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THIN TOWERS: Can Nicolas Claxton make up for the loss of Jarrett Allen?

Brooklyn Nets All-Access Practice Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Jarrett Allen and Nicolas Claxton share a lot of game.

Allen is 6’11”, 250 pounds and 22 years old. He has 7’5.5 wingspan and a 35.5” max vertical. He’s defensively oriented, a rim protector and runner with a lot of experience for someone his age: 6,374 minutes in 257 games. And he’s very, very durable for a big man, missing 24 games in four seasons, a few of them DNP-CD’s his rookie season. He now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He’s best known for his shot-blocking...

Claxton is 6’11 3/4”, 215 pounds and 21 years old. He has 7’2.5’ wingspan and a 36.5” max vertical. He’s more offensively oriented, a rim-runner with 3-point potential and even some ball-handling skills but with limited experience. He’s now in his second year. He’s played a grand total of 263 minutes in only 20 NBA games and is not very durable, missing time to a hamstring strain and shoulder surgery last season and knee tendinopathy this season. He plays for the Brooklyn Nets.

He’s known for his potential as shown in his last G League game back on March 5...

Both, of course, are known for their hair styles, Allen’s more a throwback, Claxton more a modern look.

The Nets, according to various reports, didn’t want to give up Allen in the four-team deal that brought James Harden to Brooklyn, but after trying unsuccessfully to find a first rounder that would replace Allen in the trade, gave in. Now, with Claxton healthy and finally playing, the question is, can the kid from Georgia replace the kid from Texas in the eyes of Nets fans who loved Allen ... and did Sean Marks believe that he had an ace up his sleeve in Claxton when he decided to put Allen on the table in that ultimate game of NBA poker?

Claxton has a ways to go if he wants to make the Nets and their fans stop missing Allen, but so far, so good. And in Cleveland, they’re thrilled with what they got, Let’s take a look at both.

In his last two games, Claxton has looked terrific, He’s scored 33 points on 14-of-17 shooting (he’s missed the only three he’s taken) and grabbed 11 boards while blocking three shots, in a total of 33 minutes. On defense, he’s played well, showing off perimeter versatility and upside as a switching defender, something critical to the Nets recent success on D.

As our Alec Sturm wrote following Claxton’s debut...

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.

Allen has exceled himself in Cleveland’s scheme, as he did his years in Brooklyn. Chris Manning of SB Nation’s “Fear the Sword,” wrote this two weeks ago.

Defensively, Allen is what he was in Brooklyn: He blocks a good amount of shots, is always in the right spot and barely fouls. If a team is going to play drop coverage a lot like the Cavs do, a center like Allen is essential. Cleveland’s defense has dropped from near the top of the league to 23rd and below average, but that’s not really on Allen. He doing what he does while Larry Nance Jr. is out and everyone else is a mix of outmatched and worn down by the slew of games.

Offensively, Claxton almost certainly has more potential than Allen ... based on how the Nets had utilized Allen anyway ... and how James Harden teams with rim-rocking bigs. More from Sturm...

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.

That’s only the start of Claxton’s offensive repertoire. His 3-point shooting with the Nets is such a small sample that it’s difficult to make any case ... and the Nets (so far) seem to be happy to have him work within tight limits. In eight games with the Long Island Nets, though, the then-20-year-old was shooting 55.6 percent from deep when the G League season was canceled. In his final game, the 34-point effort, he was 3-of-5.

In Cleveland, the Cavs are trying to expand Allen’s role, Manning writes...

Compared to his start with the season with Brooklyn, Allen is taking 23 percent fewer shots at the rim in Cleveland, per Cleaning The Glass. That’s a dip from the upper 2-3 percent of centers to the top 30 percent. And, as a result, he’s taking a career-high 25% of his shots in the short mid-range. Right now, he’s making those shots at a 50 percent clip, a career-best number. To his credit, Allen has a nice touch on his floater and a jumper out to 16ish feet. If the Cavs, as they’ve said they’d like to, make him more of a playmaker with hand-offs and passes to cutters form the middle of the floor, scoring in that range will be key to open room up for cutters near the rim.

Since the trade, Allen has had five 20+ point games, including a 26-point effort that saw him go 11-for-11. He’s started taking 3-pointers as well, going 3-of-6 over the last five games. Of course, he’s no longer playing with three of the NBA’s best offensive players ... or its best 3-point shooter either.

No one (yet) is suggesting that Claxton is a replacement for Allen. There are similarities, but they are differences in experience, durability, etc. Maybe most interesting is their hoop heritage. Claxton grew up a guard —his father, an NBA veteran— still calls him a “big guard.” Allen is and was a big man.

Putting all that said, Claxton is the man now in Brooklyn, the developing big. Allen’s gone. Claxton will take some time to develop and the Nets aren’t putting pressure on him, but they’re unafraid to praise him.

Harden liked what he saw, saying after Clax’s debut.

“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.”

Joe Harris thinks Claxton can help.

“He’s played really well for us. He’s been huge coming back,” said Harris. “I think for him, a lot of it is just trying to get obviously get healthy, get your body right, you know? Because it’s tough when you’re sitting out that long,”

Steve Nash has also praised Claxton, but noted the Nets are going to take things slowly and truth be told, Claxton did look a little gassed in Houston.

“He’s got himself through a few games here in a week and we’re keeping his minutes down,” Nash said earlier this week. “But he’s growing, he’s performing and if you look at him tonight: 16 points, eight rebounds in limited minutes. That’s outstanding.

“But we try to keep Nic’s feet on the ground, keep him humble and hungry and little bit by little bit, not getting ahead of himself, because if he stays the course and keeps his head down, he’s gonna be a really good player.”

Two days ago, Spencer Dinwiddie, a big Claxton fan, reposted his comments from last season when he said of his young teammate, “Nic is the second most talented player on this team. First is KD, but Nic’s got game. He’s got a chance (to be great.)”

Claxton himself admitted he’s learning, talking to reporters after the Houston game.

“I’m just staying present. That’s something I’ve worked on throughout my rehab. Taking everything day by day, whether it’s having a good game, you learn if it’s a bad game and do the same thing,” Claxton said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a breakout stretch, I’m just continuing to learn how to play with the guys out there and continue to grow. The sky’s the limit.”

There’s a couple of other things to note when talking Allen and Claxton. There was no way Brooklyn could develop Claxton with Allen —and DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green— ahead of him. The Nets also declined to extend Allen back in December, They would no doubt have had to give him a contract somewhere upwards of $50 million over four years. Now, that’s going to be Cleveland’s issue. He’ll be a restricted free agent, meaning the Cavs can match. Claxton on the other hand, still has another year after this on his very team-friendly deal. He makes $1.5 million this season and $1.8 million next, with a qualifying offer of $2.2 million in 2022-23.

As Marks said after the Harden trade...

“People can sort of seize this moment and take their games to another level,” Marks said back then. “We’ve seen that in the past whether it was through injuries or trades, other people have used this as a platform to really step up… And we hope that other guys on this team will do the same, and also the people we bring in in the future.”