Can Nicolas Claxton Become Brooklyn New Starting Center?

If you’re a Brooklyn Nets fan, there’s a lot to be on the lookout for heading into the new season. After all, the Brooklyn Nets have a chip on their shoulder after their disappointing defeat against Milwaukee. But‌ ‌the‌ biggest‌ ‌thing‌ ‌to‌ ‌pay‌ ‌close‌ ‌attention‌ ‌to‌ ‌is‌ ‌the growth‌ ‌and‌ ‌development‌ ‌of‌ ‌Nicolas Claxton.‌ ‌After all,‌ ‌Claxton‌ ‌could‌ ‌be‌ ‌a‌ ‌secret ‌x-factor‌ ‌for‌ ‌the‌ ‌Nets‌ ‌for‌ ‌their‌ ‌upcoming‌ ‌ championship‌ ‌run.‌

Who is Nicolas Claxton?

The Brooklyn Nets selected Claxton in the 2019 draft with the 31st pick. Coming out of Georgia, Claxton was a very intriguing prospect in the eyes of most NBA scouts. At 6’11, Claxton was not shy from taking on ball-handling duties. While also showing glimpses of being able to create his shot off the dribble. Although his offensive game was still raw, Claxton’s biggest strength was on the defensive end. The Georgia Bulldog showed elite perimeter defense thus making him the perfect prototype center in the modern-day NBA.

Claxton’s Big Leap

Claxton missed most of his rookie season recovering from injuries. Additionally, he was also sidelined for most of his sophomore year season rehabbing from his shoulder surgery. As the Brooklyn Nets have entered contender status with the return of Kevin Durant, I was skeptical about Claxton. I was not convinced that he was ready to see major playing time on this team given how little NBA experience he has.

Claxton proved me wrong as the 22-year-old quickly exceeded expectations and became a crucial part of the rotation. Claxton has shown tremendous growth on defense in his second year, becoming a borderline elite perimeter defender at 6’11. Statistically, Claxton ranked second in partial possession defending point guards (among players who stand 6’10” and taller and logged at least 300 mins). To put this into perspective, only DOPY candidate, Ben Simmons spent more time guarding point guards (during the 2020-2021 season) from the same group. Claxton also ranks 7th in time spent guarding shooting guards.

The Nets clearly value Claxton’s defense as his minutes slowly went up since his return. There were a handful of occasions throughout the season where the Nets opted into closing the game with him. In the small sample size, the Nets have the best defensive rating when Claxton is in the game and the 27th best when he is out of the game. In short, Claxton projects to be an elite defender in the modern NBA.  This begs the question, can Claxton be the new starting center for the Brooklyn Nets?

The Million dollar question: A New Starting 5 in Brooklyn?

My answer: Yes but most likely not *yet.” While yes, Claxton’s defense has been impressive and will be valuable to any team, Claxton’s offensive game is still very raw. As mentioned in my previous article, Claxton has shown very little on offense (as posed to his Georgia Bulldog days) and at most times, is a liability on the offensive side of the game.

The biggest reason why the 22-year-old wasn’t able to see any minutes in the postseason was due to his lack of skills on offense. Claxton lacks core strength and struggles to score in the post. In the playoffs, his effective field goal percentage was 44% which as an NBA center is alarmingly awful. In most possessions, Claxton’s overconfidence in his Hookshot resulted in many empty possessions. While Claxton can get to the line, he is also a below-average free throw shooter at 54%. At his very best, he is a decent lob threat when running the pick and roll with James Harden.  In short, Claxton’s offense leaves a lot to be desired for.

While yes, The Nets have enough offense in their Big 3, the Brooklyn Nets just can’t afford to give heavy minutes to a player who at times can be a black hole on offense. Especially, not when they have better offensive threats in Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge as their 5s.

But that’s not to say, Claxton starting is completely out of the question just yet. As mentioned in my last article, the Brooklyn Nets should remain flexible with the starting lineup on a night-to-night basis. Make no mistake, Claxton’s defense is extremely valuable. With a more refined Hookshot/better post moves,  Claxton is more than capable of being a starter on most nights. Another big thing to look out for is 36-year-old Paul Millsap. The expectation is that Millsap would get the chance to compete for the starting power-forward job in the training camp. While Millsap is still an all-around solid role player at this stage of his career, Millsap has been regressing slowly every season. Millsap is losing explosiveness due to old age and isn’t nearly as effective on offense as he once was.  A frontcourt consisting of Claxton and Millsap can raise certain concerns and can pose offensive problems.

Ultimately, Claxton exceeded my expectations and I have no doubt he will continue to get better as he enters his third year. His defense has been very impressive and his overall development would be crucial as the Nets are looking to make a run for the 2021-2022 NBA championship.

 

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