Nicolas Claxton hopes to make a tremendous impact as a switchable big man for the Brooklyn Nets. His time may soon come.
For fans and media members alike, press day is among the most exhilarating dates found on the NBA calendar. Credentialed reporters are given the chance to peek behind the curtain and gain valuable intel on the teams they cover; fans can finally digest the reapings of successful offseasons.
Players undergo a completely different experience. For the most part, they’re peppered with the same sorts of questions.
What did you work on this summer? How do you see yourself fitting in on ___ (insert NBA team)?
Dealing with the same types of inquiries year-after-year can gradually become a bit tedious for older players. (During the Brooklyn Nets‘ press day, two specific vets [who shall not be named] exchanged a round of high-fives after finally completing the big day. As a reporter standing nearby, I was laughing uncontrollably.)
But for the young cats, the experience is anything but monotonous; it’s one of the first opportunities to take questions under big league limelight. Because of this, the youngin’s are generally more open with their answers, more willing to spill juicy details about the sport they love.
Enter Nicolas Claxton, the 6-foot-11 lefty center out of Georgia University, one the few folks at the HSS Center who could even come close to matching my own personal enthusiasm on media day. Wide-eyed and ready to discuss his game, the rookie grabbed top-spot as my favorite interview of the day — his youthful energy was contagious to be around.
In June, Sean Marks and his team grabbed Claxton with the 31st-overall pick during the 2019 NBA Draft. At first glance, his selection raised a few eyebrows; as a center, there appeared to be instantaneous positional overlap with Brooklyn’s 21-year-old big man of the future, Jarrett Allen.
Outside of positional designation, Claxton shares very little in common with The Fro. In Kenny Atkinson‘s offense, the prototypical center (like Allen or recent signee, DeAndre Jordan) typically finishes possessions as recipients within the pick-and-roll. Defensively, Kenny’s centers aren’t asked to do much other than hanging back towards the rim and contest shots at all costs.
Consider Nicolas Claxton to be the bass-boosted remix of the ideal Atkinson center. On both sides of the ball, he’s about as versatile as they come. I mean, shoot, the kid can rip down defensive boards, race up the floor in transition, and finish layups through a forest of arms. In his third summer league game, Claxton did just that, earning himself a series of “oohs” and “ahhs” from the (clearly highly stimulated) color commentators.
The list of NBA big men with the ballhandling chops to successfully run the break is short; Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Horford, a healthy DeMarcus Cousins and maybe Bam Adebayo (don’t sleep on him) are the only current centers with guard-like ball-security that come to mind. Obviously, that’s quite the starry list, and it just goes to show how rare Claxton’s offensive palette really is.
When finding a comparison point for Claxton’s future, one name has come up repeatedly: former Miami Heat center and future Hall of Famer, Chris Bosh.
I got the opportunity to ask Clax about his popular player comp. To this he replied…
“I like Chris Bosh a lot, I see… a lot of comparisons. And growing up, I was a D-Wade Fan. So, you know, when Chris Bosh, LeBron (James) and them were all in Miami, I really watched them a lot. So with me growing and my game growing and continuing to grow, I definitely see a lot of comparisons. So I would say that’s the biggest player that sticks out to me”
There are moments when Claxton looks like a mirror-image of the all-time great. During one of his biggest games of the college season, a matchup that pitted Nic against future #10 overall pick Jaxson Hayes, Clax flashed a Unicorn skillset that had scouts salivating uncontrollably. See for yourself.
With five minutes and some change remaining in the game, Claxton spotted up and knocked down a wing three with his toes well behind the three-point line. The very next possession, the South Carolina native rocketed past the defense in full-sprint before launching a no-look shuffle pass to a cutter. Truthfully, I had to rewatch this one a couple of times to make sure I didn’t accidentally click on prime Anthony Davis highlights.
Most enticing of all was his lockdown defense during the final minutes of the game. Clax picked up Texas’ Kerwin Roach at the top of the arc. As Roach readied his move and bulldozed his way to the basket, Claxton shuffled his feet accordingly to seal off the window of opportunity. Panicking, Roach reset at midcourt before, again, plowing futilely towards the rim. You could practically see the sneer on Nic’s face as he picked Roach’s pocket like a sly Oliver Twist protagonist, causing the delighted home crowd to cheer relentlessly. Reminder: this dude’s a damn center. And he’s out here looking like a 6-foot-11 Pascal Siakam.
With Allen and Jordan hanging around, the Nets’ frontcourt will be mighty crowded next season. Even during the summer league, it was tough for Claxton to see much playtime as he was stuck behind The Fro in the rotation.
But, with his unique skill set, there’s a chance he could fill the Nets’ gaping hole at the four. When asked about this, Nic certainly acknowledged the prospect of playing some power forward but made sure to punctuate his willingness to do whatever it takes for his new team.
“Honestly I don’t know WHAT position I’m gonna be playing, I don’t know how many minutes I’m gonna be playing. Wherever they want me to be, I feel comfortable. I can play the four. You know, that’s up to the coaching staff. So, whatever they want me to do, that’s what I’m gonna do and I’m gonna be happy doing it and I’m just going to make the best of it.”
With a slim 220-pound frame, it may actually be best if Atkinson grooms Claxton as a 4 — at least early on. Exposing him to the bruisers in the east (i.e. Joel Embiid, Nikola Vucevic, and Enes Kanter) during the fetal stages of his career will do nothing but potentially hinder his growth. Plus, with his ability to defend out to the three, he fits the 4-spot like a glove.
Even so, in order to successfully eat up minutes as a stretch four, Claxton will need to tinker a few aspects of his game. Claxton was a polished offensive player during his sophomore season at Georgia, averaging 13 points on 46% shooting. As detailed by my colleague Zach Cronin, the 6-foot-11 dynamo shot an outstanding 71.2% around the rim. His three-point stroke, on the other hand, left much to be desired. Clax connected on just 28.1% of his looks from deep. This clearly needs to improve in order to succeed in Kenny’s offense, which generally ranks within the top-5 in three-point frequency.
Of course, Claxton, being the self-aware kid that he is, immediately touched upon his need to improve as an outside presence.
“(The) biggest thing especially I’ve been working on recently, now that I’m kind of settled down here in Brooklyn, is continuing to get stronger, which will come out with time. And mechanics for my shot which, you know, that’s something I know I need to continue to work on.”
In all honesty, his mechanics are anything but the problem, and I’d even go as far in saying that they whole-heartedly pass the eye test. With smooth shot generation, a high release-point, and impeccable balance, it’s only a matter of time before he’s shooting well above league-average from 3.
Alas, like many good conversations, our discussion diverged beyond basketball. Nic told me he’d been in the Brooklyn area for a month and, with a big smile, said “(I’ve) found a place. It’s really nice. I’m excited.”
I told him I was happy for him. And trust me, I wasn’t kidding. Finding a place in the city is a nightmare out of a Wes Craven movie. I wouldn’t wish apartment hunting in New York on my worst enemy.
Of course, after spending most of his summer training in South Carolina, living in Brooklyn is Nic’s first “big city experience.” When I asked for his major takeaways, he instantly responded…
“New York is extremely fast-paced. Everybody seems like they’re in a rush.. in a hurry.”
As a Californian at heart with the velocity of a sloth, I laughed and told Nic it doesn’t get any better. Grinning, Claxton confidently retorted “I can adjust. I’m adjusting to it well.”
Outside of preparing for the season, Nic mentioned he’d “been to Manhattan a few times to go shopping. I like fashion. I’ve been trying to get some drip.” And no, he has yet to tag along with his vet — the fashion god — DeAndre Jordan. That’ll happen soon, he says, don’t you worry.
On the way out, I had to ask him about his popular Twitter moniker, ‘The Project That Can Play.’ He’s heard the name and he’s a big fan. It’s not the only pseudonym he fancies.
“They used to call me Slim Reaper back when I was at Georgia. And I… like that because I’ve got a slim frame…
… but I’m ferocious.”