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FILM STUDY: Evaluating Nic Claxton as the Brooklyn Nets near a major decision

Nic Claxton’s season was always going to be measured in terms of his upcoming free agency. So, here’s an in-depth look at what he’s put on tape, and the $100 million question.

Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

Nic Claxton was a special talent the moment he stepped onto an NBA floor; it required little pre-draft scouting or even basketball expertise to see it. This is nothing surprising for many NBA players, but remember, Claxton was a 20-year-old drafted in the second round. He only played 15 games for the Brooklyn Nets his rookie year, accumulating less minutes than Iman Shumpert did for the ‘19-’20 team.

But Claxton packed ultra-rare athleticism and hand-eye coordination and flexibility into a gangly 6’11” frame even then. Five seasons into his career, he's now mastered those traits, and regularly produces flashes that only a couple other NBA players could even think about. The traits that make him an elite shot-blocker also make him a deadly lob-catcher, and sometimes he puts that all together in a span of five seconds:

On New Year’s Eve in Oklahoma City, Claxton was Brooklyn’s bright spot in an otherwise dispiriting loss, posting 15/16/5. That line included a coast-to-coast take where Clax treated opposing guards like traffic cones, showing them how crossovers are supposed to be done:

The potential that oozed off rookie Claxton has been realized, and we cannot take it for granted. Now in his age-24 season, Clax turned out to be the greatest value selection in franchise history and, at minimum, one of the three best players drafted by the Nets this century.

But this season isn’t about celebrating Nic Claxton and his individual achievements. It’s about assessing his value to Brooklyn, whether he’s worth the price tag of unrestricted free agency this summer. His play has been and will be measured through that lens, which was the case the moment he walked through the doors for training camp.

Michael Scotto of HoopsHype — with some help from Spencer Dinwiddie — has consistently projected Claxton’s next contract in the $100 million range, perhaps similar to Jarrett Allen’s, whether over four or five years. So, should Brooklyn dole out that kinda paper to their homegrown big?

Depends on who you ask.


Defensively, Claxton is still a monster rim-protector, sporting the fourth-highest block-percentage in the league so far. Yet, his impact is a bit muddier than that, full of contradictions. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nets sport a 119.4 defensive rating with Clax on the court, which stinks, and would be the NBA’s 25th-ranked defense on its own.

However, opponents are shooting 43% from deep when he’s on the floor, a preposterous mark that drops by nearly 7% when he sits. And that has little to do with his own actions. Remember, Claxton has been in drop coverage the vast majority of the year, with Brooklyn running a conservative defense that not only places their rangiest defender at the rim, but barricades him with extra help in the gaps:

Clax never gets a chance to impact the play in the above clip. There’s aggressive help from Trendon Watford in the gap, which triggers an easy pass for a Saddiq Bey triple. Rinse and repeat. Does that strategy, intentionally leading to tons of above-the-break triples for opponents, reflect poorly on Claxton? Do Jacque Vaughn & co. not trust him to handle the paint on his own?

I’m not sure. To me, the strategy reeks of a team that built their identity around incorporating Ben Simmons. Force above-the-break threes, which go in at a lower rate than any other shot on the floor, and thus, many rebounds to spur transition opportunities in the hopes of avoiding getting stuck in half-court offense with a rim-running center and the most shot-averse player in the NBA. Conservative drop defense helped the Nets secure the necessary rebounds to start the season, and there was little complaining. Those days are far in the rearview

Whether or not that plan was always doomed aside, Claxton’s drop defense is still quite good. Not great and certainly not at the All-Defense level of his switching, but a valuable change-of-pace for Clax. He can be susceptible to getting caught in between, guarding neither the driver nor positioning himself for the rebound...

...but Clax is still a menace when meeting drivers head-on. Plays like the below are quasi-switch situations, with the UGA product defending smaller players that already have downhill momentum. Frequently, not even a head-start is enough for them:

The switching, on the other hand, is still breath-taking. Vaughn has deployed it only in case of emergency this season, throwing Claxton onto the Trae Youngs of the world when the worry about getting a defensive rebound is overtaken by the worry of getting the damn stop in the first place.

Yet, when ball-handlers see the lanky lefty on them and wisely pass out of it, offenses still can't take Claxton out of the play completely. Here, he recovers to the paint for a blindside block despite a switch earlier in the possession.

Don’t let Brooklyn’s defensive rating fool you; their big man in the middle can still be a destructive force. It’s distributing blame for Brooklyn’s disappointing defense that remains a tough question.

Despite the slender frame, Claxton doesn’t play small on the interior. In addition to the giant block-rate, Clax is rebounding 22.6% of opponent misses, an 84th percentile mark among bigs, per Cleaning the Glass. The official NBA site clocks 76 players who defend at least five shots per game at the rim — Clax ranks 11th in field-goal percentage allowed.

All that to say, the defense has been what we knew it to be. Nic Claxton isn’t going to single-handedly birth an elite defense by sitting in drop, but pairs valuable skills back there with singular switch-ability. There are not too many defenders like him in the league, even with Brooklyn’s conservative defensive scheme stripping away some of his potential impact.

Jacque Vaughn & co. would do good to unleash Claxton a bit more in the new year, whether with more switching or by providing less early help in his drop reps. Brooklyn needs all the data before making a major decision on his future.


The same applies to the offensive end of the floor, though the fifth-year Net has been slightly underwhelming on his own there. Last year, Claxton shot 80.5% at the rim and 51.4% from 3-to-10 feet, according to Basketball Reference. He led the league in field-goal percentage, but wasn’t just being spoon-fed dunks...

This year, he’s down to 76.8% at the rim and 43% from 3-to-10 feet, even getting fouled on his shooting attempts far less frequently. A jump in free-throw percentage — from 54% to 60% — is positive, but plays like these are no longer the automatic twos they were last season:

Furthermore, Claxton hasn’t taken the leap that seemed inevitable at various points last season. I’m not talking about his shooting percentages, but rather his role in the offense.

Claxton handles the ball in transition more frequently, but those possessions aren’t something opponents have to game-plan for. Defenses still destroy Brooklyn by switching against them, and the Nets still don’t look to dump it down to their starting center. Claxton’s usage rate and shot attempts are nearly identical to last season, now on a roster with more opportunity to go around. There are occasional out-of-timeout plays that feature a fake-handoff for the 24-year-old, but he is no more of an offensive hub or switch-buster than he was last season.

Whether it’s a lack of assertiveness, or again, a lack of faith from the coaching staff, is tough to call, but we still see plays like this occasionally...

A post-up opportunity against rookie guard Cason Wallace necessitates a double-team, which leads to an assist to a cutting Dennis Smith Jr. When Claxton is trusted to make plays on his own, it takes such a weight off Brooklyn’s shoulders, with the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Thomas, and Mikal Bridges quite overtaxed.

This could be a case of expectations. Perhaps Claxton’s finishing numbers were always bound to regress from best-in-the-league levels to just very good, perhaps not all of his tantalizing skills were going to turn into production. The ball-handling he does do in transition speeds the offense up occasionally, and so do his fake handoffs and drives to the rim. Expecting him to be an offensive hub could have been a bridge too far, and hey, that he can finish lobs like these is a boon to any offense:

Despite Brooklyn’s struggles, Nic Claxton remains a very talented, valuable player. Still, it’s hard to say anybody is having a great season on a Nets team that currently sits at 15-20, backsliding toward the dregs of the league.

Could he do more? I think so. Brooklyn’s defensive strategy prevents Clax from painting the full picture of his drop defense and takes their best defensive player out of many possessions. On offense, there may be an untapped ceiling, where Claxton isn’t just one of the league’s best play-finishers, but ignites more possessions himself. Are the Nets comfortable evaluating their young center before presenting bigger challenges to him, or do they know what they have already?

It could be the latter. Yet, even if this is the peak for Clax, the second-rounder has turned himself into a top-60 player that’s set to make a lot of money this offseason, no small accomplishment.

So, should Brooklyn be the team to pay him? It’s the most important question of their season, and one Sean Marks must acknowledge soon. The NBA trade deadline is on February 8th, in just over a month. Forget the summer, that’s the date Marks must answer by; the Nets cannot afford to lose his regime’s most successful draft pick for nothing.

My answer is yes. The player I outlined above is worth 10-to-15% of the salary cap, which is where $20-25 million will get you over the next half-decade. Sure, Claxton’s season has been slightly underwhelming to this point, but he’s one of the least culpable Nets in their subpar record.

Many Nets fans will point to the improved play of Day’Ron Sharpe as a counterargument, reasoning that Brooklyn may be better off promoting the third-year big and allocating resources elsewhere. But for all of Sharpe’s continued rebounding excellence, he offers little promise of reaching Claxton’s level on either end. We can discuss his struggles to finish around the rim or his improving-but-flawed defense, but simply, Sharpe isn’t enough to sway how the organization should feel about the player he’s backing up.

Ultimately, I predict Marks and the Nets hold onto Clax through the deadline, and thus, pony up the requisite cash this offseason. Signing very good players at positions of need to long-term deals before a salary cap spike is good practice. And hey, you can always make trades at a later date.

That’s just speculation, though. Within a month, we’ll get a definitive answer on how much Brooklyn values Nic Claxton. Buckle up.