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Film Study: Nic Claxton Has Arrived

San Antonio Spurs v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

This was originally going to be an article solely focused on Nic Claxton’s defense, which is worthy of any praise it gets and then some. When he declared “I should be in the talk for the Defensive Player of the Year,” I had the urge to explain why it wasn't just empty braggadocio. But I realized two things, the first of which being I didn’t want to seriously talk about awards, mostly ever, but especially in January. But more so, that it’d be silly to spill so much ink on Nic Claxton and not discuss his offensive improvements.

We’ll start there, because Claxton’s growth as a play-finisher has been integral to Brooklyn’s success. He’s leading the league in field goal percentage (74.3%, per Basketball Reference) and while a great deal of those looks have been open dunks, far from all of them have been gimmies. This sort of finish has become commonplace for the Georgia product: a dribble, balanced footwork, and a shot with his weak-hand...

Claxton’s teammates no longer have to hand him the ball on a silver platter to generate a bucket - he can do some dirty work in the paint as well.

A worthwhile contrast is the growth of Jarrett Allen’s game while he was in Brooklyn. Allen spent his rookie and sophomore years seeing his hook shots fall victim to poor balance after getting pushed off his base by physical defense. His main adjustment was putting on muscle, strengthening both his base and upper body, which resulted in a huge improvement in finishing through contact. No longer did he look like a boy amongst men.

Claxton, as every young big in the NBA does, has put on muscle, no doubt. But his play-finishing improvements have largely banked on the skill and finesse he’s shown in larger doses at Georgia and in the G-League. We’ve seen clips of him bringing the ball up and even hitting threes, but he was never going to turn into a full-blown Lamar Odom. However, you can see the tantalizing combo of hand-eye coordination and a lanky frame starting to manifest in his finishing ability:

The skill was always there, it’s just finding a practical application. No longer is every paint touch resulting in a pre-determined turn over his right shoulder and a wild lefty hook shot. Claxton is reading and reacting to interior defense, and the result is a much more controlled demeanor in tight situations.

Lineups featuring Claxton alongside Ben Simmons would not have been this fruitful -- a 67th percentile offensive rating -- even just one season ago. Having two non-spacers on the floor creates more of those tight situations that Claxton is now handling. By finishing through traffic, he’s capitalizing on Simmons’ interior passing, and it grants that front-court the extra bit of buoyancy it needs to stay afloat:

Oh yeah, he’s fourth in the NBA in dunks.

The good stuff we already expected from Claxton — spry offensive rebounding, running the floor, throwing down oops — is still there. It makes the wart I have to mention even more frustrating: free-throw shooting. As stellar as his improvement has been, making one out of every two free throws puts a hard cap on an offensive ceiling. Even a 60% rate would be a meaningful difference, but when defenses can resort to hack-a-Clax, it raises serious questions about playoff viability. It’s an impossibly tough pill to swallow — that these improvements may be rendered moot by playoff time because Claxton can’t hit a free throw.

“Moot” may be too strong of a word there, really, because no matter what, Claxton will get ample playoff minutes and throw down dunks and finish layups. But if Jacque Vaughn can’t rest assured that he can play the league-leader in field goal percentage down the stretch of tight games, Brooklyn’s outlook feels a whole lot dicier.

I guess that’s why most people opt for the “bad news first” approach, because while the free-throw shooting is still a work-in-progress, to put it lightly, Claxton’s offensive improvements couldn’t be overlooked even if he was shooting 30% from the line. Translating that mix of length and skill into some of the NBA’s best finishing numbers in year four is worthy of consistent praise. Undoubtedly a result of offseason work that allows the real star of Nic Claxton’s game to shine: his defense.

Supreme Rim Protector

No, it’s not just that Claxton is an elite switch-big who moves his feet to keep up with guards. He still does that when asked, of course, but the real story this season is that he’s the best rim-protector on an elite rim-protecting team. I’m not going to get into awards discussions but that’s the long and short of his DPOY case, or more likely, his All-Defense Team case.

Brooklyn has the NBA’s ninth-best defensive rating -- third-best under Jacque Vaughn’s tenure. Nearly halfway through the season, and with only seven of those games coming under Steve Nash, the sample size is large enough to declare this a good defense, perhaps teetering on great. How are they doing it? Rim protection. They are third in the league in opponent field goal percentage at the rim, behind just Memphis and Indiana, led by well-known DPOY candidates in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Myles Turner, respectively. Who’s leading Brooklyn’s rim-protection charge? You guessed it.

The Nets, like any good defense, are doing this by committee. Kevin Durant is averaging nearly two blocks a game, and the size of Brooklyn’s other backline wings (Simmons, Watanabe, etc.) cements the scheme. But the committee chairman is Nic Claxton, whether you go by advanced stats, basic stats, or that good ol’ eye test.

Advanced

  • Opponents are shooting three percent better at the rim when he’s off the floor, a 79th percentile mark. (Yes, a 3% difference really is that massive.)
  • Per NBA.com, among players who defend at least five shot attempts per game inside six feet, Claxton has the fourth best opponent field goal percentage. Players are only making 51.4% of those shots against him.

Basic

  • He’s second in the league in total blocks.
  • He’s second in the league in blocks per game.
  • He’s fourth in the league in blocks per minute.

Eye Test

  • Here’s the fun part: The giant remaining un-killed, blocking a clutch floater attempt..
  • How about playing between two, forcing the offensive player to pick his dribble up before swatting him...
  • Stonewalling Giannis? Sure...
  • And, if you just watch one of these clips, watch this, a smattering of essential blocks as a help defender that sum up what he does for this defense...

The most impressive plays feature Claxton meeting a driver, forcing a pass to the big man, then recovering to that big man for a block. From the moment he entered the league we saw incredible swtichability out on the perimeter, but Claxton is excelling at traditional big man work and propelling this defense to new heights. He hasn’t completely reinvented himself, but this isn’t just a case of linear growth either. The ultimate switch-big has become a valuable shot-blocking anchor, and Brooklyn’s coaching staff has propelled him into that role, both leashing Claxton to the paint but giving him free rein to chase blocks.

But while those chases are often successful, even if they don’t end in blocks — the mere sight of Nic Claxton jumping out at you while you shoot a floater should scare you a little -- it does open up the offensive glass for opponents. Here, he leaves Thaddeus Young to contest a Scottie Barnes floater...

The box-out responsibility fell to Joe Harris, who did his best but ultimately lost the battle. That is the main drawback of this scheme. When the Clax Attack is unleashed on unsuspecting drivers, Brooklyn’s smaller wings and guards must get down to the block and fight for rebounds against Claxton’s deserted man. Now, it helps that this year’s Nets feature guys like Joe Harris and T.J. Warren on those wings, for example, rather than Bruce Brown, Goran Dragic, and heavier doses of Seth Curry and Patty Mills. But it's still not ideal.

If there’s one argument against Nic Claxton’s case for an All-Defensive Team, it’s that he doesn't add as much defensive rebounding value as your other, more traditional anchor-types. Brooklyn is 29th in DREB% on the season, and even over their dominant last 15 games, they're only 19th, per NBA.com. They are not built to be a plus-rebounding team; if they get to average it’s a major win. Nic Claxton cannot block all these shots and snag all these boards; to be fair, very few players can. But he’ll still get beat on the boards even when it’s his only assignment:

There are inscrutable limitations to his frame; it is what it is. But that’s part of what makes Claxton such an exciting player to watch. Before we veer into awards territory as the season progresses (awards which he has an excellent case for), we should just take time to appreciate who he is as a player.

It is a breathtaking sight, like an albatross exploding off the ground into flight, to watch Nic Claxton leap up and unfurl those ridiculous, skinny arms in hopes of snagging a block or throwing down a dunk. Breathtaking, but also vital to Brooklyn’s success. Claxton has become the exalted player who relies on stylistic feats to achieve competitive excellence.

Comparison is the thief of joy and whatnot, but once again, Jarrett Allen is an easy reference point. Allen was so lovable, made for Nets fans who cherished his goofiness, fiercely protected him against Joel Embiid (or tried to), lacked expectations of winning around his growth, loved the humility. And who wouldn’t?

Claxton’s path is different, but should be no less celebrated. It is remarkably cool to watch a seven-footer both slink around stronger opponents and dunk all over them. It is inspiring that Claxton missed large chunks of his first couple seasons with injuries and sicknesses, key developmental time, and kept getting better anyway. It is inspiring that the very-online-23-year-old likely saw all the frustrations over his missed time, over his displays of skill in the G-League that didn’t translate to the NBA, over his free-throw shooting, and came out the other side a trash-talking, smirking, posing block machine. (Please, make some free-throws, though.)

Nic Claxton is here, and he's doing it his way. He very well could end up on an All-Defense team at age 23. The numbers scream that he’s becoming one of the best shot-blockers and inside finishers in the NBA, like a typically dominant big man might. Not that he’s Rudy Gobert. Nor that he’s Lamar Odom or even Jarrett Allen, for that matter. He’s just Nic Claxton and thank goodness for that.

Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, unless otherwise specified.