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Nets face unusual problem as Nicolas Claxton continues to turn heads in loaded frontcourt

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Houston Rockets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Nicolas Claxton has burst onto the scene, becoming a valuable piece in the Nets’ success. His success as a second-year player has put Steve Nash and the Nets in an uncommon situation.

While it doesn’t take an eye test to see Claxton deserves more minutes on the floor or that it’s legitimate to discuss why he doesn’t start, three factors stand in the way of the 6’11” big, which Nash described after Wednesday’s win over the Rockets.

“Nic has been outstanding but we have a lot of depth there. We want to get a lot of guys looks at that position and we also know Nic’s injury history. We don’t want to overload him because he is a valuable piece to our team,” Nash said.

“We want to continue to develop him. We don’t want to over-rely on him. We don’t want to over-burden him physically or mentally. Just allow him to develop at a more natural pace. I think right now, we’re in a pretty good spot with him.”

Patience, Nets fans, patience. As Nash also said with a smile, “It’s not who starts but who finishes” ... and the 21-year-old is one of his head coach’s closers. Kyrie Irving echoed Nash’s sentiments, adding that Claxton now has plenty of mentors.

“We all want to see each other do well, but specifically for our young guys in the locker room, just continue to learn from us and they’ll continue to grow,” said the 10-year vet.

Of course sometime, likely before the weekend-s back-to-back, there will be an added element in the frontcourt experiment. LaMarcus Aldridge, who officially signed with Brooklyn Monday, will be available. Expect the Nets to continue taking a cautious approach being very much aware of their young star’s injury history.

Claxton has had three injuries in his short career, first to his hamstring, which required a stint in the G League, then to his shoulder, which required surgery. His right knee tendinopathy delayed his season debut this year to February 23. The Nets have said he has a more extended pre-game warm-up as a result. No doubt Sean Marks found a steal in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft, but he does lack experience.

Claxton, who is now a fixture on the second unit in a rigorous NBA schedule, is realizing what comes in return.

“This is the first time I’ve played consecutive games in the NBA and the games are coming fast. I’m just learning, growing, trying to balance social life and everything. It can be a little tough but I’m learning,” Claxton said Sunday after practice. “Learning all around and I’m enjoying the process.”

In a condensed and grueling schedule that has teams playing three to four games a week, Claxton, like many players, has used games to build conditioning.

“I still have a few hurdles to clear but I’m getting close to where I want to be,” Claxton said Sunday. “I’ve been playing for about a month and 15 games or so. I still got a little ways to go but I’m definitely starting to feel more comfortable out there.”

While Claxton may lack experience, he isn’t lacking production and Wednesday night’s win backed his case. Claxton, despite not seeing first-quarter minutes, came off the bench and provided the Nets with a must-needed spark of young energy.

“Yeah, definitely,” Joe Harris said on Claxton’s energy being contagious. “I think anytime, especially guys coming off the bench, bring a level of energy and intensity like tonight, that’s something we needed it. We were definitely flat in the first half and Nic provided a spark when he came in in the first half, especially the second half. It’s one of those things where it doesn’t necessarily take one person but it can be the domino to start and get everyone to turn.”

Back in February, Claxton noted how he wanted to be the energy guy for Brooklyn as he was at Georgia during his collegiate days.

“Just be an energy guy,” Claxton said in February. “Getting offensive rebounds, helping us out defensively, being vocal and quarterbacking the defense.”

To compliment his young energy - an attribute Claxton takes high consideration to - his play on both ends helped the Nets down the stretch escape with the win - finishing with 12 points, eight boards, one assist and a huge block that helped boost Brooklyn’s late-game run. His play even got his head coach to throw out a title not many 21-year-old’s can flaunt in the league.

“Nic was outstanding. We’ve seen it. His length, athleticism and he just plays so hard but he did make some really nice plays. Assists, a couple of tough finishes around the basket, rebounds, tap-outs, deflections - things like that. Very, very impressive and we need him,” Nash said following the home win against the Rockets Wednesday. “He’s maybe our best defender and with that length and activity, he’s been outstanding for us.”

When told about the praise Nash provided him, Claxton didn’t shy away from accepting the honor but he acknowledged he still has room to improve, which is scary.

“I think it’s pretty big that he said that and I definitely believe that,” Claxton said. “I believe in myself, especially my defensive abilities. I still got scored on a couple of times tonight but I got to keep defending and be a better off-ball defender. I still got a ways to go and still learning. The game is slowing down though.”

To back up Nash’s claim, prior to Wednesday’s win over the Rockets, Claxton held a 100.5 defensive rating - the highest on the roster. As Zach Kram of The Ringer wrote before Wednesday’s game. that number would lead the league if Claxton had played enough minutes to qualify. And, he noted, it’s the best —by far— among the Nets rotation players.

Joe Harris, who has seen a number young players come, develop and go, is rightfully surprised at the way Claxton has become such an integral part of the Nets stellar 11-2 month of March.

“It’s amazing that he’s been able to come in and play the minutes that he has considering he didn’t get a full rookie year under his belt,” Harris said. “And him being hurt in the lead up to this year. For him to come in and contribute right away and not be a vocal point for us down the stretch is pretty unbelievable.”

There’s no secret the franchise still has one eye on developing talent while chasing their first championship. Claxton has played a total of 31 games over his two seasons with the Nets as well as seeing a nine-game stint with the Long Island Nets. Outside of his quick success, he is viewed as a developmental player in a veteran-heavy frontcourt roster.

“Not everybody gets that opportunity of those same touches,” said Irving, acknowledging Claxton’s increasing role. “With him here, he has a unique opportunity to learn from everybody ahead of him, but we want to see him excel at a level. A championship level.”

It’s not just words for Irving (same with Harden). Take a look at a couple of Kyrie-to-Nic passes in crunch time vs. the Rockets.

Claxton spoke about how the Nets want him to be more engaged every possession defensively while that serving as a lob threat and finisher around the rim in Brooklyn’s historically effective offensive arsenal.

“Staying engaged every possession defensively,” Claxton said Sunday. “That’s something I can really do better at. Offensively, finishing around the rim and being a lob threat.”

Looking ahead, the Nets will have a little over 30 games to experiment with their loaded frontcourt, which gifts Brooklyn several approaches. Their talent hoard at the 5, which intersects at the 4, includes Aldridge, Jeff Green, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan as well as Claxton. Reggie Perry, the Nets rookie who Nash foresees as a great shooter down the road, is at this point a pure development play.

“Of course we could have played him more. We knew that. We see that too,” Nash said on Claxton’s minutes. “At the same time, there are other guys. Jeff [Green] had some really good moments. Blake [Griffin] had some big moments. DJ starts it off for us. You go down the line, everyone plays their part and it allows us to develop Nic at the right pace and keep him in that sweet spot where he can be very valuable for us.”

Competition in the frontcourt is on the horizon but Claxton’s youthful energy is contagious and can patch a hole the Nets desperately need to fill - starting off games strong and the statistics prove that.

Brooklyn is 15-13 on the season when trailing or tied after the first quarter. On the other end of the spectrum, the Nets have proved to be dominant when leading after the first 12 minutes, boasting an eye-popping 18-2 record on the year.

“I think it’s something that we all know that we need to work on,” Claxton said. “We just start the game pretty slow. We just need to work on it and have that mentality like we had in the second half from the tip. We’ll get better at it and as time goes, I’m sure thats something the coaches will drill into us.”

Whether Claxton has his eyes on breaking into the starting lineup, Aldridge made it clear that HE wants to secure the starting center spot.

All that said, there shouldn't be an argument on him closing games at the 5. He’s played 73 of 96 fourth-quarter minutes over the last eight games. Prior to Wednesday’s win, Claxton held an offensive rating of +23 in that fourth quarter span.

Claxton knows the Nets will experiment with their frontcourt tools and mold the best rotation and lineups before the playoffs, which are slowly approaching and begin on May 22. The second-year big knows nothing is promised, despite rising as a key role player for the championship contender.

“We have some great depth in the frontcourt. Nothing’s promised,” Claxton said Sunday. “I just got to control what I can control, continue to get better and take everything day by day.”

Claxton is now averaging 8.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 0.8 assists in 18.9 minutes this season. Prior to the win against Houston Wednesday, the 6’11’ big held an offensive rating of 115.6, defensive rating of 100.5 and net rating of 15.1. That’s more than promising, more than a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s also a very good thing.