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FILM STUDY: An inside look at Nic Claxton’s midseason leap

Brooklyn Nets v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Nic Claxton is taking another leap.

In his last 5 games, Claxton is averaging 19.2 points on 72.7% from the field, 11 rebounds, and 3.6 blocks. Here’s a list of players that have averaged at least 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in a five-game stretch over the last five seasons.

  • Anthony Davis (7x)
  • Hassan Whiteside (3x)
  • Kristaps Porzingis (2x)
  • JaVale McGee
  • Clint Capela (4x)

In psychology, one of the most critical stages of learning is from birth to five years old. More specifically, the fourth year in child learning involves the mastery of more abstract concepts: counting objects, identifying colors, rhyming words, drawing pictures of people, and imitating adult actions. Learning at this stage of development is described as rapid, growing almost by the day.

That same concept can be applied to the growth of a young player in the NBA. Claxton, still in his formative years in just his fourth NBA season, is showcasing rapid progression and is seemingly adding new skills to his repertoire with every passing game. In fact, he’s just days removed from having a career-high night in both points (24) and rebounds (15) against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

Fans of the Nets are watching their prodigal young star—Brooklyn’s best chance at a bridge player from the 7/11 era to whatever comes next—grow in front of their eyes from a rotation big man to what appears to be a multi-year All-Star.

We always knew that Clax would earn his stripes in the NBA with his defense, but it’s his improvements on offense that have skyrocketed his ceiling. Once a tentative player with the ball in his hands, Nic has seized the moment at every opportunity by calling his own number appropriately and finishing plays with a career-high 73.3% accuracy.

Claxton is most commonly used as a screen-and-dive big man in Jacque Vaughn’s offense, and he’s showcased tangible improvements in the craft of pick-and-rolling. Brooklyn scores 1.26 points per possession when Claxton acts as the pick-and-roll big man, good for the 66th percentile.

His timing and technique as a screener have steadied, and he’s built a strong knowledge of when and where to roll without colliding with teammates. If his initial screen doesn’t make enough contact, he’ll quickly flip his body 180 degrees to provide his ball-handler additional assistance with a re-screen. Sometimes, he’ll even make impromptu changes to the angle of his screens before even setting them, as he does in the video below to give Kyrie Irving a pull-up three against Walker Kessler in drop coverage. Most importantly, his hands have grown increasingly stickier. His catch-and-finish in crunch time against Golden State was one of his best... Irving’s pass was just about a full foot behind him, yet it didn’t matter.

Of course, it helps that he’s cultivated some go-to attacks if he’s forced to create shots on his own. In previous seasons, defenses could just switch on pick-and-rolls involving Claxton to smother the action. Boston, most famously, made this their primary coverage for Claxton-inclusive pick-and-rolls in the 2021 first-round series, and Nic struggled to create any sort of offense when matched up with players like Kemba Walker or Evan Fournier in the painted area. He simply couldn’t post up mismatches when Boston switched.

That all feels like a distant past. Now, not only is he pummeling mismatches, he’s taking it to players at his position with serious gusto and flashing a turnaround lefty hook shot that’s gone in 50% of the time this season. Improved physicality plays a massive role in his ability to get to this shot with consistency, as Claxton put on an estimated 10-to-15 pounds in the offseason. But the development of a sturdy power dribble to generate space and a reliable drop step shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Most recently, we’ve started to see Claxton tinker with a face-up game. What initially started as improvisation at the end of the shot clock, Claxton has begun to recognize that his advantages as an S-tier athlete at the center position can catch other bigs off guard when attacking them in space. Brooklyn has always used Claxton at the elbows, but this was mostly to set up dribble handoffs for Irving and Durant to cook in the midrange. Now, he’s starting to ‘keep’ on these handoffs and gallop past fellow fives for sweeping hooks at the cup.

Once a player that struggled to stay on the floor due to conditioning, Claxton might have the steadiest motor on the team. He gets up the floor with exceptional quickness.

And again, he’s in that exciting stage of his development where his bag of tricks grows by the hour. Some days, he’ll show off an up-and-under finish off the roll. On others, it’s a euro-step to evade a vertical contest at the rim. His turnaround jumper at the end of the clock against Utah drew oohs and ahhs from Nets faithful, but even little things like his short roll read against Oklahoma City show the height of Claxton’s ceiling.

Even if the jumper never gets there, Claxton’s showcased enough offensively to pencil him in as a 17-point-a-game, 10-rebound type of guy—which, paired with his defense, feasibly makes him a staple on All-Star voting lists for years to come.

Next up in his development is his passing, particularly in short roll situations when Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll creators are blitzed. And yes, free-throw shooting. After going just 6-for-15 from the line in Golden State, Claxton was seen putting in work from the charity stripe hours after Brooklyn’s practice concluded on Tuesday. There’s no reason to believe he can’t sharpen up his weaknesses thanks to his religious work ethic. It’s why he’s made as much progress as he has in the last 6 months... and why he continues to get better by the day.

So, about that defense. Claxton is currently second in Defensive Player of the Year voting according to Las Vegas oddsmakers. Losing Durant hasn’t hurt Brooklyn’s top-notch defense in the slightest, and in large part, that’s due to Claxton’s impact. The Nets have the sixth-best defense in the league since Durant went down on January 8, allowing just 111.8 points per 100 possessions.

Claxton’s always been able to switch with remarkable efficiency when defending pick-and-rolls, but his heightened schematic versatility keystones his ascendance as a defender. Last season, the Nets debuted as a drop coverage team to the surprise of many. This paid remarkable dividends for Claxton in particular, who initially wasn’t especially comfortable with the scheme but is now adept at sinking back and playing the cat-and-mouse game between the ball-handler and roll-man.

His pick-and-roll coverage is now dictated by the needs of a possession. Going against a top-notch star? Great, the Nets will simply switch with Claxton. But what if the opposition has a hellacious roller? Fantastic, drop coverage it is. Many times, he’ll combine both coverages, starting the play dropped back before switching at the last minute (known as a “peel switch”) to contain ball handlers should they shake free.

But Claxton’s biggest leap as a defender has come as a helper, in large part why he leads the league in total blocks. Calling it a “leap” is probably underselling what we’re seeing, to be honest. It’s more of a pole vault into the stratosphere.

Much like his screening and rolling, it’s his timing and knowledge of angles that have helped (ha, get it) Clax’s progress as a secondary defender. His 9’2” standing reach essentially changes the parabolas of shots at the rim. When he unfurls that impressive wingspan, it’s as if he catches offensive players off guard with just how much space he can shroud. Plus, he blocks shots with both hands, best emblematized by his highlight rejection against Colin Sexton when Claxton switched hands mid-air.

But it goes deeper than that. Claxton has grown increasingly adept at recognizing who is on the floor and how much time is remaining on the shot clock. Many of Claxton’s blocks occur when he cheats off his man to contest offensive players that aren’t particularly comfortable as passers. He’ll also peel off his man for highlight blocks in end-of-shot-clock situations.

He’s building such a pedigree for himself that sometimes his sheer presence alone will stall out an opponent’s possession and force up an ugly shot. As such, he’s started to camp out in the painted area Rudy Gobert-style to completely erase close-range shot attempts.

Oh, and don’t worry. His calling card as a defender, guarding in isolation, still hasn’t faded. Synergy grades him out as a 69th percentile isolation defender, “very good” according to their metrics, who allows just 0.73 points per 100 possessions while guarding one-on-ones. Though he’s added muscle over the years, that hasn’t halted just how quickly he shifts his footwork and turns his hips to contain players that dare go at him mano-e-mano. He’s Brooklyn’s best perimeter defender in a center’s body.

Years ago during his breakout 2020-21 season, I called Claxton a guy who could feasibly contend for Defensive Player of the Year awards. I didn’t expect him to get there this quickly. Now, I truly believe we could be looking at the best defender of his generation. There isn’t a thing Claxton can’t do on defense. He can switch and guard isolations. He can handle multiple coverages as a pick-and-roll big man. He’s an unreal help defender. He’ll snuff out off-ball actions. And he does all of this without fouling.

The concept of development will always appeal to fans. It’s why teams can sell the notion of a rebuild. The mystery box appeal of a player’s formative years just seems to draw in an audience.

Brooklyn is in a rare situation. At the moment, they have as good of a shot as anyone to contend for an NBA title. But they’re also rostering one of the most intriguing development stories in the entire league in Claxton. Typically, fans have to pick one or the other—player development or contention. Nets fans get to experience both. What a privileged life they get to live.