Nic Claxton followed up one double-double with a second for the first time in his career, and his superstar teammates immediately started pushing for another.
And another. And another.
The Nets are not about to let Claxton slow up after his fast start, which included 13 points and 10 rebounds in a loss to the Pelicans and 19 points and 11 rebounds in a win against the Raptors. More than ever is expected out of Claxton, 23, after the Nets parted ways with three rotational frontcourt veterans during the offseason.
“I’m happy he played well, we want him to keep it up, but now as a young player in the league he has to show consistency,” Kyrie Irving said after beating the Raptors. “And we have to be right there with him.”
The Nets’ first road trip of the season presents two of the best rebounding opponents in the league — the Grizzlies on Monday and the Bucks on Wednesday — and a test for any center.
“I’m not here to say, ‘OK, Nic, now you got to add a step-back [jump shot] to your game,’ ” coach Steve Nash said. “I’m more like, ‘Nic, captain us with [defensive] coverages.’ Talking about making sure you know what coverage we’re in, making sure you’re low man when you need to be making sure you’re protecting the rim.”
“I really want to be the anchor of the defense,” Claxton said, “and be one of the best defenders in the league night-in and night-out.”
Claxton was the Nets’ highest-rated defender after the All-Star break last season, and had the third-highest net rating to Kevin Durant and Irving.
“My first year in the league I was playing and not thinking so much,” Claxton said. “I’m just trying to get back to young Clax.”
Claxton’s defensive rebound, full-court dribble and Euro step for a layup late in the third quarter last game wasn’t just a viral highlight. The effort was part of the impetus for Irving to raise the bar when he pulled aside Claxton and said, “We’ve got to hold you accountable to that standard” on both ends of the floor.
“When he adds points like that and he’s pushing in transition and doing little things like that,” Irving said, “and he’s just bringing that strength to the team to be able take pressure off of us and go score, it gives us a lot of comfortable space.”
Durant set up Claxton for a finger-roll in transition. Nearly half of Claxton’s field goals last season (88 of 178) were dunks. These are new tools. Or are they?
“He had all of that stuff when he got here,” said Durant, Claxton’s four-year teammate. “It’s just being more confident and using it. Coach trusts him, his teammates trust him, so he can go out there and do his thing. Sometimes you don’t want to showcase all your skills early on because you don’t know how they fit towards the team. He’s comfortable now, and we need him to be more and more aggressive.”
In the next breath, Durant challenged Claxton to shoot better than 3 of 8 at the free-throw line.
“I want to go to the free-throw line 10 plus times a game,” Claxton said. “I embrace the challenge. I have no fear. I want to try to finish every time I get an opportunity. That’s just who I am as a player.”
The feeling around the Nets is that it took Claxton — a former ball-handling guard — a few years to grow into his 6-foot-11 body after a late growth spurt. His development was stalled by injuries earlier in his career before a potentially game-changing offseason.
“He stuck to it and he took a level as a professional,” Nash said. “And so you’re seeing that now he’s stronger, fitter. He knows his athleticism and activity can be a factor, as well.”
For Nash, however, it still comes back to seeing Claxton as a versatile defender.
“It’s not always points and rebounds,” Nash said. “I tried to tell him, getting the first switch down, the first low-man and the first ice — whatever the coverage is — that’s like a bucket, a block and a free throw. Him captaining the team in that way on the defensive end will add to his impact on the game.”
This story originally appeared on NYPost