Nic Claxton may not wind up as the NBA’s Most Improved Player. In fact, he may get fewer votes than teammate Mikal Bridges in the balloting. But for a lot of Nets fans, that doesn’t matter. They know as does Nets management that the 23-year-old has been, through all the changes besetting the team, he has been a constant, his defense absolutely critical to both the old-look and new-look Brooklyn.
The Nets took a chance on him last summer. After turning down a first rounder for him at the 2022 NBA Draft, they signed him to a two-year, $20 million ($17.25 million guaranteed) based on the belief that he would get beyond his injuries and illness and take his career in hand.
He has been as good as anyone had a right to expect, being an NBA leader in blocks (currently second in total blocks and blocks per game) and “stocks,” the combination of blocks and steals (currently second in total stocks and stocks per game) as well as second in field goal percentage. And he is also the only NBA player 23 or under to have 25 or more point/rebound double-doubles, now with 27. Moreover, he has been extremely durable, playing in 72 of a possible 77 games.
It’s no surprise that most pundits think he and Mikal Bridges are most likely to be untouchable when Sean Marks continues the team’s retooling in the summer. As Brian Lewis reports Saturday, the Nets will have to wait till July of 2024 before signing him to a new deal. And he’ll be an unrestricted free agent when they do, thanks to vagaries of the CBA. The price could reach nine figures. Claxton told Lewis he hopes he can continue the partnership.
“It’s human nature. It’s just in our business, you never really know what’s going to happen as far as trades, contracts and everything,” Claxton told The Post. “But I’ve been here four years, and Brooklyn has been a huge [time], played a huge role in my growth. And I would love to be here.
“But we’ll see how that shakes out. I’m just taking it day-by-day, have a great summer working out and figure all that stuff out later.”
As every Nets fan knows, things can — and often do — change but for the moment, that’s got to be encouraging for everyone in Brooklyn. Also, as every Nets fan knows, minutes matter in the long run. Being available matters. Ask Jacque Vaughn.
“The biggest thing I point to is the availability,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “You just look at the amount of minutes he’s played this year, definitely highs for him. That’s always a question you’re going to have about an athlete: Are they going to do it over and over again when you invest in them, you believe in them and you want them to be a part of growing with you going forward?
“So he’s proven that he can suit up, play against different dudes — that’s whether it’s a big, whether it’s an agile guy, whether it’s someone that is twice his size — and figure it out. And that’s because of availability.”
After missing significant time to injury and illness his first three years, Clax has played 2,136 minutes in 72 games this season, ranking 66th in the NBA. In his three seasons before this one, he had accumulated a grand total of just 1,755 minutes!
Claxton had a bit of an adjustment when the Nets lost Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (as well as fellow big Markieff Morris) and so the near 7-footer began to show some more offensive skills, something not required prior to February 9.
“At the beginning of this year up until the trades, I pretty much mastered that role. I figured it out, I was picking my spots, and it was just was natural, it was easy,” Claxton told The Post. “And then boom, the trade happens, it’s a whole new team. So it was definitely an adjustment period, and I had to figure it out.”
And figure it out he did as Lewis reports...
In Claxton’s first nine games after the trades of Durant and Irving, he averaged 7.1 points and 8.4 rebounds, shooting just 49 percent and posting a minus-4.4. But in the 11 games since coming into Friday, he had averaged 14.5 points and 9.8 boards, shooting 69.4 percent and posting a +0.3.
Vaughn said the change is valuable to Claxton as he develops further.
“Then he learned — ‘OK, I’m going to be able to handle the ball a little bit, I’m going to be able to rebound, I can bust out, dribble and I’ve got four dudes who I can spray the ball to. So that’s pretty good for me. I can still command the defensive end, block shots, rebound the ball, and I can still be a threat at the rim with Spencer [Dinwiddie] or Mikal [Bridges] handling the ball.’ So it’s a learning process.”
- Nic Claxton proving to be bargain for Nets - Brian Lewis - New York Post