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Clax Attack: Is there more to come?

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Midway through the third quarter Friday night, Nic Claxton grabbed a rebound and went full court, switching hands and finishing with a classic Euro-step.

It was one of several highlights that may have surprised fans and even his teammates...

Should it? Maybe, maybe not. Claxton himself noted that he was “just trying to get back to young Clax.”

“Just more comfortable, more confident. Just trying to get back to young Clax. Just being myself,” said Claxton after the Nets 109-105 win over the Raptors on Friday night. “We need other guys to step up. We can’t have Kyrie [Irving] and KD [Kevin Durant] trying to do everything. Just playing my game and my teammates are doing a good job of instilling confidence in me.”

By night’s end, Claxton had put up perhaps the best line of his four-year career, 19 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks, etc. It was in fact his second solid performance of the young season. Even though the Nets lost by 22 to New Orleans, the 23-year-old finished with 13, 10 and two.

Claxton didn’t detail what he meant by “young Clax,” but there has been plenty of evidence that the Georgia product, when given free rein, can be an offensive weapon. At Georgia, coach Tom Crean used him in a number of roles, including as a 6’11” playmaker ... and 3-point shooter.

And in his rookie year with the Nets, they sent him to Long Island where in a game just before COVID hit, he did this: 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and 3-of-5 from deep...

Young Clax indeed. Spencer Dinwiddie said in perhaps a fit of hyperbole back in November 2019 that Claxton “is the second-most talented player on this team. [First] is KD, either the first or second most talented scorer of all-time. But Nic’s got game. He’s got a chance [to be great].”

But Claxton has been beset by injuries and illness and maybe a lack of confidence. Of equal importance, the Nets wanted Claxton to be primarily a defender. Steve Nash said it and it had validity. Brooklyn’s offense wasn’t a problem, not with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Now, though, after signing a two-year $20 million deal ($17.5 million guaranteed), Claxton is getting his chance to shine on both ends. LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are gone and the Nets have moved into a more free-flowing offense, abandoning their iso-dominance of last season.

His teammates have been encouraging him, as Chris Milholen wrote Saturday.

“He had all of that stuff when he got here. It’s just being more confident and using it. Coach trusts him. His teammates trust him so he can go out there and do his thing,” said Durant on Claxton’s skills. “Sometimes you don’t want to showcase all your skills early on because you don’t know how they fit towards the team. He’s comfortable now and we need him to be more and more aggressive.”

Said Irving: “I had simple advice for him [Claxton] tonight; if we’re not seeing you play like that, as hard, offensively and defensively, then we got to hold you accountable to that standard, and he knew it.”

“When he adds points like that on the board and he’s pushing in transition and doing little things like that and he’s just bringing that strength to the team to be able to take pressure off of us and go score, it gives us a lot of comfortable space,” Irving said post-game about his pre-game advice. “I’m happy he played well, we want him to keep it up, but now as a young player in the league, he has to show consistency, and we gotta be right there with him.”

Nash, who praised Claxton’s new professionalism throughout training camp, had this to say post-game.

“It gives us a little bit of a different dimension when he’s able to make plays like that. I think that’s always been Nic’s game,” said Nash. “He was a he played a lot with the ball in college. But having said that, you know injuries and developing into a man and you know to play at this level is a step and so, you know with those injuries and sent him back but his professionalism this summer, I’ve talked about before he was great, and he stuck to it and he took a level as a professional.”

The Nets have been remarkably patient with Claxton, the 31st pick in the 2019 draft. B.J. Johnson, their director of player evaluation, pushed hard for him in the run-up to the draft despite the Nets already having Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan. In his first three seasons, he played only 94 of a possible 226 games.

Ultimately, they developed him into a top switch defender, something he was not at Georgia. At the deadline last season, Sean Marks declined a trade offer for him. The Raptors had offered a first rounder. Then, in the summer — lost amidst all the KD and Kyrie saga — Marks didn’t wait for another team to make an offer to Claxton, signing him to the two-year deal, an act of encouragement.

There are still issues, like his 4-of-10 free throw shooting in the Nets’ first two games, but Claxton says he won’t shy away from going to the rim and the line. And as Professor B, who writes about analytics for NetsDaily, notes, Claxton has taken only one shot farther than three feet away from the rim ... and he missed it.

“I want to go to the free throw line 10-plus times a game. That’s something I embrace and want to work on. I embrace the challenge,” he said, post-game. “I have no fear. I want to go out there and try to finish every time I get an opportunity. That’s just who I am as a player.”

Who he might become as a player is what’s getting Nets fans excited.