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FILM STUDY: Nine games into his return, Nic Claxton shows surprising defensive prowess

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In an impressive comeback victory against the Pacers in Indiana — headlined by James Harden’s 40 point triple-double — second year big man Nic Claxton shined, once again, on the defensive side of the ball.

The 21-year-old has been a revelation on defense since returning to the Brooklyn Nets a mere nine games ago, having a +7.7 Defensive RAPTOR rating per FiveThirtyEight, which leads the league among players who have played 120 minutes or more.

Obviously, he’s not going to be a candidate for DPOY come awards season. He’s not even starting right now! But that stat does show just how impactful he has been for a once-struggling Brooklyn squad on the defensive end. His ability to switch onto perimeter players as a near 7-foot tall center is next-to-none, and he’s able to hold his own at the rim as well. Let’s look at some plays he made Wednesday against the Pacers, ultimately helping the Nets leave The Hoosier State with a 124-115 win.

Former Net Caris LeVert played his old team for the first time last night in only his third appearance as a Pacer since being traded to Indiana in the James Harden blockbuster move. Unfortunately, he fell victim to Claxton’s perimeter lockdown on multiple occasions on Wednesday night.

With the shot clock dwindling, LeVert needs to make a move towards the basket and get a shot up. Claxton settles into his defensive stance, shifting the angle of his feet to match LeVert’s movements and swiping at the ball to keep him off rhythm. Ultimately, LeVert is unable to blow by Claxton and is forced to settle for a free throw line fade-away over Claxton’s outstretched arms. A picturesque contest from Clax.

If you want to get a shot up over Claxton, you’re going to need to create some semblance of separation.

LeVert gets put in the torture chamber once more, and tries to create space with a slight push-off. He elevates for the mid-range jump shot, seemingly forgetting Claxton’s 7’3” wingspan. An easy block for Claxton, and the Nets are off and running and in transition - which eventually leads to the big man being rewarded for an at-the-rim finish.

In the example above, Claxton struggled containing T.J. McConnell, despite holding his own for most of the contest. McConnell is a savvy veteran who operates primarily in the mid-range area, but rarely opts for 3-point attempts. Claxton must have forgotten about McConnell’s tendency to shy away from the 3-point arc early in the second quarter, because he bit on the head-and-shoulders fake, leaving McConnell with an open lane to the basket. Lesson learned.

Two quarters later, when forced into the same situation, Claxton adjusted and gave McConnell ample space to operate from behind the arc. McConnell, a 31 percent shooter from deep, opted for a tough fadeaway instead, which Claxton was able to soar for a contest and force a miss.

This isn’t the first time Claxton has shown exemplary skills when guarding along the perimeter, but Wednesday night’s matchup with the Pacers allowed the Georgia product to show off his full arsenal of defensive skills. As Nets wing Joe Harris put it post-game ...

Not bad for nine games in. Check out this helpside block...

Protect the paint he did. Notice in the example above Claxton recognizes the mismatch with Harden on Domantas Sabonis in the post. His head is on a swivel between that matchup and his man, Myles Turner. He waits for Sabonis to put the ball on the floor, though, then comes to help out Harden and swat the attempt at the rim. Harden saves the ball with an impressive dive out of bounds, and the Nets control the basketball.

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With Claxton beginning to show out, is it soon becoming time for a bigger role to be entrusted upon his young shoulders? He was sidelined with injuries, first to his shoulder, then to his knee, for almost a year, and getting him back into shape must be factored into any minutes decision. Those 23 minutes against Indiana were a career high and as was noted by Michael Grady, he did appear a little gassed at points.

Still, that was more than starting center DeAndre Jordan’s 20, and the plus/minus differential with those two on the floor was night and day. The Nets outscored Indiana by 24 points with Claxton the floor, while the Nets lost Jordan’s minutes by 16 points. Claxton was part of the “closing lineup” for the first time against the Pacers, which he took note of.

“Psychologically, just being able to finish a game... it feels good,” he said. “Just staying healthy, stringing games. This is the first time in my NBA career,” said, noting, “I had to work for this. This wasn’t given to me.”

Now, the question is, How soon until he’s in the starting lineup too?