After being out with knee tendinopathy since the start of the year, Nicolas Claxton finally played his first game since February 28 of last year, making his season debut Tuesday night against the Sacramento Kings. Despite an underwhelming statline -- only five points, one rebound and one assist — Claxton had a real impact for the Nets on both ends.
Such an impact, in fact, it prompted me to tweet this:
Once he gets acclimated, I think Nic Claxton could give the Nets some solid playoff minutes. He's got the tools.— Alec Sturm (@Alec_Sturm) February 24, 2021
I’ll be honest, I thought I’d receive more pushback, but was pleasantly surprised that no one disagreed. Claxton’s switchability as a center allows him to play a style more suitable for late postseason action, and he’s spry in the pick-and-roll as a screen-setter. Let’s examine what he showed off last night:
Pick and Roll defense
Last year, the Nets used their centers in almost exclusively drop coverage under Kenny Atkinson which asked centers like DeAndre Jordan, Jarrett Allen and Claxton to backpedal towards the basket and contain in an attempt to protect the paint and force inefficient, mid-range shots. The 2020-21 Nets, on the other hand, have opted for a switching scheme in pick-and-roll, swapping assignments as much as possible in order to keep offensive players in front of them with admittedly weak rim protection down low.
Claxton is going to excel in this switching scheme with his excellent lateral quickness and nimble feet. The near 7-footer has already shown promising signs in his debut.
He’s able to cover Buddy Hield on the pindown, denies him the ball, and then switches seamlessly onto D’Aaron Fox, who eventually coughs up the rock leading to a fast break for the Nets.
Forget the switch, Nic Claxton is picking up De’Aaron Fox - one of the fastest players in the league - straight up. He doesn’t need to beat him down the floor, just keep pace with Fox and force a contest. That’s a fundamental play from a young player who’s still very much learning the speed of an NBA game.
Without a doubt, this is Claxton’s best defensive possession of the night. He tags Halliburton in the double pick and roll, and even though he jumps early his shot fake, is able to recover and run him off the three point line. Then, he jumps early again, this time trying to deny Richaun Holmes at the rim, but still gets him on the way down! Showing effort, making mistakes, and then fixing them to alter the play is exactly what you want to see from a young player like Claxton in this stage of his development.
Brooklyn’s spacing around the perimeter is already second-to-none, with six players shooting 40 percent or better from behind the arc. Their vertical spacing, however, is just as proficient, largely due to one central force: James Harden. Harden has made livelihoods for rim running centers his whole career, whether it be Clint Capela or now DeAndre Jordan, and he can do the same for Nicolas Claxton. Claxton can jump high and throw down with the best of them, and he and Harden already connected on one alley-oop against Sacramento:
Claxton slips the handoff along the perimeter, opting not to make contact with Harden’s man, Cory Joseph, knowing the superstar can burst right past him anyway. Doing so catches Holmes off guard, and he’s able to burst right to the rim and throw down off of a beautiful lob delivery from Harden. As the season progresses, these types of plays will become routine.
Free throw shooting
One last thing to keep an eye on is Claxton’s free throw shooting. He was abysmal last year, shooting only 52.4%, albeit on a small sample size. His shot at the foul line had a noticeable hitch, which I believed was a source of his struggles. He wasn’t perfect from the stripe last night — only shooting 3-of-4 — but his shot seemed smoother, slowly eliminating that hitch.
James Harden liked what he saw.
“Very good. He’s great. sets screens, rolls to the basket, obviously it’s his first time out there all season long. It felt good, I’m happy for him to actually be on the court,” said Harden. “As I’ve been here he’s been training and trying to get in shape and get healthy and get his body right. So it felt good I’m sure for him to be on the court and actually showing the work that he’s been putting in. As the games continue to go on he’ll get confidence and he’ll continue to be better.”
Nic Claxton’s game is still very much a work-in-progress at the NBA level, but the foundation is there for him to be a productive player on a winning team like the Brooklyn Nets. And as I said earlier, if everything works out, don’t be surprised if you see him suiting up in the black- and-white —and playing a role— in the playoffs.