Nic Claxton said he’s used to being overlooked. It happened in high school, and in college, before Georgia realized what they had on their hands his second year there. And it’s happened in the NBA, where his injuries and the dazzle of other, more established players have mostly relegated him to an afterthought.
He’s come to terms with it — he calls it his "journey" — but that’s just because the journey isn’t even close to over yet. That was perfectly clear Wednesday, when he played a career-high 22:33 and proved to be a defensive menace for the Pacers. He scored 11 points with eight rebounds off the bench, and finished with a plus-24, second only to James Harden, who compiled a 40-point triple-double.
In other words, he can’t be overlooked anymore.
"He's just been giving us that energy, that young energy that we need off of the bench," Harden said. "Spreading the floor, blocking shots, rebounding the basketball and catching lobs. I think at any time a player — especially as young as he is — who just goes out there and plays his butt off, great things happen for him. And then obviously, [there’s] myself and the vets who are telling him places to be and defensively, where to be and things like that. But we can't teach him how to [show] effort, and he's been doing an unbelievable job of doing that."
Notably, as the Nets were fighting in a tight fourth quarter, Steve Nash chose to keep Claxton in the game, despite the fact that the team is being careful with his load management after he missed the majority of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Nash still preaches caution, but his actions indicate that the training wheels are slowly being lifted. If Claxton is going to one day get the all-clear, it will be under the extreme scrutiny of his coach and the Nets' performance team.
"He was gassed at times," Nash acknowledged. "Obviously, you could see his activity and length and the things that he can do to help our team but you have to be careful overplaying him. That’s why we took some of those timeouts, to give him and James and Joe [Harris] an extra breather. Nic’s doing great. We love the profile he brings to our team, long, mobile big who’s active and plays hard, and he was definitely a big factor."
And gassed or not, Claxton believes Wednesday was just a foreshadowing of things to come. He thinks he can play longer than he did, though Claxton did say progress would come "slowly but surely." But more minutes means more conditioning, and more conditioning means being a step closer to the goal.
"It’s great, psychologically being able to finish the game, a clutch game, the first time that I’ve finished in an actual NBA game," he said. "It feels good and hopefully, I can build on this and be able to do it again whenever my number is called. It definitely feels good to be out there, staying healthy, stringing games together. This is the first time in my NBA career that I’ve done this and I put in a lot, a lot, a lot of work to be in this position now. That’s what everybody doesn’t see. And it hasn’t been easy but I’m here and it's what I got to keep doing, keep going."
And what do you know — now, the perpetually overlooked player seems nearly impossible to miss.