is Missouri’s Kobe Brown. At 6’8”, he has potent size and feel on both ends. His 45.7% from three and 80.5% from the free-throw line demonstrate his marksmanship. Inside, he uses his power and touch to devastate opponents, finishing 71.4% of his shots at the rim in the halfcourt, per Synergy. He can play in-between, too, getting low with his dribble and delivering deceiving passes that throw defenses into a tizzy. His craft with ball fakes, polished handle, and mismatch prowess make him an offensive threat in every sense. Defensively, he’s not the greatest mover, but he reads plays well, and is always engaged. Brown’s a better leaper than his bulky frame indicates, too. It feels silly to leave him off draft boards at this stage.
-Kel’el Ware had one of his more well-rounded outings against Oregon State. The Oregon big man didn’t swat a ton of shots, but he was engaged defensively thoughout. He was talking, preventing entry passes, setting good screens, and he wasn’t toasted when he had to turn and chase smaller players at times. His season has been up-and-down, with inconsistency in terms of both his play and his role, but it was a reminder that there is a lot of talent in the 7-footer with floor spacing capabilities.
-Kobe Bufkin is heating up! The 6’4” sophomore combo guard for Michigan has always been a nasty defender. He supplies solid help digs, has nasty hands guarding the ball, reads passing lanes well, and is a big-time leaper who blocks shots well for his size. Two questions have plagued him—can he consistently make plays well enough for his size, and can he become a consistent outside shooter? While his playmaking load isn’t massive, he’s posting a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio on the year. Regarding the shooting, well, he’s on a heater. After going 16.7% from distance in Michigan’s first six games, he’s gone 55% in their last seven. The volume isn’t great (2.9/game), but it’s still a substantial improvement and encouraging development. The bar is high for guards, but if Bufkin can pair a solid offensive complimentary game with his absurd defensive acumen, he could have an NBA career.