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With Nets Camp Looming, Will This Be The Year Claxton Unleashes Untapped Potential As A Scorer?
With apologies to the Dos Equis commercial writers—and to Nets rising star Mikal Bridges--the most interesting man who will be heading to Brooklyn for training camp in two weeks is Nic Claxton. You could also argue that the Nets center is their most indispensable player for the coming season.
While it’s true that the Nets would struggle for wins if either player were lost for an extended period, at least the club has other options at Bridges’ position (besides the fact that he hasn’t missed a game since high school, so, knock on wood, this point should be moot). The combination of Cam Johnson, Royce O’Neale, among others, could hold down the fort on the wings, albeit with significantly worse scoring efficiency.
That’s not the Nets’ situation at the five, where it’s Claxton and a bunch of square pegs Head Coach Jacque Vaughn will likely attempt to fit into that round hole. Again. Like last season, none of Vaughn’s other candidates are natural NBA centers, never mind coming close to offering Claxton’s defensive versatility.
In case Vaughn had any notions, Ben Simmons appeared to put a kibosh on renewing the experiment with using him as the backup five during his interview with FOX5’s Tina Cervasio on Monday. He emphatically stated, “I’m a point guard.”
Other than wondering what Spencer Dinwiddie, last season’s starting PG who holds himself in a fairly high regard, thought of that remark, I didn’t entirely disagree with Simmons’ view--provided, of course, that he is fully recovered both physically (back surgery rehab) and mentally (an aversion to getting fouled), which is a believe-it-when-we-see-it caveat. Simmons, though, is more of the facilitator-type with exquisite passing skills that the position demands while Dinwiddie’s most efficient work product came when he played off the ball next to Dallas’ Luka Doncic. The one thing we know about Simmons is that he won’t be pounding the rock for 15 seconds before pulling up to hoist a step-back three-pointer that has like a 28% chance of going down.
The Nets’ conundrum, though, is that Claxton is also a non-shooter from outside the paint—during his first four pro seasons per NBA.com, he has converted on 5-of-14 (35.7%) mid-range attempts and 2-of-14 (14.3%) three-pointers—so Simmons will often find his driving lanes clogged if both share the floor. The cringeworthiness of Simmons calling Claxton up to set a high screen would be off the charts—you might see the rare double-drop pick-and-roll coverage, with one defender going under the screen and Claxton’s man dropping further into the paint.
As is the case with many of today’s NBA players—whether it’s Simmons, Claxton or the Knicks’ bricklaying center Mitchell Robinson, you can often find them hitting the gym hard over the summer to work on skill development, especially distance shooting. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the stellar practice reps that the public views on these players’ social media accounts don’t always translate into the ensuing league games.
Nets fans have always had high hopes that Claxton would add such a crucial dimension to his game. Though he didn’t shoot the lights out (30.2%) from the three-point collegiate distances during his two seasons at Georgia, many scouts highlighted his potential as a perimeter contributor, like a poor man’s Chris Bosh. During his rookie season, Claxton was sent down to G League Long Island for nine games, where he knocked down 10-of-18 (55.6%) from deep.
However, Claxton never built up the confidence to carry that stroke over to Brooklyn, as evidenced by the paltry totals above. On the other hand, he did lead the league in field goal percentage at 70.5% last season, thanks to his improved finishing around the basket, from jump hooks to driving layups.
Imagine, though, if Claxton comes into camp and starts demonstrating an improved range. What a boost it would give to Brooklyn’s offensive game plans. He has X million reasons to try, as he is on an expiring contract and headed for unrestricted free agency if an extension deal with Brooklyn isn’t reached. If you look at the top ten highest-paid centers for next season, per spotrac.com, all but Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert can stretch the floor, even if guys like Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, and Deandre Ayton stop just a little inside the three-point arc.
Of course, Claxton’s greatest value will still rest with his defense, where his length, agility, timing, and leaping ability allows him to guard opposing ballhandlers on the perimeter and big men in the post, all the while diagnosing the play to be in position to offer help in blocking or altering shots near the rim. My only quibble is that he should have averaged more than 6.8 defensive rebounds per game last season while his team grabbed fewer than 70% of available rebounds with him on the court. As he continues to add strength every offseason, he could conceivably improve in this area as well.
Claxton has already given Brooklyn way more than your average second-round pick (No. 31 overall), but when you watch him play, you just feel that higher levels are right around the corner.
With Brooklyn’s demolition of their superstar era, all they have left to offer fans this season is a bunch of interesting pieces. Considering his potential for another big leap, Claxton tops my list of most interesting.