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The very urgent summer of Nic Claxton

NBA: JAN 04 Nets at Bulls Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By the end of last season, abrupt as it was, Nic Claxton knew he was at a crossroads. He was a restricted free agent facing that well-known crunchtime in any NBA player’s career: the second contract. While there had been flashes of brilliance, Claxton had played fewer than half the Nets games in his three years, beset by shoulder surgery, knee tendinopathy as well as COVID and a non-COVID illness that sounded a lot like mononucleosis.

Claxton had been one of the Nets few bright lights in the Celtics four-game sweep, but needed consistency. So who did he turn to? According to a Sports Illustrated report by Wes Goldberg, Clax called — not texted — his trainer, Tim Martin, within a week after Game 4 of the Celtics series.

“Usually from players, you get text messages but, when you actually get a call, that’s a whole different thing,” Martin told Goldberg. “So he called me and said, ‘Man, I need to lock in this summer.’”

Goldberg provides details on how Claxton was working out daily with Martin

Days after the Nets were eliminated from the playoffs, Claxton flew himself and a personal chef to Dallas, where he rented an Airbnb and began a fierce summer of work that laid the foundation for his current Defensive Player of the Year campaign...

From the beginning, Martin understood what Claxton wanted and who had inspired him.

“You’re around KD and Kyrie and some of these Hall of Famers so much, you see how they work in the offseason,” Martin said of Claxton. “I think that was something that he really took upon himself to get done.”

The schedule in Dallas was grueling, as Goldberg writes, and the Nets were part of the process...

At 8 a.m. every Monday through Saturday, Claxton met Martin at the SMU campus for skill work: Positioning on offense, passing out of the pick-and-roll and developing his touch around the basket. Claxton then met with Nets assistant coach Ryan Forehan-Kelly, who came down to Dallas for the summer, to lift and stretch until 2 in the afternoon. Then it was back to the gym with Martin to work on free throws. Under strict instruction to put on weight, Claxton ate four meals a day heavy on carbohydrates and protein.

And, somewhere along the way, he cut his braids.

The Nets offered their own commitment, a two-year, $20 million ($18.3 million guaranteed) contract after turning back trade offers going back to the trade deadline. Jacque Vaughn said this week that everyone knew last summer would be critical.

“We just keep thinking there’s gonna be a non-COVID year, there’s gonna be a year where he’s not injured going into Summer League, there’s gonna be a year where he’s gonna have the maturing that most guys deserve in the preparation into a season and that was gonna bode some good dividends for us,” Vaughn said before Sunday’s game in Miami. “And that’s happened. He had a full offseason, he was able to train and condition and be around the game without limiting parameters and now he’s playing his tail off.”

Indeed, as Goldberg notes, Claxton has built quite resume’ the first half of the season.

Halfway through the season, Claxton is leading the league in shooting percentage (73.8 percent) and blocks (2.6 per game). His averages of 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists are all career highs ... According to Dunks and Threes, Claxton ranks third in Estimated Defensive Plus-Minus (a metric that factors in several advanced defensive statistics), behind only fellow DPOY contenders Jaren Jackson Jr. and OG Anunoby.

And in the latest fan balloting for the All-Star Game, Claxton ranks ninth in front court voting. He has not been afraid to lobby for himself as Defensive Player of the Year (nor should he!)

“Just activity. Cleansing out mistakes out there for everybody, guarding multiple positions, altering shots, blocking shots,” Claxton said. “There’s not many guys — if anybody — in the league that’s doing it at the rate that I’m doing that. And a lot of guys that are getting blocks, they are sitting around the rim the whole game. So I think that’s what differentiates me from most of everybody else.”

It’s not just defense as Goldberg notes. He’s become a reliable scorer underneath whether with jaw-dropping dunks (he has 93, five more than he had all of last season), neat hooks from either hand or even the occasional Euro-step.

And to the Nets credit, they took a risk on Claxton, his durability, his vision of himself. So far, it is paying off, as has that phone call to Martin.