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FILM STUDY: Brooklyn Nets need this Nicolas Claxton

Brooklyn Nets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

On Friday night in Atlanta, Nicolas Claxton didn’t see any run in the first half. When he checked in with five minutes to go in the third quarter, he immediately switched onto Trae Young, stared down his flurry of crossovers and head-fakes, and didn’t budge. If not for James Harden’s narcoleptic tendencies off the ball, the possession would have gone nowhere:

Claxton would not sit for another second. Talk about déjá vú. Just three days earlier, after just a three-minute stint in the first half, he checked in midway through the third and again, did not sit the rest of the way. Here’s how his first possession checking Luka Doncic went:

Notice how the Nets’ bench appreciates the effort. It is exhilarating to watch the game’s best players pull out every trick in their bag only to get shut down by a lanky seven-footer, time and time again. It encapsulates what a fully realized Nic Claxton can bring to the Nets, as much as anything else: energy and activity.

That’s been a theme with all of Brooklyn’s surprise contributors this season. James Johnson’s legs have looked livelier than any other Nets big, and his bringing the ball up the court, sprinting into handoffs, or darting inside with an unexpected crossover juices everyone up. The same can be said for Cam Thomas, who, warts and all, is the Nets’ most explosive ball-handler without you-know-who and James Harden looking like you-know-what. His pop with the ball injects some life into one of the oldest squads in the league. The same can be said for DeAndre’ Bembry’s unpredictable drives to the basket.

But Nic Claxton cannot be grouped in with those players. When he checks into the game in the second half, the opponent, used to running simple pick-and-rolls and throwing lobs over the head of the slow-footed LaMarcus Aldridge, God bless him, has to suddenly deal with this spidery giant switching onto every guard. It’s not merely an influx of energy, as it would be reductive to simply label Claxton as such when he may be one of the twenty best on-ball defenders in the NBA. His defensive presence necessitates a tactical adjustment from the opposition; if they get sucked into the cobweb, there’s no getting out.

Brooklyn and Claxton want you to attack him. Somehow, opposing offenses still haven’t learned that even if it’s a player as prodigious as Trae Young doing the attacking, those possessions will largely consist of aimless dribbling and a late-shot clock prayer. (For this reason, I like Claxton’s current substitution pattern. Don’t give offenses ideas of how to adjust at half-time; keep the ace tucked up your sleeve until it’s the right time to play it.)

But this road trip has featured more than just impressive isolation possessions from Claxton. The lack of a lob threat has been beat to death when discussing this Nets roster, and even though he’s still not a great screener, he still opens the floor up:

That is the Nets’ beloved Chicago action, a screen into a pick and roll. With Claxton on the floor, this play makes infinitely more sense. If the initial screener does his job, as Patty Mills does here, Claxton doesn’t have to worry about setting a screen, free to just roll to the rim and catch a lob. The Nets also unveiled some double drag action with KD as the popper. The defense can either take away the lob to Claxton or an open KD three, but with Harden at the controls, it’s hard as hell to take away both:

Ultimately, this is nothing new from Clax. But with his subpar health, and all the other storylines Brooklyn has produced this season, it was easy to lose him in the shuffle. Particularly with the Nets being so offensively challenged, a development that would’ve been impossible to foresee in the offseason. Outside of being a vertical threat, no doubt important, Claxton still doesn’t add that much to the offense. A hard double on Harden can blow up possessions because of his slow processing speed when dictating 4-on-3 situations. And the foul shooting would best be left unaddressed.

But the Nets simply look like a different team when he is buzzing around the court, as he has been on this current road trip. Again, it’s not just the individual defense or rim-running. He’s created eight total offensive rebounding opportunities in the last three games, if you (rightfully) include him getting fouled. That includes the monster putback dunk in transition in Atlanta, when he beat nearly everyone down the floor from behind the opposite baseline. Could he have done that in the physical state he was in to start the season?

Would he have had the energy to come over from the weak side and contest shots, something he excelled at his sophomore season but we didn’t really see much of before his hiatus this year? He’s not going to add much value on the defensive glass as the primary rebounder. But his interior defense will be impactful if he’s forcing drivers to shoot over him. Just ask Danillo Gallinari if this was an easy look:

Yes, playing with two non-floor spacers presents its issues. Bruce Brown and Claxton did a tremendous job at stifling Atlanta’s Young-Collins two-man game in the third quarter, switching screens and enveloping passing lanes,but were often bumping into each other on the other end. Not not many would’ve bet on a Clax/Johnson frontcourt to be closing games two months ago for that exact reason. And while that’s reared its ugly head at times, that duo has proven to be Brooklyn’s peppiest option, allowing the Nets we’re used to seeing to make a return: Switch everything, and get the damn ball to Kevin Durant and the other end.

A healthy Nic Claxton is not without his flaws, to be sure. We have to keep an eye on how the defensive rebounding holds up, and if teams can short-circuit the offense by aggressively doubling Harden when Clax is screening. Continued progression finishing from the dunker spot would assuage those worries - his ridiculous righty hammer on Clint Capela from the low block was a great start.

But none of those worries can keep him off the floor if he continues this level of play. The Brooklyn Nets are a different team in all the right ways with Nic Claxton out there. It’s up to him to keep that going.