Jarrett Allen appears to have the Nets’ center position locked down for the foreseeable future. DeAndre Jordan is a more-than-capable backup.
And yet, the Nets felt compelled to select a center this past June in the NBA Draft.
Nicolas Claxton entered the NBA Draft process with a good amount of fanfare. He shot up draft boards and was regularly cited as a late first-round pick. Some players are ready to contribute immediately, including those taken in the second round (e.g., 2016 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon). Others are bit rawer and need to develop outside of the spotlight. Only one part of the equation is applicable to Claxton’s situation.
Brooklyn is a borough of New York City – the NBA’s biggest media market – and home to 2.4 million residents, only about 100 thousand less than Chicago (according to the 2010 U.S. Census). Further, the team itself is considered a major draw since the arrival of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. They received the 13th most nationally televised games this season, but we can expect that to jump considerably next year when Durant returns from an Achilles injury. So why then did they select Claxton?
Before we answer that, it should be mentioned that it almost didn’t happen. The Nets’ 2019 NBA Draft strategy was fairly straight forward – no new salary. They traded the 27th overall pick in exchange for a future first-rounder, and there was a good deal of chatter about the team shopping the 31st overall pick, too. But second-round picks are viewed differently by management, given that they don’t carry a guaranteed number. So when the Nets learned that a first-round talent was still available at No. 31, they picked Claxton with the intention of signing him after they made their free agency moves.
Now, on to the why – Claxton entered the NBA from the University of Georgia, where he played two seasons under head coach Tom Crean. His freshman season was underwhelming for a future NBA player, but he shined in his sophomore campaign. While he wasn’t consistent enough to be viewed as a first option, he demonstrated offensive versatility and the ability to guard all positions on the floor defensively. And his stat line was pretty impressive, too – 13 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.
While rumors persisted about Claxton being seriously considered by a number of teams selecting late in the first round, it was assumed he would be gone before the Nets selected. But Claxton landed in a nearly perfect situation for someone as raw and gifted as is he.
“Yeah, I’m definitely right where I’m supposed to be,” Claxton recently told Basketball Insiders. “God does everything for a reason. I thought I was going to go a little earlier, but that’s not what was meant to be.”
Coming into the league as a rookie and playing for a team with high expectations can be challenging. Claxton himself conceded that he’s found it hard to acclimate.
“It’s definitely a challenge to stay ready every day,” Claxton told Basketball Insiders. “But that’s my job now. I just try to keep learning and building the best I can.”
While acclimating to the demands of the job is one thing, there are a number of benefits to playing for the Nets. Most notably, Claxton can continue learning the game without the expectations associated with a spot in the rotation. After all, most fan bases don’t grade rookies on a curve, and they want everyone on the floor to perform.
But given the team’s depth at the center position, there is no need for Claxton to play a major role until he’s ready. After all, the Nets starting center is Jarrett Allen, who finished tied for ninth overall in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, and their backup center is a former All-Star, First Team All-NBA member and two-time All-Defensive First Teamer in DeAndre Jordan.
Some might see the crowded front court as a hindrance, but Claxton sees the opportunity to learn from two great centers – and he understands exactly how valuable that can be.
“I give him off-the-court advice about how to live as an NBA player. And I obviously advise him on our defensive and offensive schemes,” Allen said. “And DeAndre works with him, too, of course. I had my vets to lean on when I came in the league, and now Nic has his.”
With two incredible resources from whom Claxton can learn, Claxton can focus on ramping up without the regular, day-to-day pressures that most players face.
“I’m happy to be here to learn from guys like J (Jarrett Allen) and DJ (DeAndre Jordan),” Claxton told Basketball Insiders. “Really, it’s mental now. So I’m trying to learn the game more and learn how we play here and learn how the NBA is.”
Expectations are hard to set for rookies, especially when their position is well-staffed. That being said, Claxton’s averages aren’t going to “wow” anyone just yet – he’s posting 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in 12.5. minutes per game.
And though his numbers aren’t great, it’s probably harder to deal with the inconsistent minutes. Claxton has appeared in only 8 of the team’s 17 games so far. But he does appear to be settling into a role, albeit a small one – Claxton’s played at least 11 minutes in 7 of the team’s last 10 games. Plus, his per-36 numbers paint a rosier picture of what Nets fans can look forward to (9.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks), which is essentially a near double-double machine with an above-average motor who can defend guards in the screen-and-roll all the way out to the three-point line.
With the Nets attempting to acclimate to roster changes and rectify early struggles (which they’ve been doing of late), there are clearly too few minutes for Claxton to learn the ropes in in-game situations. But an alternative exists – the G League.
The Nets’ G League affiliate, the Long Island Nets, play at the Nassau Coliseum, which is approximately 30 miles from the Barclays Center. Yes, it’s of paramount importance that Claxton continues learning from Allen and Jordan in practices, but it’s probably equally important that he continues developing in real game action. Claxton could be assigned to the Long Island Nets for select home games while maintaining a consistent presence with the NBA team. And since he has less than three years of NBA experience, he can be assigned and recalled an unlimited number of times.
For what it’s worth, Claxton is open to the idea.
“Wherever I am, I’m just going to hoop. G League, NBA, it don’t matter,” Claxton told Basketball Insiders. “Me going to the G League is definitely going to be good because I’ll be able to get reps up – I got reps up here the other day – either place, I just want to hoop.”
It sounds as if Claxton and Nets management are on the same page as far as their approach. What’s more – Claxton has been seen as a hard worker well before relocating to Brooklyn, which will spur development and lead to a greater role in the future. In the lead-up to the NBA Draft, Crean said that Claxton understands “the work and time it takes to get better.” And Claxton continues to stay vigilant, working on a multitude of areas of his game, but he’s especially focused on one.
“I know I need to continue to improve my jump shot,” Claxton told Basketball Insiders of specific areas of his game he’d like to improve. “Right now I’m just trying to get reps up, and that’s something that I was focused on over the summer, too.”
Claxton’s lack of playing time this season makes it difficult to gauge any progress. He shot 36.4 percent on fewer than one three-point attempt per game in his freshman season, which then dropped to 28.1 percent on two attempts per game in his sophomore year. It’s harder, still, to assess his shooting in the NBA, as Claxton has missed all five three-pointers he’s attempted across eight games, while knocking down on his only shot attempt from 10-16 feet. Still, there is great optimism about Claxton and his skillset.
“I think that the Chris Bosh comparison is spot on,” Allen said about his rookie teammate.
Of course, to live up to a Chris Bosh comparison, a player must possess a reliable and lethal jump shot from mid-range and beyond. That part is still under construction. But Claxton is only 20 years old and has plenty of time to develop that.
However, the comparison speaks volumes. As an NBA starter and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Allen definitely gets everyone’s best efforts, so he knows All-Star talent when he sees it. And having competed against Claxton since the beginning of training camp in September, he sees far more of Claxton’s game than nearly anyone, so the simple fact that it was made by such a reliable source should get the attention of all 2.4 million residents in Brooklyn.
And if he pans out how Allen and the Nets anticipate, Claxton should familiarize himself with the demands of stardom, even if it’s not entirely relevant just yet.