Nicolas Claxton is a unique player.
For most role players looking to contribute on an NBA contender, especially those looking to add value on the defensive end, instincts take precedence over “god-given” basketball talent. Commentators will applaud such players for being in the “right place, at the right time.”
One glance at Brooklyn’s roster and some examples will stick out immediately.
Blake Griffin at this point in his career has unarguably lost a step or two on defense. The former Slam Dunk champion leads the league in charges drawn per game not because of his imposing physicality or out-of-this-world length, but instead a knack for planting himself in front of a driving offensive player just in the nick of time.
Guard Patty Mills, despite being an exceptionally talented shooter on offense, doesn’t physically profile favorably on defense either. The Aussie stands at a mere 6’1” but can still muck things up for an opposing offense.
Claxton is different. Being a 7-foot center with exceptional lateral quickness, he’s been lauded as a defender since entering Brooklyn’s rotation mid-way through last season. But unlike his veteran counterparts, the lanky Georgia product has often found his instincts playing catch-up to those extraordinary physical gifts of his.
This isn’t to say Claxton has “bad” feel on the court; it’s not an evaluation of his ability at all. Instead, Claxton hasn’t needed to rely on smart positioning or being one step ahead of the opponent because being one step behind is just fine when you’re able to use your 7’3” wingspan to send a shot attempt into the stands while recovering.
Early into his career, Claxton has earned a reputation for being a stalwart as a switching defender in pick-and-roll actions, the primary attack of a modern NBA offense. Being an elite switch-big, he’ll take pride in shutting down a defender one-on-one, following him around in order to negate this new assignment. More often than not, that results in a successful stop for the Nets.
Other times, however, this tendency to follow your man even several feet past the 3-point arc can be detrimental for Claxton. He’ll take himself out of the play, which can be a real issue for the Nets. He is often the lone rim protector in many of his minutes and is — in my opinion, at least — Brooklyn’s best all-around defender … period.
Ultimately, Claxton’s hesitancy to play in the gap is simply a reflection of his youth and inexperience … and the issue should dissipate as he becomes more accustomed to NBA defensive schemes and gains a feel for opposing offenses.
In fact, those tendencies are already beginning to shed, as he showed vs. the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day.
Late in the fourth quarter, Claxton switches onto LeBron James after he receives a ball screen from Carmelo Anthony. When Anthony puts his head down and drives towards the basket, Claxton leaves James — a top five NBA player as well as arguably the GOAT of the NBA, mind you — knowing a ticking shot-clock is winding down. Recovering, he gets back to Anthony in time to swat Melo’s jump shot, forcing a 24-second violation.
Even on plays where Claxton is not necessarily switching onto a perimeter player — one who could conceivably take him out of the action down low — he has the intuition to get back in the play and impact the eventual shot attempt with his length … as he demonstrates in the two clips below.
By the end of the night, he had recorded a career-high five rejections en route to a Nets victory.
For the next phase of Claxton’s development, we turn to the offensive side of the floor. Claxton’s best skill on this end is his lob-finishing abilities, being the oop to James Harden’s alley, which isn’t highlighted any better than by his show-stopping finish over LeBron James in the final minute of Brooklyn’s Saturday matchup.
Despite being a willing long-range shooter in his college years and in a short stint with Long Island, Claxton hasn’t shown much promise from behind the 3-point arc at the NBA level. Although he’s improved at the line, his subpar free throw history does nothing to indicate otherwise.
Thus, Claxton is most often featured in Brooklyn’s offensive attack setting highball screens for Harden (and soon-to-be Kyrie Irving.)
A high ball screen can result in both short roll and above-the-basket lob opportunities for Claxton.
If the defense opts for a standard “drop coverage,” where the ball-handler’s defender fights over the screen and the screen-setter’s defender looks to contain both offensive players heading downhill, a big like Claxton can find a lane to the basket for an emphatic alley-oop finish.
If the defense instead elects to “trap,” Claxton can receive a short pass after the trap forces the ball out of the initiator’s hands. With two opposing defenders out behind the play, the Nets have created a 4-on-3 situation. With the ball in Claxton’s hands, he needs to deliver on that advantage.
In years past, Claxton has struggled to make adequate reads or finishing himself in this situation. One’s memory jogs back to Brooklyn’s Round 1 matchup with the Boston Celtics in the 2021 playoffs for evidence.
In recent weeks — and particularly against LA on Christmas Day — Claxton has improved as a facilitator when given that advantage on the short roll. (It was a role that distinguished him at Georgia.)
Some sharp cutting from slashers DeAndre’ Bembry and Bruce Brown don’t hurt, but on-target passes from the big man leads to two easy dunks on each play.
In lieu of so many Nets getting listed in the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols, Nic Claxton has been given a greater opportunity to contribute and reaffirm the promise he showed last season.
But no matter how he got there, Claxton has solidified his spot as Brooklyn’s closing center and will be a valuable piece in Brooklyn’s hunt for a title.