Why NBA teams are so intrigued by 7-footers Donovan Clingan and Zach Edey — for different reasons

IT’S RARE THAT the viewing interests of fans and scouts ever completely align, but as circumstances would have it, last season’s most-watched jump ball came at the outset of the men’s national title game in Glendale, Arizona.

UConn’s 7-foot-3 Donovan Clingan, anchoring a defense on its way to a historic average margin of victory (23.3 points) and a second straight title, and Purdue’s 7-5 Zach Edey, the two-time national player of the year and college basketball’s most dominant interior force, squared off at midcourt. The two centers, both viewed as fascinating pro prospects, had their final opportunity to leave an impression on NBA decision-makers on April 8 — with a little more than two months to go before the 2024 draft.

UConn and Purdue were compelled to the championship game by, in large part, their titanic stars, who have become two of the most familiar faces in this class.

Amid what has been regarded by NBA scouts and executives as a down year for draft talent, big men have been trending up boards. While NBA front offices evaluate talent and calibrate their decisions ahead of the draft (Wednesday and Thursday on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+), as many as eight centers could hear their names called in the first round, up from one true center in 2023 (Dereck Lively, No. 12 overall) and three in 2022 (Jalen Duren, No. 13; Mark Williams, No. 15; and Walker Kessler, No. 22).

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“As long as there’s basketball, there’s always a place for those guys. But big men now more than ever, are role players,” one Eastern Conference scout told ESPN. “It’s like running backs in the NFL — they used to be what your offense featured, now they’re complementary by nature, outside of the two or three that are incredible. So if you’re going into it [from that perspective], who are the guys with the best complementary skills?”

While the expected outcomes on draft night vary for Clingan (a No.1 pick candidate) and Edey (projected mid-to-late first round), scouts have been comparing and contrasting them for much of the past nine months. Both players have been labeled as throwbacks, with the type of size and skills befitting of the 1990s and 2000s NBA, but there’s still appeal surrounding two of the draft’s biggest outliers.

CLINGAN HAS A chance to hear his name called within the first seven picks of the draft, following his emergence over the course of UConn’s title run. The Huskies’ two NCAA championships in two years were greatly aided by Clingan’s defensive impact, which sometimes shows in the box score but often manifests more in the win column. He worked his way through minor injuries over the course of the season and found peak form when it mattered most in March, vaulting him into the draft’s high lottery conversation.

A local player who attended Bristol (Connecticut) Central High School, Clingan arrived at UConn a touch overweight after finishing high school during the COVID-19 pandemic. While he developed largely off the national radar, the Huskies — with the advantage of proximity — had been drawn to Clingan’s coordination and aptitude for the game dating to his sophomore year.

“One of the best things about the kid is how hard he plays, how he loves to compete and how natural he is as an athlete,” UConn coach Dan Hurley told ESPN. “He’s not a tall guy [who picked up] basketball because he’s tall.”

Zach Edey and Donovan Clingan faced off in the men’s national championship last March, with Clingan’s UConn besting Edey’s Purdue Boilermakers to claim the Huskies’ second consecutive national title. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

After playing a valuable role platooning behind Adama Sanogo during UConn’s 2022 championship run as a freshman, Cingan stepped into more responsibility last season and ultimately delivered on the early-season buzz. UConn’s staff used NBA players such as Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert and Utah’s Kessler as the blueprint defensively, but also expanded Clingan’s role in its offense, giving him more opportunities to facilitate and score in addition to screening and rolling. Part of the long-term appeal with him for NBA scouts is not only his defense, but the room for growth on the other end, including potential to extend his range to the 3-point line.

UConn also placed a premium on patience with Clingan.

“What we talked to him about was, don’t get caught up in mastering the game inside and out,” Hurley said.

“We’d show him [Denver Nuggets star] Nikola Jokic, from an offensive standpoint when he was younger. So that Donovan would understand that when Jokic was 19, that wasn’t what he was doing right now. You’re watching what he’s doing right now and thinking I should be doing that right now. Well, that’s not what he was doing [at that age]. If he was, well f—, he wouldn’t have been drafted in the second round.”

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At 7-1¾ barefoot with a 7-6¾ wingspan and 9-7 standing reach, Clingan’s physical comparisons in ESPN’s scouting database include four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal, as well as Gobert. Clingan’s play in the NCAA tournament helped reframe his draft trajectory for scouts — he was no longer just a potential long-term defensive anchor, but he flashed poise and skill potential on the offensive end. Clingan couples his physical presence with above-average footwork, coordination and timing for his size, which was striking by the time he’d regained his conditioning during the NCAA tournament.

The title-game matchup between Edey and Clingan largely lived up to the hype, with Edey getting the better of Clingan on some occasions in the post (Edey scored 37 points to Clingan’s 11), but Clingan making a broader defensive impact in fewer minutes and wearing down his opponent. The differences in their respective usage, skill sets and contexts was evident, but both showed the mettle that makes them appealing at the next level.

“Zach Edey, he’s a hard guy to guard for anyone, especially when you’re sending zero help,” Hurley said. “But that middle 20 minutes of the game, Donovan was able to make things really tough on him, once he was able to gauge Zach’s size and his moves. Their styles of play were so different that it’s hard to compare them.”

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Purdue coach Matt Painter underscored the nature of the matchup, adding the distinction that he regularly relied on Edey for heavy minutes. UConn’s depth factored into the matchup, with Clingan and backup Samson Johnson able to spell one another more frequently. But Clingan’s court coverage and defensive impact made life difficult for opponents throughout the tournament, and NBA teams took note.

“The No. 1 thing for us wasn’t Clingan’s defense on Zach, it was Clingan’s defense in help,” Painter said. “We thought he was a really good post defender, but also thought Zach would have that advantage. I thought Zach had more success in that game, but where Clingan does his work and where he’s special is on the weak side coming over, helping out on drives, having that timing and the discipline to stay down. To be the second jumper, block or change shots.”

WHAT EDEY, WHO became the sixth two-time national player of the year, will supply in the NBA — bruising interior efficiency and soft touch coupled with sheer strength and size — isn’t quite like any prospect in recent college history.

While there have been notable low post players coming out of college, Edey has more going for him than most. He’s bigger than all of them, standing 7-3¾ barefoot with a 7-10¾ wingspan and 9-7 standing reach. He has also displayed outstanding stamina at his size (averaging 32 minutes last season), he draws fouls (11.2 free throw attempts per game) and his soft touch extends to the foul line, where he’s a career 70.4% shooter. Purdue used those traits to great effect, limiting its own fouling on the defensive end (and instructing Edey to guard conservatively much of the time), then bolstering its margin for error through that disparity in foul shots.

“We just wanted him to be the best version of himself,” Painter said, adding that there weren’t any current NBA players for Edey to directly model himself after. “I think any comps you can throw his way would be for people that played [in the past].”

From a size perspective, like Clingan, Edey’s physical comparisons include O’Neal and Gobert (and also 7-4 Rockets center Boban Marjanovic) — but he’s taller and has a longer wingspan than all of them. In addition to his remarkable college production, his late-blooming trajectory has added a layer of intrigue for teams.

Edey averaged a career best 25.2 points and 2.2 blocks in his senior season at Purdue, leading the Boilermakers to the national championship game. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Edey entered Purdue in just his fourth season of playing basketball, picking up the game late before moving from the Toronto area to IMG Academy, where Painter honed in on him in workouts and developed conviction in his potential. He arrived on campus and took a notable jump in the fall of 2021, when Painter returned from a multiweek COVID-19 hiatus astounded by Edey’s improvement. “I was like, man, I’ve been in organized basketball my whole life, and here he is as a freshman at Purdue, and he’s going on his fourth year. I thought, he’s going to make bigger jumps than everybody else.”

Many of college basketball’s modern-era post-up stars haven’t translated that level of success to the NBA, often failing to produce the type of efficiency that warrants high-usage touches, struggling to keep up defensively, or both. Believing in Edey’s long-term prospects requires a level of creative thinking, and accepting that his unique qualities might not hold him back, but could be what make him successful.

“A lot of people will say, professionally, no, you can’t do more than what you’ve done [in college]. I think that’s a fair statement most of the time,” Painter said. “But for Zach, he still was going into his sixth, seventh year of basketball … he did improve and make big strides into this last year, and he’s just going to keep doing that. I don’t think he’s going to stop. He’s kind of defied the odds already, and I think he’s going to keep defying the odds.”

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With the NBA’s present moment defined to some extent by dominant bigs — think Jokic and Joel Embiid trading MVP awards, and Victor Wembanyama’s ascent just beginning — there’s value to be found in having size on the floor, running efficient offense through the post, and then effectively contending against it.

Clingan and Edey are coming around at the perfect time, with NBA front offices and coaching staffs being more open-minded to their utility. And while we might not be entering another era of 7-footers and post play — shooting, pace and spacing are still the league’s chief priorities — the two tallest prospects in this draft class could wind up among its most impactful players in the long run.

“What makes things trend,” Painter said, “are good players.”

IT’S EVIDENT THE value of bigs has persisted through an era characterized more often by small ball, shooting and spacing. The things teams ask their centers to do have become more perimeter-oriented, but scouts say Clingan and Edey, despite being more traditional, inside-focused players, can break the mold.

Scouts are hoping Clingan, 20, can become a starter in the NBA because of his defensive impact, offensive flashes, shooting potential and room for projection at a younger age. While he isn’t the level of scorer as Edey, there are more believable areas for improvement that might shift him into a more modern stretch 5. Ironically, Clingan played in more of a timeshare in college, and Edey, 22, logged 30-plus minutes each of his past two seasons, but the opposite might be true in the long run due to their defensive projections — which is reflected on teams’ draft boards.

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“Clingan’s defensive range, his ability to cover ground, is more attractive in today’s NBA,” one front-office executive told ESPN. “His ability to get up more and also recover is much better than Edey, and at a younger age. If you’re in the playoffs expecting [Clingan] to get out and contest shooters and get back into the play, I don’t see that happening. But he does have much better mobility and upside in that area, inside 15 feet.”

Edey’s unique efficiency and power around the rim — he shot 62% from the field in four college seasons, while rarely straying outside the paint — and ability to draw fouls has earned him fans among league insiders, although there’s more divisive opinion on what his future holds. Teams hope he can succeed as a rotational option, although it might require a slower-paced offense with a focus on throwing him the ball to fully optimize him. Defensive concerns make him a more situational player than a full-on starter, barring unexpected improvement.

“With Edey, the fear is with his ability to guard in space,” the executive added. “When guards turn the corner on him, his ability to recover and get back into the play. You might have to commit to gimmicky defenses and station him around the basket to really take advantage of his rim-protection.”

While a wave of intriguing center prospects in a thin draft might not signal a stylistic sea of change for the NBA, teams are intrigued to see how Clingan and Edey fare after taking over the college game by drastically different means.

If nothing else, their careers will serve as a useful litmus test as to just how good a 7-footer has to be to stick in the NBA these days.

“I don’t know if the big man is back, but I think Clingan and Edey were just dominant, and it stands out. In a deeper draft, maybe they each get picked 5-to-10 slots later,” one general manager told ESPN. “But it’s an interesting comparison, the two best bigs in college basketball — they’re just very different. But they both play hard. They’re going to give it their all, they compete, they’re physical, can’t deny that.”

 

Updated: Juni 23, 2024 — 4:00 pm

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