PHOENIX — Nets general manager Sean Marks has demonstrated a knack for discovering raw talent in the depths of the NBA draft, and if first impressions mean anything, he might have done it again with rookie Nic Claxton, who was the first pick of the second round in June.
The 6-11 Claxton put his athleticism on display during his NBA debut in the Nets’ victory Friday in Portland, scoring eight points and grabbing six rebounds in 12 minutes and then getting raucous cheers from his teammates in the locker room after the game.
Beaming from ear to ear as teammates teased him about his first postgame interview with the media, Claxton said, “It felt great, man. I love my teammates. They’ve been here for me. I just wanted to stay ready and today my name was called.”
Claxton substituted for backup center DeAndre Jordan, who was nursing a sprained left ankle. Jordan was listed as probable for the Nets’ game against the Suns on Sunday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena, but Claxton was so effective in his debut that coach Kenny Atkinson might be tempted to find some minutes for him in the rotation.
Atkinson was especially impressed by Claxton’s grasp of the Nets’ defensive coverages. “One time in the first half, we were switching everything, and he handled that fantastically,” Atkinson said. “That was part of the reason that we drafted him that he was versatile and could guard five positions. He proved that. Then, the rebounding. I think he just has a knack, and his 7-3 wingspan doesn’t hurt. And then his rim protection is pretty good without fouling. It’s all that and playing smart.”
At 215 pounds, the “Slim Reaper,” as Claxton was known in college at Georgia, figures to get pushed around until he gains strength. But he compensates with the athleticism he developed growing up as a point guard until a late growth spurt in high school caused him to move to center and power forward. Against the Blazers, there were moments Claxton was matched against guard Damian Lillard in the midst of the Portland star's 60-point performance, and the nimble rookie looked comfortable ranging out to the three-point arc to defend.
“When I first got in, especially the first couple of minutes, it was extremely fast,” Claxton said, “but it slowed down and I just had to calm down and stick to my principles and settle down and the outcome was good.”
When he came to the sideline after a seven-minute stint in the first half, 11-year veteran Jordan pulled him aside for an animated conversation. “He was big on just making sure I was talking out there, talking to the guards, trying to be that quarterback of the defense. I tried to do that to the best of my ability.
“One time I pushed somebody [Kent Bazemore] down to the ground. It was me being physical out there, and it was just like, ‘I’m here.’ That was good for me.”
Kyrie Irving was tickled how the “wide-eyed rookie” came to the bench and spoke about how fast the game seemed. “I told him I was going to remember this for the rest of my life when I’m retired and Nic is probably in his eighth year and he’s an incredible player in our league,” Irving said.
Spencer Dinwiddie went even farther, describing Claxton as the second-best athlete on the team behind injured All-Pro Kevin Durant. Last season, Dinwiddie described starting center Jarrett Allen as the team’s most talented player.
“So, I still believe JA is going to be an All-Star, but Nic is the second-most talented player on this team,” Dinwiddie said with a smile. “[First is Durant] because he’s the first or second-best scorer of all-time. But Nic got game, man.”