PORTLAND, Ore. — For Nic Claxton, part of his development is about confidence, realizing how good he could be.
As the Nets’ promising young center has worked on his body this season, that confidence is finally starting to come. And aggression is coming with it.
Claxton came into Monday’s game riding the best extended stretch of his NBA career. The 22-year-old big man is not just protecting the rim and playing his usual switchable defense, but finding ways to play off of superstars James Harden and Kevin Durant at the other end of the court, as well.
“Just me being more aggressive. Just me being a lot stronger than I was last year. Just trusting in my body,” said Claxton, coming off 16 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in Sunday’s overtime win over the Spurs. “On the offensive end, just knowing how to play off those guys and knowing how they want to guard James or KD and just getting money off of that.”
In the Nets’ past 11 games coming into Monday, Claxton played 10. He averaged 13.6 points on 70.6 percent shooting, with 6.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and a steal per game.
“He’s definitely improving,” coach Steve Nash said. “He seems like he has more endurance. Play longer stretches. He’s stronger, more physical. He’s better around the basket at both ends. He’s better at facilitating the offense with his running into actions. And his free-throw mechanics are even improving and he’s making more free throws and looks good. Lot of growth from Nic, and really proud of him.”
After shooting 50.4 percent from the foul line over his first two seasons, Claxton entered Monday shooting 61.5 percent from the line. He’s believed to have benefitted from working with assistant Kyle Korver, and it’s not just about free throws.
Coaches frequently talk about the most valuable ability being availability, and that’s always been something that held back Claxton’s development.
Claxton had his rookie campaign cut short by season-ending shoulder surgery. Last season he hurt his right knee, saw his form dip upon the arrival of LaMarcus Aldridge and even got COVID-19.
Claxton appeared on the verge of a breakthrough this season, earning the starting job in training camp. In the starting lineup for the first three games (and rotation for four), he had another setback when he suffered a non-COVID ailment. The already-thin center — who had struggled with both conditioning and packing on muscle — lost both, dropping 20 pounds from his 215-pound frame that he could ill afford to lose.
After missing 17 straight games, Claxton returned Dec. 7, and went into the lineup a week later. After regaining the weight and conditioning, Claxton has averaged 27.5 minutes in this recent surge and proved himself capable of handling full-time responsibility.
“Well, there’s stuff that we expect out of him. We want him to be available to play and he’s been here for us,” Durant said. “He had a tough stretch early on and being down for a month or so. To see him get his stamina back up and play with that energy for 30 minutes and get a double-double, the last month or so he’s been playing great ball.”
Harden has favorably compared Claxton to former Houston teammate Clint Capela. The former MVP has developed a great rapport with Claxton and unlocked his potential as a lob threat — verticality that provides another way to space the floor with Joe Harris out, Patty Mills slumping and Kyrie Irving only playing on the road.
“[Our connection] is pretty natural,” Claxton said. “I make the game easier for him, he makes the game easier for me. And we’ve definitely grown that relationship on and off the court now to where it’s pretty natural.
“We can just go out there and hoop, and I know how he wants the screen set, I know where he wants me to be for the most part and I think it’s only going to get better from here.”