Nic Claxton wasn’t the only one excited about his return to action in Tuesday’s win over Sacramento.
The Brooklyn bench rose in anticipation as Kyrie Irving lofted a lob in Claxton’s direction less than a minute after he entered his first game of the season, on board for Claxton’s first points of the year to be highlight-reel material. It didn’t quite connect — Claxton drew a foul on the play and went to the line to make a pair of free throws — but the second-year big man felt the love.
“I just got to be ready,” said Claxton. “That was a tough play. I just — you know, when you're on the court, you're making a lot of split decisions, so I got to be ready. That should've been a dunk. But next time, when that time comes around, I'm definitely dunk it and get an and-1. And just having the team behind me, that means a lot. Especially for somebody coming back from injuries like me.”
As the Nets won their eighth straight game on Thursday night, beating Orlando 129-92, Claxton had 10 points, four steals, three rebounds, and two blocks in 15 minutes, making 4-of-7 shots. In the middle of it all, Claxton got that big finish, throwing down with two hands in a crowd off a pick-and-roll feed from James Harden.
“Nic’s energy was outstanding,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “Hasn’t played for about a year, so to play these last two games and for him to be as disruptive as he was tonight, think he had four steals and two blocks, assists, he rebounds. He’s somebody that we believe in and think he’s got a lot of upside, continue to grow and just take it step-by-step with him but I was impressed and really happy that he had success out there tonight.”
The Sacramento game on Tuesday was Claxton’s first NBA game in nearly a year, after he played in 15 games for Brooklyn as a rookie. He spent most of February of 2020 with the Long Island Nets in the G League, making a single appearance that month for Brooklyn on Feb. 28. His last competitive game was with Long Island on March 8 before both the NBA and G League seasons were suspended. While the G League did not resume its 2019-20 season, the NBA returned to action over the summer, but shoulder surgery took Claxton out of the action on the NBA Campus.
Then, on the eve of training camp, Claxton was sidelined due to tendinopathy in his right knee after experiencing discomfort during workouts. Looking back to early December, Claxton realizes his shoulder wasn’t quite “where it needed to be.” The time away with the knee issues allowed him time to strengthen both areas before he returned.
“The toughest part was the mental part,” said Claxton. “It has been a challenge. But I've had everybody here supporting me and here with me every step of the way. And as far as what Steve has told me, go out there and play; don't put a whole bunch of pressure on myself just go out there and play. And you know, bring energy and intangibles, and continue to — like he said, I haven't played a whole lot of basketball in the past year — so just going out there and getting my feel and everything will come together.”
Claxton has returned to a team that looks very different than the one he joined in 2019. The four-for-one trade that brought back James Harden reshaped the roster. Kevin Durant, after missing the 2019-20 season, has made his debut. But even without having played in a game with him, Durant has made a major impression on Claxton.
“As soon as he steps foot in the gym, he's always laser sharp and me just being around him, working with him, defending him, it really just gives me a mental edge when I'm going out there and defending other guys because I feel like he's the best in the world, so if I can do a halfway decent job defending him then I can guard anybody, so that's huge,” said Claxton. “Being able to work out with him and him allowing me to do that, I'm extremely thankful for that and I look forward to continuing to do that and staying healthy so I can learn as much as I can from these guys and continue to get better.”
The changes also open up opportunity for Claxton. The combination of DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen at center was a roadblock to minutes for the young big man, but Allen departed in the Harden trade, as did forwards Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs. With 6-foot-8 veteran forward Jeff Green sharing the center minutes with Jordan, there could be room for the 6-foot-11 Claxton to give the Nets frontcourt depth and contributions. He gives the Nets another explosive rim-roller, and has the athleticism to defend out to the perimeter, whether it’s a stretch big or switching on to a wing.
“He's great; sets screens, rolls to the basket, obviously it's his first time out there all season long,” said Harden after Tuesday’s game. “It felt good, I'm happy for him to actually be on the court. As I've been here he's been training and trying to get in shape and get healthy and get his body right. So it felt good I'm sure for him to be on the court and actually showing the work that he's been putting in. As the games continue to go on he'll get confidence and he'll continue to be better.”
“Everything's coming around full circle,” said Claxton. “I had a lot of setbacks, disappointments, over the past year, my surgery, my knee, and just being out there getting a feel for everything, talking to the coaches, to the players, being involved with everything again. It's been a long journey. But I'm happy to be at this point where I'm at now. And I’ve got to continue to build. I got a long way to go for just being more comfortable out there. So I'm excited to continue the journey.”