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Nic Claxton’s development and what it means for Nets’ chances of sustained success

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Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by David L. Nemec/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been reported that last season, when Nic Claxton only played 187 NBA minutes, advance scouts from other teams would gather along the sidelines during warm-ups to get a close-up look at the then 20-year-old.

Maybe it was because they just wanted to see why their teams missed on him in the 2019 Draft when he was taken with the first pick in the second round (a Knicks pick that the Nets had acquired in the Jahlil Okafor trade with Philly). More likely, they wanted to gauge his skill sets for their GMs who might at some point want to seek him in a trade. After all, the Nets are going for it all this year.

But Claxton is, as Alex Schiffer described him for The Athletic this week, “the Nets last young prospect.” (Landry Shamet stans might disagree. Their guy after all is only 23.) If they are going to sustain their success, something Sean Marks has spoken about more than once, they will need to find —and develop— players like Claxton. As we’ve written, if you lose Jarrett Allen in the James Harden trade, you have to hope that Claxton can fill the void.

Against the Celtics Thursday night, Claxton played 18 minutes, scored four points, grabbed an equal number of rebounds and blocked a shot. But he also got bullied a bit underneath on more than one occasion. Call it a learning experience after he went into the break with games of 16 and 17.

As Schiffer wrote, there’s good and bad about playing on such a star-studded team for a developing player.

Claxton is learning the pros and cons of playing on a star-studded championship contender. On one hand, the presence of Irving, Harden and Kevin Durant limits the role Claxton can have in Brooklyn. The recent addition of Blake Griffin may create another barrier to playing time. But the Georgia product has soaked in a first-class basketball education from each of the big three, using the minutes he’s received to emerge as an intriguing wild card.

Or, as Schiffer writes later in his piece, Claxton is an “unknown.”

The Nets, however, do know one thing about him. They’re playing with house money, considering how low he was taken — No. 31— and how little money he makes — $4.2 million over three years ... and how any pressure to develop him will come mainly from him. The Nets don’t need him to put in big minutes right now. He has, according to his teammates, put in the work, including some extra work to help him with his troublesome knee tendinopathy. He’s on the right path.

Claxton is happy to be playing with some of the NBA’s best, getting reps against Kevin Durant as Schiffer writes.

“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. But they’re some of the best basketball players in the world. Especially James, he’s really vocal. So, he’s always letting me know what he’s seeing and what to do. 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.”

Schiffer also recounts how the “Big Three” have taken him under their collective wings. When he was fined $2,000 for hanging on the rim in a celebratory move two games back, Kyrie Irving and James Harden offered to split the fine themselves. When he was having a hard time finding size-18 sneakers last year, KD brought him a bagful. The two players are both size-18 and Durant has a connection, so to speak, with Nike. Good stuff all.

That aside, Claxton does have to keep developing, keep growing as a player for the Nets to succeed on a long-term basis. Among the bigs on the team, he and rookie Reggie Perry, still only 20, are by far the youngest. Jeff Green is 34. Griffin turns 32 on Tuesday. KD is already 32. So is DeAndre Jordan.

The Nets will have to make sure he has every chance to develop into a rim-running, modern 5 just as they have to hope Perry will be a modern stretch-4. Same with Shamet who of late has shown he can take over a game as he did Thursday night, and Bruce Brown, the team’s 24-year-old defensive ace and floater aficionado.

None of those guys are going to replace the extraordinary talent level that the “Big Three” represent. Marks et al will have to figure out how long Durant, Harden and Irving can go, adjust their contracts accordingly and find other superstars who like what they see in Brooklyn’s culture. But the young guys will be needed to fill the gaps, provide the depth ... and, truth be told, be paid at reasonable rates.

With the draft cupboard bare and the luxury tax bill high, it will be tricky for the Nets to stay at the top beyond the expiration dates of the “Big Three,” whenever that is. But Marks and his staff have already shown that they can be wildly successful with the first generation of development projects: Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and yes, D’Angelo Russell.

So, they’ll continue to look for underrated draft picks, G League castoffs and rehabilitation projects while pursuing championships ... and superstars. Claxton (who the Nets had at No. 18 in their internal mock draft) seems like he’ll be a piece of that plan. As Schiffer writes...

Claxton’s still an unknown. But on a team lacking young and up-and-coming players and draft capital after the Harden trade, he has made a case that the Nets still have some young talent. In five games, he’s averaged 10 points on 69 percent shooting while using his length to force steals and block shots.

It’s a beginning.