On March 4, 2020, just prior to the start of all this, Nic Claxton had his finest performance as a member of the Long Island Nets. It was quite different from what we’d consider his finest performances as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, though. Take a look at the highlights from his 34-point night:
Nary a defensive possession in isolation, nor a help-side contest. You know, the sorts of plays that caused a stir in the hearts of nerdy basketball bloggers without leading to a ton of national recognition, particularly from the more casual viewer. It makes sense as to why, though: There simply weren’t a ton of highlight-reel plays. Of course, draft position and their respective schools have something to do with this, but consider who has shown more promise of becoming a valuable rotation piece through their first three seasons, Cam Reddish or Claxton?
That highlight video seemed like an outlier as time went on, though. Perhaps it was a result of Claxton playing against overmatched competition in a role that afforded him the ultimate green light. A role that was similar to what he had as a Georgia Bulldog. If Nets fans were aware of clips of Claxton craftily maneuvering around defenders and finishing with either hand, they certainly didn’t have those front-of-mind while watching Claxton get played off the court vs. the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs due to being an offensive liability. It was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever become a serviceable offensive player.
Or maybe it wasn’t. He is about to make his 60th appearance in the NBA and much of his first 50 was spent figuring out what exactly he should be responsible for offensively? Sure, his mix of size and skill is rare, but in the NBA, sometimes a jack-of-all-trades is less valuable than a master of one. For much of the Kenny Atkinson-era, Claxton found himself behind the arc. It made some sense. After all, his percentages in college and the G-League, despite (or rather, because of) were decent. His 34-point performance featured a 3-of-5 night from deep, and his stroke seemed serviceable! Furthermore, none of those open-floor skills surfaced in the short-roll; 4-on-3 advantages after the defense doubled the ball-handler would disappear as Claxton was anything but decisive.
Much like the Kenny Atkinson era itself, and really anything that transpired before March 2020, that couldn’t feel further from the past. For a number of reasons, Claxton-the-stretch-big is dead, or at least on a very long hold. His instability from the free throw line is the priority, and, as it usually does, ended up being a decent predictor of overall shooting ability. We are miles away from Claxton taking multiple threes a night, and light years away from defenses fearing any sort of long range shot from him.
Thankfully, that combination of size and skill, 6’11” (and 3/4” officially) with functional dribbling ability, is beginning to rear its head in a meaningful way. With each passing game, the Nets are closer to the end of defenses being able to shut off the water by simply trapping the ball-handler. This is because Claxton has showing flashes of his Long Island self from the diverse finishes to the quick decision-making. We started seeing hints of it after his long, non-COVID-illness-induced hiatus. And that’s only ramped up after the Nets as a team were on a very-much-COVID-induced hiatus. Suddenly, right-handed finishes aren’t (or are at least less of) a problem for Claxton, a trend that if it continues would greatly expand the area of the court in which he is a threat:
And neither are finishes after putting the ball on the floor, his most intriguing skill that, until now, he had seemed to leave behind in Long Island. If Claxton is doing this consistently, even if it’s just a dribble or two, his tall, long frame is suddenly much more advantageous:
James Harden had this to say about his frequent running mate after their back-to-back Cyrpto.com Center-christening victories: “He brings a different dynamic to our team. He’s very athletic and very skilled. Just got to keep pushing him and he’s going to be a key part in where we want to go.”
It perfectly summarizes what Nets fans have been feeling about Claxton over the past two seasons. The idealized version of him helps this team immensely, and brings a different, sprier energy to it. And he’s showing tools that could one day lead to even more unforeseen wrinkles, like say, plays where he’s the ball-handler receiving a screen. He just needs the slightest of edges to create a clean look at the glass, and recently, he’s been converting those.
And most importantly, these plays and extended minutes have clearly boosted his confidence. That and what appears to have been an impromptu winter break spent solely watching film. It’s apparent Claxton is thinking the game less and less, and just feeling it. He is now maintaining the advantages created for him, and creating easy looks of his own:
These developments are fortunate for both parties. The Nets seem to be gaining a productive offensive player unlike anyone else on the roster. Claxton is developing an offensive game that makes full use of his athletic and physical gifts. Forget wasting away 25 feet from the rim just because your shooting stroke looks decent for a near-seven-footer. How about using those gifts to posterize the greatest player of your generation for a game-winner on Christmas Day?
It’s hard not be excited about Claxton’s recent developments. But Harden wasn’t just correct about his skills: “Anyone can have two good games. What separates yourself is when you do it on a night-in and night-out basis. Consistency, especially for a young guy. Once you can build that and great habits, then you got something special and be around this league for a very long time.” Yes, the flashes are finally here, at the NBA level. But as it stands, we are just a couple weeks into Claxton, the offensive positive.
For a while, though, it seemed like we might never get here. Perhaps that is a lesson in patience; fans of teams expected to win titles often need those. Nic Claxton has logged just 1,048 NBA minutes. 28 players have surpassed that mark in this season alone.
The talent has been there for Nic Claxton. You don’t score 34 points anywhere without having more in your bag than simply finishing lobs. These recent developments should not be taking us by surprise. That doesn’t make them any less exciting.