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Nicolas Claxton on the road to somewhere

Franca v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Nicolas Claxton will be a crucial part of an NBA rotation… at some point. I’m not sure when that happens. I’m not sure what position he’ll be playing. I’m not even sure if he gets that big chance in Brooklyn. What I do know is that the recently turned 21-year-old frontcourt player from the University of Georgia offered the world enough semblance of NBA chops to build substantial buzz about his future.

To say that Claxton played “sparingly” would be one hell of an understatement. Stuck behind the ever-changing center rotation of DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen, the wily 6-foot-11 (and 3/4”) big man recorded just 185 total minutes during his rookie season. Even so, in just the 12 total games played, some keynote performances were registered.

Who could forget his frenetic November 8th breakout against the Portland Trailblazers, a fourth-quarter performance that swayed what (at the time) felt like a tremendous nail-biter versus the Western Conference finalists? And then, after a month-and-a-half-long stint in Long Island, Claxton arose again stronger than before, with a thunderous display against the league-best Bucks, stuffed to the brim with weak-side blocks and jam-packed dunks.

This was followed up by yet another magnificent 15-point showing against the 76ers, in which the versatile big even went outside the coloring lines and displayed a cunning handle (which shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise since Tom Crean let him run the show his sophomore year at Georgia.)

The 2019-2020 season (at least the NBA seasons) provided a crude outline of what Claxton is and who he could become. As an above-average 60th percentile pick-and-roller, a willing screener, and a persistent weakside shot-denier who pressured opponents into just 57.8 percent shooting from three feet or closer, “rookie Clax” was every bit the part of a cookie-cutter Kenny Atkinson rim-running shot-blocking facsimile –– a specialist, if you will.

Though truth be told, his skills stem beyond such narrow typecasting. Claxton’s ability to cross-up defenders of all shapes and sizes and capably start –– or even run –– the fast-break kicks his ceiling up a healthy notch or two; it thrusts the kid into a very exclusive class alongside pace-pushing centers like Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, Al Horford, Domantas Sabonis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, and DeMarcus Cousins.

Being able to maneuver around the court with the ball in his hands breathes a certain level of confidence into the rest of Nic’s game. Rather than feeling stuck in the mud if given the ball in the half-court setting, Claxton can take his time, pick his spots, and analyze his options thanks to that impressive live-dribble.

This, in combination with his teammate-first mentality, merge together to form perhaps the tastiest aspect of Claxton’s ceiling. Picture these two skills –– his fluidity and passing flair –– on a Venn Diagram; its epicenter is the off-chance that Clax can grow into one of the nastier short-roll pests in the league. We’ll use the play below as an example of what that could look like.

The possession begins like most Brooklyn pick-and-roll sets: Claxton prepares to screen Ben Simmons and clear space for Spencer Dinwiddie. However, after seeing Philadelphia’s pair of Aussie defenders (Simmons and Jonah Bolden) trap hard near the logo, Claxton slips that screen and sneaks into the empty space near the free-throw line. A quick pass from Dinwiddie to Claxton forces Tobias Harris –– previously defending Rodions Kurucs in the strong-side corner –– to converge toward the middle and account for Brooklyn’s rookie center.

With the ball in his hands and ample time on the shot clock, Claxton is left with a myriad of options: He can either take it to the cup and attempt to rise over the top of his smaller defender with a runner (as seen in the first clip of this article) or take full advantage of Brooklyn’s 2-on-1 situation by finding the open cutter (Kurucs rising to the wing) hidden deep in his peripheral vision… I’ll bet you can guess which option he picks. (Hint: it’s the correct one)

Six hundred words in and it’d be disrespectful, no, criminal to leave out mention of Claxton’s smooth –– albeit strange –– post-up game. Claxton’s low-block chicanery is about as herky-jerky as it gets, almost as if 6’6” Caris LeVert was tossed into Willy’s Wonka’s stretch machine for an hour-long session, hell maybe two. With every post move, Clax’s elbows fly in all directions, and his lanky legs twist in the air like a pirouetting figure skater’s, though he’s careful not to intertwine his footwork and damage the final product… that thoroughly reliable spinning jump-hook. Unpredictability is his best friend, and Clax damn well knows it.

While all of these unique characteristics make for one hell of an entertaining prospect, they don’t necessarily point to an uptick in playing time in the immediate future. In his recent column with The Athletic’s Alex Schiffer, John Hollinger said it best, “I don’t think he can shoot, and I’m not sure he can play the four. He’s going to have to settle in as the third center for now.”

It’s true, playing the 21-year-old next to either one of Brooklyn’s centers now makes for offensive suicide. At minimum, you’re presenting the opposition with two non-shooters while concurrently shrinking the court for Brooklyn’s playmakers. Of course, Claxton –– cognizant of his shortcomings well beyond his years –– addressed this necessity head-on during his recent Q&A found on the Brooklyn Nets’s official Twitter account. Said Clax in response to a question regarding on-court growth, “the parts of my game I want to improve the most is continuing to work on my jump shot and add that strength.”

Imagine a world in which that exact development happens… right away. Overnight, let’s pretend Claxton’s outside shooting rises from 30.2 percent in college (he barely shot any pro-level threes this season) to around league-average on, say, 2-to-3 attempts a game. Think about what that could do for Brooklyn’s rotational flexibility –– the Nets suddenly possess the option to run a twin towers alignment and challenge the league’s ginormous title-contenders (the Lakers, the Bucks, the Sixers, etc.) defensively without losing too much on the offensive end.

It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. He shot the long-ball well in Long Island (55.6 percent) on a fairly miniscule number of attempts (two shots a game) in nine games. But what matters, though, is that we got a feel for his mechanics: a slow but methodical release, a balanced center of gravity, and a rather Chris Boshian straight-up-and-down movement of his feet while shooting. Make or miss, there’s no noticeable hitch, making for a fairly replicable three-point shot.

If –– and let me tell you, that’s one big ole “if” –– IF Claxton rapidly transcends into the stretch-4 role, the Nets can breakout perhaps my favorite theoretical Kevin Durant-inclusive lineup next season. I call it: Thunder Redux.

  1. Kyrie Irving
  2. Caris LeVert/Garrett Temple
  3. Kevin Durant
  4. Nicolas Claxton
  5. DeAndre Jordan/Jarrett Allen.

The format is pretty simple. Much like the on-the-cusp-of-winning-it-all 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder, the Nets would possess an utterly humungous frontcourt. On defense, Brooklyn would suffocate poor saps with a horrifying 3-through-5 back-line of wingspan, leading to heaps of deflections, loads of blocks, and a general feeling of hysteria in the half-court for the opposition. And on offense, there should be enough spacing to comfortably insulate the stars.

Going a level deeper in this hypothetical, DeAndre Jordan or Jarrett Allen would play the prototypical rim protector role (a la Steven Adams or a better Kendrick Perkins) and lock off the paint at all costs. Claxton is Brooklyn’s version of a young Serge Ibaka, providing the defense with weakside shot-blocking insurance while keeping things honest offensively as a stretchy pick-and-pop option and spot-up big. Kevin Durant would be… Kevin Durant (duh). Garrett Temple could be the Andre Roberson-like glue guy, though a better shooter and worse overall defender; alternatively, in this scenario, you could sub in Caris LeVert as a more reliable version of Dion Waiters –– a microwave scorer who can catch fire at a moment’s notice. And then, running the show as Brooklyn’s tireless Westbrook-like creator would be Kyrie Irving, a supremely athletic lead-guard who creates for others by means of his scoring gravity.

We’re obviously a ways away from even thinking about this scenario. As it stands, the jump-shot –– or lack thereof –– will ultimately dictate Nicolas Claxton’s fit on this championship core. But if those outside shots start falling… watch out… Brooklyn’s flexibility may be one layer deeper and many counters stronger than previously expected. All roads point the same general direction; 21-year-old Nicolas Claxton is Brooklyn’s ultimate X-factor, the superlative ace in the hole.