Make no mistake about it, Brooklyn Nets breakout big man Nic Claxton is much more than just a defensive ace.
In the Nets’ upset win over the Denver Nuggets on March 12, he showed some of it, sinking a pull-up jump shot off the dribble and cashed it in – which “1000%” surprised teammate Spencer Dinwiddie – en route to the first 20-point, five-rebound performance, five-assist of his career.
“I used to do that in college,” Claxton told reporters during his media session on the Nets’ official YouTube channel following the game. People can be surprised [but] I can do more than what I do now offensively. I’m just playing my role. Hopefully, in years to come, I’ll continue to expand my game.”
Claxton has already emerged as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
But if this showing which included knocking down all four of his free throws is any indication, stardom could be in his future.
“Now, that was the most surprising play of the game,” said Dinwiddie – who set a career-high with 16 assists in this contest – during his media availability. “F*** the assists. He did a one-dribble pull-up, and made it!”
Claxton leads the league in field goal percentage this season while ranking second in blocks.
But this is just the seventh 20-point showing of Claxton’s career, per Stathead. Six of those have come this season but none had come since he played alongside Kyrie Irving before this.
The former second-round pick went from averaging 13.0 points before Irving’s trade demand to 10.7 points per game after. However, he actually increased much of his production in other areas going from 8.9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, and 1.6 assists to 9.7 boards, 2.5 assists, 2.3 blocks, and 1.1 steals.
This performance, though, reminded Claxton of the good ole days from a few weeks ago.
“I was just in a good rhythm,” Claxton said. “They came out and they were trapping every time I was setting the screen – [Nuggets center Nikola] Jokic was going out, blitzing. Kind of gave me that feeling of how things used to be every time teams would trap KAI, KD. So, I’m used to playing in that pocket and I was able to make some good plays for the team.”
The Nets have won five of their last six games after going 3-8 in the immediate aftermath of Irving’s – and subsequently Kevin Durant’s – trade request.
Nets Finding Their Identity
“I think we’re just kind of creating an identity as a group,” Claxton told reporters. “It’s tough having a whole new team, having to create new defensive schemes. Dudes are used to playing certain ways on both sides of the ball and some people’s roles have been – they’ve been get given big roles; including myself. So, you just gotta find your flow, and we’re doing that. And, like like I always say…when we’re getting stops and getting out and running, finding guys for open shots that’s when we’re at our best.”
Claxton’s comments speak to sentiments expressed by a couple of his teammates, the first of which being Cameron Johnson who had discussed at length the challenges he has faced getting acclimated to the defensive principles he’s being tasked with in Brooklyn.
Johnson, who spent the first three-plus seasons of his career with the Phoenix Suns, says some of those principles are completely opposite of those he was taught.
It’s made for a rocky transition but one that may finally be taking hold. Brooklyn’s defensive rating was 121.6 over those first 11 games after Irving’s last game, including a four-game losing streak. Over their last six games, it is 107.3 while their net rating has gone from minus-8.6 to plus-7.8 in that span.
Nets Still Adjusting to New Roles
To Claxton’s other point, one player whose role has gone in the opposite direction is second-year guard Cam Thomas. He has seen as many as 25-plus minutes in a game and as few as a DNP-CD (twice) during this stretch.
The former came with the Nets trotting out a skeleton crew against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 9.
Thomas has averaged a little over six minutes per game in his three other appearances.
He dropped 21 points on 50% shooting against Milwaukee adding four rebounds leading head coach Jacque Vaughn to note the progression in the youngster’s game. Thomas, however, did not see it that way.
“Nothing – same stuff I’ve been knowing about my game,” Thomas said when asked what growth he had seen in his game. “Nothing.”