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Nic Claxton's breakout performance Thursday for the Nets starting to become the normal expectation for him

Brooklyn Nets forward Nicolas Claxton dunks against the

Brooklyn Nets forward Nicolas Claxton dunks against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half of a preseason game at Barclays Center on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Every now and then, 22-year-old Nic Claxton shows flashes that suggest he might develop into a versatile two-way center. Thursday night at Barclays Center was one of those nights when Claxton took advantage of a rare starting opportunity and played a critical role in the Nets’ 107-101 victory over the Timberwolves in their final preseason game.

Claxton grabbed three offensive rebounds in the first four possessions and went on from there to score 11 points, shooting 5-for-7, total seven rebounds, block one shot and post a plus-26 rating that was second only to the plus-27 recorded by Joe Harris. It was an eye-opening performance by the 6-11 center entering his third NBA season.

"Yeah, I’ve said before Nic gives us a unique profile – long, agile, athletic defender and a rim-roller," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "We saw the energy. He was a little more active, a little more impact he has on the game.

"As his conditioning improves, so can his role on this team. It was great to see him respond to the opportunity of the minutes and keep pushing and put himself in a position to…keep taking steps toward a larger role."

Claxton started because Nash rested Blake Griffin, who finished last season as the starting center. After spending much of his summer working with point guard James Harden, Claxton displayed the chemistry they have developed in the pick-and-roll. Last season, Claxton shot 62.1% from the field, so he is a major threat at the rim.

"Me running in the screens, just being active, it creates a lot of opportunities for our shooters, and that’s what I really want to focus on this year," Claxton said. "Especially on the offensive end, James just makes the game easier for everybody with the way he sees the game."

Claxton was coming back from a recent non-COVID illness, but he used the offseason to build up his strength and conditioning in an effort to expand his role from the 18.6 minutes per game he played last season. Still, Claxton’s biggest impact will be made on defense because of his ability to switch out and defend perimeter shooters with his quickness and wingspan.

"Yeah, we are going to need him to play with that energy," Kevin Durant said.

Noting that LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap are traditional back-to-the-basket big men, Durant added, "Then, we’ve got somebody who can fly down the lane, catch lobs, be athletic. We need that from him, especially playing with James, who is looking to make those passes.

"He was phenomenal getting to the rim, guarding guys on the perimeter, blocking shots at the rim. We’re going to need that from him every night, and we expect that out of him."

Durant’s words of expectation sounded like music to Claxton’s ears.

"I see a big opportunity, and I’m definitely ready," Claxton said. "I feel a lot stronger out there, especially on the defensive end just being able to hold my ground…I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with being able to guard guards. I take a lot of pride in that and feel like I’m one of the best defenders in the league."

New York Sports