Nicolas Claxton Can’t Be This Good Already, Right?
It just doesn’t add up. The soon-to-be-22-year-old has only played in 44 games since leaving the University of Georgia after two seasons of college ball. Nine of those contests came with the Brooklyn Nets’ G-League affiliate in Long Island. He experienced a hamstring injury early into his Nets career. Then there was the left shoulder injury, which required arthroscopic surgery that forced Nicolas Claxton to “relearn how to shoot”. And, of course, having to experience the Covid Season as a rookie. We could go on about the list of excuses Claxton might have had for not making an impact.
But he hasn’t given us a reason to. Since Nicolas Claxton made his season debut on February 23rd vs. the Sacramento Kings, he’s been a spindly ball of chaos on the court, and there doesn’t appear to be an off-switch. Everything about Claxton the Prospect screamed project. A paper-thin second-rounder, not quite sure what mold of player he may take (forget the archaic notion of a position), who had intriguing building blocks but no clear NBA-ready skills. Hopes, maybe, but there were no expectations. Certainly not short-term ones, anyway. And yet, weeks away from the 2021 NBA playoffs, Claxton is primed to be a vital contributor for the championship-favorite Nets. How did we get here?
He Is Everywhere on Defense
This overly simplifies his impact, but it’s the most accurate answer. Obviously, there are specific skills and attributes Nicolas Claxton possesses, some of which are astounding for a player with his (lack of) experience and age, that we’ll dive into. But Claxton is the rare neophyte whose defense is ahead of his offense; he’s the Tasmanian Devil with blonde locs out there. An agent of chaos. An event-creator. And those frenetic tendencies fit perfectly into the Nets’ defensive schemes, which are increasingly trending towards switching all actions, prioritizing versatility.
Technique and Footspeed
However, it would be a major discredit to Claxton to imply his impact is centered around his physical tools and unbound energy. While those certainly help, his game is built around a sustained commitment to proper defensive technique. That talent amplifies everything else.
Here, Claxton greets Buddy Hield with a hand up, and promptly gets in a stance to mirror the drive, cutting it off. Once Hield gives passes it off, Claxton stays in a stance to deny him the ball. The urgency never slips. A consistently low stance allows Claxton to not just keep up, but envelop the opposing guards he often gets switched onto. And those switches have become his calling card. It helps that his feet only have 215 pounds to move around, but he slides them across the court so quickly because he’s always prepared to.
Look at how quickly he flips those hips, keeping up with a sudden crossover from Terrence Ross (the foul was called on Kyrie Irving‘s reach-in). It’s uncanny how much ground Claxton can cover with sudden bursts of movement. The lag time from a change-of-direction move to his response is microscopic for a near-‘footer’, which is just unfair. If his response time was merely good instead of stellar, he’d still be a sturdy man-to-man defender. Why?
Just look at him! Nicolas Claxton is straight out of the Kevin Durant University of SlenderMen, standing at 6’11” with a 7’3″ wingspan. And, like KD, he has elite proprioception, knowing how to use his long limbs to his advantage. Claxton is not flailing those pool noodle arms around to commit silly fouls, a problem we see other young players with his body type often run into. You won’t catch him leaping off the floor at pump-fakes or hesitations; Claxton knows a simple, one-handed contest is enough to alter most shots:
Here, his right hand shoots up ready to contest Jeff Teague‘s shot, without lurching forward. So when Teague’s head-fake turns out to be just that, Claxton is still in a great position to mirror him, leading to a turnover. And when Claxton does contest shots, that length is often enough to alter them into misses:
First, he turns a CJ McCollum three into a bowling ball that nearly shatters the glass. Then, he forces De’Aaron Fox away from a layup, into a high, off-glass floater that rolls off the rim. Claxton’s blend of length and lateral quickness makes it impossible to hoist a clean shot over him, and the numbers back that up. DFG% is often an overly-reductive stat, but in this case, it evidences the eye test. Opponents are shooting a pitiful 34.7% from the floor when Claxton is the primary defender, a mark that leads the NBA by 2.8%, or the difference between #2 and #14 (min. 100 attempts).
Awareness and Motor
Teams are starting to grasp what Claxton is capable of defensively, and isolating scorers on him less and less. Still, though, Claxton has maintained a consistent, disruptive presence on that end, because he’s always near the action, if not creating it.
Here, he’s guarding a three-point shooter in Christian Wood, whom he consciously tracks back out to the perimeter. But when Irving gets beat baseline, Claxton provides help, vertically, and forces a turnover (nice rotation by James Harden as well). He and DeAndre Jordan are lapping the rest of the Nets in shots contested per minute. But unlike DJ, Claxton is not stationed in drop defense, prepared to confront all paint attacks. He’s often recovering from the perimeter, after a switch or two, to get a hand in a shooter’s airspace, as he does here:
These are the plays that get you in trouble naming comparisons for Claxton’s game. He mirrors McCollum, then senses danger in the paint and hauls ass to get there, just in time to block a layup attempt from behind. It combines all of his defensive skills, including the last one I haven’t mentioned yet…
Nicolas Claxton’s hands are surprisingly accurate for a player who should ostensibly still be adjusting to the speed of NBA action. But when he reaches in, or comes from the help-side to block a shot, rest assured he’s palming leather. For all of his activity, Claxton is averaging 3.5 fouls/36 minutes. That’s a higher-than-league-average mark but scales well considering his defensive load. You get the point, but here are some examples:
It’s hard to overstate Claxton’s defensive value to the Nets. He’s been their best player on that end from the moment he checked in vs. Sacramento. The way his skills fit in Brooklyn’s desired, switch-all scheme, and the space he eats up all adds up to make him an impactful presence. The Nets 101.0 defensive rating with Claxton on the court (a mark which would lead the league by nearly 5 points/100) doesn’t tell the whole story. Claxton has played a significant chunk of his minutes against bench units, and the team’s overall improvement on that end coincides with his February debut.
But, by no means is it misleading. The 9 next-closest Nets in DRTG have been off the roster since January, fringe rotation players, or recent buyout signees. And Claxton earned enough of Steve Nash‘s trust early on to consistently close fourth quarters. Of course, there are holes, albeit pencil-thick ones, in his defense. He’s not the sturdiest rebounder on that end, and a well-timed shoulder from a bigger opponent can knock him back a few feet. Both are due to that slender frame, which may present more of an issue come playoff time. (That weight room is going to him well this summer.) But even talking about his playoff value, considering the unknown he was merely two months ago, is a major achievement.
Nicolas Claxton’s Offense
This section will be much more concise. That’s not to say Claxton doesn’t have intriguing offensive skills, just that they scream potential more than immediate production, and, thus, are less useful to the immediate title-favorite (yes). Those skills, should they fully develop, could elevate him to two-way superstar status in the future. That’s a monster ‘if’ (a ‘should’, really), but the ingredients are there.
Claxton doesn’t present any floor-spacing value right now, and that skill is the longest shot (pun intended) for him to develop. The shot mechanics are okay, but he’s only made a handful of threes in the NBA, and went 18/64 (28%) in his final season shooting from the college arc.
More feasible though, are his ball-handling skills growing into something greater. Right now, he’s limited to short drives that are effective if a defender gives him left-hand leverage. He just covers so much ground with one measly dribble:
In the G League, and at UGA, he showcased a handful of coast-to-coast drives, and more complex dribbling situations in the half-court. More importantly, though, Claxton’s fluid movements translate offensively. The core is there, it’s about filling in the edges. Obviously, those edges include expanding what he can do with his right hand, both in terms of dribbling and finishing. His go-to, if not only move is a lefty hook, which can still be effective because of its high release point. But defenders are starting to sit on that more and more, and are bumping him off course.
In the short-roll game, Nicolas Claxton’s fluidity has produced positive results. He’s only been put in these situations a couple of times, and we haven’t seen anything in the way passing out of them. But at 6’11”, getting to the rim is of more importance, which he deftly accomplishes here:
Claxton may not look to the weak-side corner, or hit Bruce Brown on a cut, here. But getting into triple threat position, and finishing with a hop-step and his right hand is nothing to scoff at. If Claxton turns into a truly, versatile, offensive threat, it won’t stun me, that’s all I’m saying.
In the Present
Immediately, Claxton’s value will come strictly as a play-finisher and offensive rebounder, a skill he’s improving at with each passing game. He’s not elite at it yet, but his spontaneous, limbs-everywhere activity translates much better to the offensive glass than the defensive glass. Claxton’s hands are solid if unspectacular; there are few drops, but some of the more difficult grabs elude him. But those don’t outweigh his ability to sky for home-run lob passes, thanks to his springiness and frame.
There are gripes to be had, of course, which range from minor to possibly-worrying-in-a-playoff-setting. For one, he lacks the cognition that a LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, or even a DeAndre Jordan possess. It makes running some of the actions we’ve seen from the Nets that utilize the Big 3 as off-ball targets more of a challenge. But again, minor. I have a hunch Brooklyn can get by, offensively, without needing Claxton to make the decisions.
If there’s one real worry, though. It’s the screen-setting. While he has improved in recent contests, his screens don’t free up a ton of space for ball-handlers or shooters. Even in the modern, slip-happy NBA, there are a lot of whiffs from Claxton when solid contact may be useful. Come the postseason, where defenders are allowed more grappling, those ghost screens may make life more difficult for the rest of the Nets.
There’s an alternate universe where Claxton doesn’t injure his left shoulder. Instead of spending the late-summer/early-fall rehabbing, and practicing against Kevin Durant, he showcases some of his ability in the NBA Bubble. James Harden requests a trade, and the Houston Rockets now demand Nicolas Claxton, a perfect low-cost, high-potential big for a rebuilt, as part of the return package. That’s, obviously, a lot of conjecture and what-ifs. But man I am glad that didn’t happen.
Above all, Claxton is a thrill to watch. Title contenders are hardly blessed with a fun, young mystery box that they get to watch develop over the course of a championship chase. Those types of players, if they’re even on the roster, are rarely ready to contribute to winning basketball. But that’s all Claxton has done since he first stepped on a court in 2021. He’s appeared in Brooklyn’s past 20 games, in which they have a sparkling record of 16-4. And he has played a lively, can’t-miss role in just about every one of those victories. Nicolas Claxton is here, and it is a sight to see.