The opposite ends of Sean Marks summer — putting aside the KD and Kyrie dual and interlocking crises — were inking Nic Claxton to a two-year $20 million ($17.25 million guaranteed) deal and giving a camp invite to Yuta Watanabe that won’t be guaranteed for another three weeks.
So far, so good. Both Claxton and Watanabe have been big deals for the Nets with Claxton being the rim protector and defender the Nets had long believed in and Watanabe shockingly becoming the best 3-point shooter not just on the team but in the league ... and a clutch performer as well.
Neither were given much attention at the time. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were sucking up all the ink and electrons back in July and neither were anywhere near a sure thing. Claxton had missed more games than he played in his first three years and despite some moments, including in the Celtics first round sweep, there were questions about his future. Watanabe, on the other hand, was an afterthought. There were those who thought both solid risks, but that was it.
“Yeah, what he brings is unique. It’s rare to have a center who can guard perimeter players, guard point guards and block shots at the rim, and get out there and run the floor. He can play different ways on both ends of the floor. He’s young, he’s energetic; he’s irreplaceable for what we are trying to do,” Kevin Durant told Brian Lewis post-game after the win over the Pistons.
“He guards multiple positions for us … coming over to the weakside, blocking shots, putting pressure on the rim, rebounding,” Jacque Vaughn agreed. “The games he doesn’t play, we miss him; it puts an extreme amount of pressure on other guys — there’s not another guy on our team that can do the things Nic does.”
No matter what numbers you choose, Clax has proven himself more than just a solid defender. As Lewis notes, “Brooklyn’s net rating of plus-5.8 with Claxton on the court falls to minus-2.0 with him off. That plus-7.8 gap is by far the best of any Nets rotation player.”
He is second in the league in blocks (2.4) and block percentage (7.4) after swatting a way nine shots in the last two games, including his win-preserver against Bojan Bogdanovic on Sunday night. His combined 86 blocks and steals — 66 of the former, 20 of the latter — is fourth in the league. Joel Embiid is fifth, Myles Turner sixth. And he’s averaging nearly a double-double at 11.6 and 8.6 while leading the NBA in shooting percentage at 74.0, within easy range of the all-time number, 74.2 set three years ago by Mitchell Robinson of the Knicks. Yeah, he still needs to work on his free throws, but he is only 23.
He is also ambition, telling Meghan Triplett on Friday, “Honestly, I feel that I am one of the best defenders in the league. I feel I should be in the talk for the Defensive Player of the Year.”
He reiterated that sentiment to Lewis. “Yeah, for sure. That’s always been a goal of mine,” Claxton told The Post. “I take a lot of pride in defense. My numbers will speak for itself; the eye test, everything, it’ll be there, so I just continue to stay solid. That’s definitely one of my goals.
“As time goes on, it’ll show. I’m just going to continue to do what I do on a night-to-night basis, and at the end of the day all of that stuff will take care of itself. Defense is a skill, and that’s something I’m really elite at. So it’ll all show.”
Meanwhile, Watanabe has been a revelation for Brooklyn and just as big a fan favorite as he was in Toronto. As Sporting News points out Tuesday, he hasn’t started a single game for the Nets but he’s finished 11, Jacque Vaughn wanting one of the league’s top clutch players on the court when it’s crunchtime. Writes Stephen Noh...
Since returning from injury on December 10, Watanabe has been in the team’s closing lineup in every game. That is not all. He ranks third on the team behind Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in fourth quarter minutes.
As has been reported, the 28-year-old journeyman is the NBA leader in 3-point shooting at better than 50% the last month and is shooting nearly as well as from the corners as Claxton is overall, close to 75% Beyond that, Noh reports that in the fourth quarter, he is the best shooter in the NBA ... with a huge gap between No. 1 and No. 2. (Note who else on the Nets is on the list.)
Yuta Watanabe — 68.4%
Damion Lee — 56.8%
Luke Kennard — 56.3%
Trey Murphy III — 54.8%
Seth Curry — 54.5%
And according to the “clutch model” devised by statistician Mike Beuoy , Watanabe is ranked 22nd in the league out of 514 players surveyed. In both the Toronto and Detroit games, he hit big three’s late in the fourth.
His clutch moments aren’t limited to 3-pointers either. In the Pacers game, he had two offensive rebounds late the preserved the win. And his celebrations have been wow-worthy as well.
Watanabe has been characteristically humble, telling Mike Scotto this earlier in the month.
“It’s crazy,” Watanabe said of his start. “I’ve always known I could shoot, but 57 percent? That’s impossible. I’m not expecting myself to keep up that number, but I’m going to keep shooting with confidence. The reason I’m shooting well is because of KD (Kevin Durant), Ben (Simmons), and Kyrie (Irving). I’m playing with those greats. They get doubled all the time, so I’m always open, and my job is to make those wide-open shots.”
Indeed, he is is a perfect complement to Irving and Durant. As he said of his big shot Friday, an open corner three off a pass from Irving who had four, count ‘em four, Raptors surrounding him.
“Everything, everything is easier for me, because I think all the corner 3s I made [Friday] I was just standing there,” Watanabe said. “Like, I wasn’t moving, I wasn’t finding a spot. As soon as we got the ball, I just run to the corner, wait, wait, wait and then they gave me great passes. So I’m just glad they’re my teammates.”
And the reverse of course.
Getting back to the off-season, Marks was getting good marks even in the midst of the seven weeks that it took to resolve both K&K issues. In addition to Claxton and Watanabe, he signed to two former Pacers in T.J. Warren and Edmond Sumner who didn’t play a minute last year to vets minimum deals, traded for Royce O’Neale without giving up a player in return. Markieff Morris is keeping things stable and filling in for Claxton. Maybe Patty Mills isn’t what fans expected, but he brings intangibles and as he proved in the Pacers game, when needed, he’s ready.
So maybe, just maybe, our summer of discontent (and fall fall-out) will work out after all.
- Nic Claxton’s ‘unique’ ability irreplaceable for Nets’ defense - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Yuta Watanabe is one of the best clutch players in the NBA this season - Stephen Noh - Sporting News
- Yuta Watanabe’s outside shooting a welcome surprise for Nets - Barbara Barker - Newsday