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Nic Claxton’s opportunity finally arrives after series of injuries

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

Nicolas Claxton’s time has finally arrived for the Nets. At least that’s what everybody hopes.

Claxton showed promise in this rookie season, splitting time with Brooklyn and the Nets G League affiliate, the Long Island Nets. Despite showing those flashes, the 6’11 (and 3/4”) big was sidelined with various injuries much of his rookie year, playing in only 15 games, after a hamstring strain in December, then shoulder surgery just before the “bubble” in July. This season, he missed the Nets’ first 32 games with right knee tendinopathy.

The 21-year-old explained how the mental aspect behind his lengthy injury absences and previous setbacks were the toughest part for him, labeling it as a challenge, but he had everyone’s support.

“Honestly, the toughest part was the mental aspect of it,” Claxton said of his injury history Thursday. “When training camp started and me thinking that I’m ready to go, and then the injury on my knee. And honestly, I was pretty weak when training camp first started.

“My shoulder wasn’t where it needed to be; so everything happens for a reason. I was able to rehab my knee while I was still continuing to rehab my shoulder and build up some more strength, which is much-needed out there on the court. And like I said, honestly the toughest part was the mental part. It has been a challenge. But I’ve had everybody here supporting me and here with me every step of the way.”

Following a lengthy and patient rehabilitation process, Claxton was cleared and made his season debut in Tuesday’s win against the Sacramento Kings, which surprisingly included early first-quarter minutes. He ended his first game back in nearly a year with five points, one rebound, one assist, and a block in 14 minutes of play.

It did not take long for Claxton to get an opportunity to score. With 6:36 remaining in the first, Kyrie Irving unselfishly passed the ball to a trailing Claxton on a fast break, resulting in the Nets second-year big getting to the charity strike and hit two free throws. Claxton said he should’ve dunked it rather than attempting to lay it in but appreciated how Irving wanted to get him involved early on.

“Yeah, I just got to be ready. That was a tough play. I just — you know, when you’re on the court, you’re making a lot of split decisions, so I got to be ready,” Claxton said. “That should’ve been a dunk. But next time, when that time comes around, I’m definitely dunking it and get an and-1. And just having the team behind me, that means a lot. Especially for somebody coming back from injuries like me.”

Claxton is the son of Charles Claxton, who played three games with the Boston Celtics during the 1995-96 season, recalled the big picture of his first NBA game in nearly a year, explaining how he had lots of different emotions but was excited about finally being on the NBA hardwood again. He was ready and excited.

“Amazing. I had a lot of different emotions, especially coming into the game. But when it was time for me to check-in, I honestly didn’t know that Jeff wasn’t playing; so it came pretty fast. And I was ready,” Claxton said. “I was excited. It felt good just being out on a basketball court playing”

Prior to Tuesday’s win against the Kings, Steve Nash said the No. 1 priority with his second-year big is to protect his health and take a cautious approach. As Claxton was preparing to make his season debut, Nash told him to just go out there and play. (The Nets had listed Claxton as “available” vs. the Clippers. but didn’t play.)

“And as far as what Steve has told me, go out there and play; don’t put a whole bunch of pressure on myself just go out there and play,” Claxton said. “And you know, bring energy and intangibles, and continue to - like he said, I haven’t played a whole lot of basketball in the past year – so just going out there and getting my feel and everything will come together.”

Because of his injury history, Claxton explained how he undergoes a different preparation for games that other young NBA players. He needs extra time warming up and stretching —which he doesn’t view as a negative.

“Like you said, when guys are young you don’t have to go through a lot of the extra stuff to get your body warm. But for me, it’s kind of the total opposite. I am having to warm up my shoulder, warm up my knee,” Claxton said. “You know. I’m 21 years old, but that is just the cards I was dealt and I have to continue to get stronger and just work on my body so I can be in this for the long run. I know I have a long career ahead of me, so I’m really just locking in early and I’ll probably end up adding some years to my career when it’s all said and done.”

Claxton is now playing with a Nets team with lots of new faces on the court, which includes three of the league’s most prolific superstars, none of whom weren’t on the team when he last played for Brooklyn. New faces on the coaching staff as well. He understands that it comes down to the players performing.

“This year, it’s a lot of the guys, we have KD, we have Kyrie, James, so a lot of it is more player-led, but the coaches are always giving us their input of course, telling us what we need to do and putting us in the right spots. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the players. We’re the ones actually going out there and we have a lot of guys who have a lot of experience playing at the highest level and have gotten those championship rings, so a lot of it is us going out there and holding ourselves accountable, and coaches also do a great job of holding us accountable.”

The Nets second-year big does have a bit of history with Durant. While Claxton was in the G League last season and before his shoulder surgery, he explained how he had workout arrangements in the summer with Durant. In practices this season, he noted how he’s always guarding KD. Claxton said that Durant gives him a mental edge when he is guarding him in practices and he’s grateful to learn under arguably the most dangerous scorer in league history.

“That’s huge. It’s just, as soon as he steps foot in the gym, he’s always laser-sharp and me just being around him, working with him, defending him, it really just gives me a mental edge when I’m going out there and defending other guys because I feel like he’s the best in the world, so if I can do a halfway decent job defending him then I can guard anybody, so that’s huge. Being able to workout with him and him allowing me to do that, I’m extremely thankful for that and I look forward to continuing to do that and staying healthy so I can learn as much as I can from these guys and continue to get better.

As for Harden, Claxton said his court vision and leadership extends off the court. As for the new faces, it’s an adjustment, but a good —and exciting— one.

“Yeah, the team — it’s a lot different. I have never played with James. I have never played with KD. I am always guarding KD when we play pick up and things like that, so it is an adjustment. But it is an adjustment, but they’re some of the best basketball players in the world, so. Especially James, he’s really vocal. So, he’s always letting me know what he’s seeing and what to do. So, it’s honestly not that tough,” Claxton said.

“The game is simple. Basketball is basketball. You just go out there — and I’m a smart basketball player myself, so just going out there and playing off those guys is not that hard. And it’s exciting, you know, because the things they can do out there — it’s dope. So, I’m happy to be here.”

While Claxton is getting acclimated to Harden and Durant, he has a “really good” relationship with Kyrie Irving, which includes tough love and honesty. Irving is a great leader in Claxton’s eyes.

“Kyrie’s leadership style ... Honestly, me and Kyrie we have a really, really good relationship. He’s vocal. He’s going to let you know what he’s seeing, whether it’s good or bad. He’s not going to let guys get off easily,” Claxton said. “Kind of a Mamba Mentality, honestly. And I like that. Just real confrontational and I know he gets a bad rep sometimes, but he is a great teammate and a great leader and guys who have been on his team and guys that are on the team now know that.”

Now healthy, Claxton said everything is coming around full circle and he is ready to continue to develop and continue his journey.

“It feels great. Everything’s coming around full circle. I had a lot of setbacks, disappointments, over the past year, my surgery, and just being out there getting a feel for everything, talking to the coaches, to the players, being involved with everything again. It’s been a long journey,” Claxton said. “But I’m happy to be at this point where I’m at now. And I’ve got to continue to build. I got a long way to go for just being more comfortable out there. So I’m excited to continue the journey.”