Nets’ Nic Claxton could be more versatile than he gets credit for

Nic Claxton may be a far more dangerous threat in the open court than he gets credit for. Twice now over the Nets’ last four games entering Tuesday’s matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, the 6-11 center has flashed astonishing playmaking potential off the bounce worthy of awe.

There are two sequences that come to mind. Late in the second quarter of Brooklyn’s 118-112 road defeat of the Detroit Pistons last week, Claxton denied Kevin Knox at the rim then decided to initiate the fast break himself, creating an advantage for his team with a pair of explosive breakout dribbles accompanied by long strides.

Seconds later, Claxton found Spencer Dinwiddie at halfcourt then sprinted straight to the rim — the best way to take advantage of the Pistons’ mediocre transition containment. Alec Burks and Ausar Thompson were the last line of defense for Detroit and Claxton had a considerable height advantage over both.

Dinwiddie recognized the mismatch and threw the lob, on time and on target. Claxton finished with an emphatic two-handed slam which.

That was undoubtedly Claxton’s best sequence of the season until Sunday’s 124-108 loss in Oklahoma City. While the game got away from the Nets late, Claxton finished with 15 points, a season-high 16 rebounds and another jaw-dropping sequence.

Josh Giddey drove to the rim about halfway through the fourth quarter and Claxton’s presence in the paint was just enough to force a miss. After securing the defensive rebound, Claxton did not consider throwing an outlet pass to Cam Thomas or Cam Johnson, who were running the lanes nearby. The center once again decided to take matters into his own hands.

In a cost-to-coast effort, Claxton crossed up a tough wing defender in Lou Dort, administered the same fate to rookie Cason Wallace, then finished with a soft floater over another rookie in Chet Holmgren, who is already viewed as one of the better shot-blockers in the NBA.

“The coaching staff has trusted me to push the ball when I get rebounds and it’s just me getting more confident,” Claxton told reporters in Oklahoma City. “I think I need to use that, get downhill more, get into the paint to either score or find my teammates.”

Claxton has averaged 11.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting 61.8% from the field across his first 23 appearances this season. Those averages aside, he is starting to add more versatile plays like this to his personal highlight reel, which will only continue to bolster his market value.

The 24-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and is projected to earn at least $21 million a year when he does eventually land a new deal.

While most teams around the league want to simplify the game as much as possible for their centers — mainly because most interior players lack the playmaking skills to impact the game in that way — there are players like Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis and obviously Denver’s Nikola Jokic who have the court vision, handles and passing ability necessary to run the offense through them.

That is not to say Claxton is in the same tier of a Sabonis or Jokic offensively, but he is starting to scratch the surface of becoming something more at that end of the court. The Nets are giving Claxton the freedom to explore new areas of his game and those skills should continue to be cultivated, whether he remains in Brooklyn long term or not.

Versatility is at a premium in the NBA, and even rarer at the center position. If Claxton can add this element to his game, perhaps there will be an All-Star nod somewhere in his future, at some point. In the more immediate future, the least it will do is drive up his price tag entering what should be a very lucrative summer for him.

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