Nic Claxton is setting the tone for the Brooklyn Nets

Nic Claxton has made himself indispensable to the Brooklyn Nets, as a dynamic defensive anchor whose energy and awareness lift up his teammates.

A week following the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round sweep to the Boston Celtics, Tim Martin felt his iPhone buzz with a call from Nets center Nic Claxton. Martin, a basketball skills trainer based in Dallas, curiously picked up.

“Usually from players, you get text messages but, when you actually get a call, that’s a whole different thing,” Martin told me. “So he called me and said, ‘Man, I need to lock in this summer.’”

Lock in is what Claxton did. Days after the Nets were eliminated from the playoffs, Claxton flew himself and a personal chef to Dallas, where he rented an Airbnb and began a fierce summer of work that laid the foundation for his current Defensive Player of the Year campaign. After years of rehabbing from injuries and being buried in the rotation behind past-their-prime veterans, Claxton is now Brooklyn’s tone-setter on defense and one of the most important players for a star-studded championship contender.

Martin and Claxton go way back, first meeting when Claxton was a gangly high-schooler in Greenville, South Carolina around the time of Claxton’s growth spurt, when he grew five inches — from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-7 — between ninth and 10th grade. Even back then, Claxton had a defensive mindset that he says came from his dad. Charles Claxton, a burly 7-footer who played ball at the University of Georgia and had a brief stint in the NBA, instilled into Nic the importance of defense at an early age. This pride in protecting the rim followed Claxton to Georgia and then to the Nets, when he was selected with the first pick in the second round in 2019.

But a turbulent start to Claxton’s NBA career stunted his development. Shoulder surgery, knee tendinopathy and the pandemic limited Claxton’s availability and offseason work in his first three seasons. The Nets, in win-now mode after acquiring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2019, brought in veterans like DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin that were listed ahead of him on the depth chart.

Last summer was the first time in which Claxton could get a full offseason of work uninhibited by injuries or pandemic-related constraints, and he knew he needed to make the most of it.

“You’re around KD and Kyrie and some of these Hall of Famers so much, you see how they work in the offseason,” Martin said of Claxton. “I think that was something that he really took upon himself to get done.”

Nov 28, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Nic Claxton (33) reacts after dunking against the Orlando Magic during the fourth quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At 8 a.m. every Monday through Saturday, Claxton met Martin at the SMU campus for skill work: Positioning on offense, passing out of the pick-and-roll and developing his touch around the basket. Claxton then met with Nets assistant coach Ryan Forehan-Kelly, who came down to Dallas for the summer, to lift and stretch until 2 in the afternoon. Then it was back to the gym with Martin to work on free throws. Under strict instruction to put on weight, Claxton ate four meals a day heavy on carbohydrates and protein.

In July, the Nets and Claxton officially agreed to a new two-year, $20 million contract. As the Nets revamped the roster around Durant, Irving and Ben Simmons following a winless postseason, they let Aldridge and Griffin leave in free agency and elevated Claxton to starting center in training camp.

“We just keep thinking there’s gonna be a non-COVID year, there’s gonna be a year where he’s not injured going into Summer League, there’s gonna be a year where he’s gonna have the maturing that most guys deserve in the preparation into a season and that was gonna bode some good dividends for us,” Jacque Vaughn said before Sunday’s game in Miami. “And that’s happened. He had a full offseason, he was able to train and condition and be around the game without limiting parameters and now he’s playing his tail off.”

Halfway through the season, Claxton is leading the league in shooting percentage (73.8 percent) and blocks (2.6 per game). His averages of 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists are all career highs. In the first returns of All-Star voting last week, Claxton garnered the ninth-most votes among frontcourt players in the Eastern Conference.

“Yeah, I wasn’t expecting it but I was excited,” Claxton told me. “And it shows me I have a lot more work to do to get higher up on that list.”

The Nets have the NBA’s best record since Dec. 1 and, after ranking in the bottom 10 in defensive rating at the start of the season, are up to ninth, with Claxton starting in all 37 of his appearances.

“I think that’s what we’ve been doing this past month or so: Just setting the tone defensively,” Claxton said. “The offense will take care of itself.”

Claxton is as important as anyone for Brooklyn’s defensive turnaround.

Nov 28, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner (22) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets forward Nic Claxton (33) during the fourth quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It helps that Simmons is healthy and beginning to resemble the All-Defensive player he was earlier in his career in Philadelphia and that Durant — now expected to miss at least a month after suffering an MCL sprain in Sunday’s win over the Heat — had been playing with renewed verve on that end. Vaughn, since taking over at the beginning of November, has simplified defensive principles and asked his players to give more effort. But it starts with Claxton in the middle. Because of Claxton’s length and agility, the Nets are able to switch everything in a way they couldn’t with their older, more plodding centers in the past.

Nic Claxton anchors the Nets defense with his intensity and versatility

Claxton can comfortably switch onto guards, freeing up his teammates to handle their own assignments. Last week, Claxton recorded five blocks against the New Orleans Pelicans, including one in which he got switched onto CJ McCollum, danced with him on the perimeter and swatted McCollum’s fadeaway.

“It’s good for us, honestly, when a team wants to go iso [against me] because it gets them out of their rhythm,” Claxton said. “Other guys are just standing and watching and they’re just going at me, so even if a guy makes a tough shot or two, if they want to do that the whole entire game then we like our chances — and I love our chances.”

Sequences like this one in Miami help show Claxton’s overall impact.

Even though Claxton isn’t directly involved in the play, his ability to pick up Jimmy Butler early in the shot clock takes the Heat’s best player out of the possession and allows the Nets to play 4 on 4. The Heat try to post Bam Adebayo against Irving, but Simmons kicks him out and Irving fills the passing lane to Kyle Lowry under the basket. Durant and Simmons switch the Adebayo-Tyler Herro two-man game and Herro gives the ball up to Haywood Highsmith in the final second of the shot clock. Highsmith bails out the offense by miraculously banking in a 3-pointer, but that’s still a hugely impressive defensive possession for the Nets, made possible because of the switch-everything defense Claxton allows them to employ.

Claxton isn’t shy about discussing his confidence on defense. He recently inserted his name into the Defensive Player of the Year race and the numbers and eye test back it up. According to Dunks and Threes, Claxton ranks third in Estimated Defensive Plus-Minus (a metric that factors in several advanced defensive statistics), behind only fellow DPOY contenders Jaren Jackson Jr. and OG Anunoby.

The case can be made for Claxton, who blocks shots at a higher rate (7.9 percent of contests) than any other candidate besides Jackson (10.9 percent) but has been more available and less foul-prone. Claxton leads the league in total switches (406) and, among players with at least 100, he leads all with 19.1 switches per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum.

When asked about claiming to be the Defensive Player of the Year, Claxton explained his reasoning.

“Just activity. Cleansing out mistakes out there for everybody, guarding multiple positions, altering shots, blocking shots,” Claxton said. “There’s not many guys — if anybody — in the league that’s doing it at the rate that I’m doing that. And a lot of guys that are getting blocks, they are sitting around the rim the whole game. So I think that’s what differentiates me from most of everybody else.”

On offense, Claxton has made himself indispensable by learning to play off Durant and Irving and making himself available for lobs and dump-off passes on the baseline. He’s attempting a career-high 74 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket and already has 93 dunks through 37 games, compared to 88 dunks in 47 games last season.

In Dallas over the summer, Martin taught Claxton to approach offense the way he approaches defense and to constantly scan the floor.

“You have to see both ball man at all times,” Martin explained. “A lot of players are programmed to where when they set the screen, they just rim-run, they’re not paying attention to the open gaps.

“Understanding how to find that open space to free himself up, and now he can take it off the glass or one dribble, quick hook-shot, little stuff like that.”

There’s little doubt that Claxton has done enough to secure the starting center job in Brooklyn, but that hasn’t stopped onlookers from wondering if the Nets still need to add size before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Claxton, listed at 6-foot-11 and 215 pounds, is giving up at least 65 pounds against the likes of Joel Embiid or Brook Lopez in a potential playoff series. Instead of worrying about the Nets bringing in another veteran big who could swipe minutes, Claxton has repurposed the chatter as motivation.

“I’ve taken that personal since day one,” Claxton said. “Everybody saying we need this, we need that. But that’s not my job, though. My job is to go out there and compete every single possession.

“Whoever we bring in, I’ll welcome them in with open arms,” he continued. “But the people that we have in the locker room, we’re ready for whoever in the playoffs right now.”

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