There is a case to be made that starting Nets center Nic Claxton has a horse in two different end-of-the-season NBA awards races.
Claxton’s impact on the defensive end has him positioned as a dark horse candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He ranks second in blocks per game (2.7) behind Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. (3.3), but Jackson has only played in 29 games.
Entering Sunday’s matchup against the Golden State Warriors, Claxton — who had been oft-injured in his first three seasons in Brooklyn — has played in all but three of his team’s 45 games.
And entering the Warriors game, Claxton has recorded three or more blocks in his last 11 games. In Brooklyn’s win over the Utah Jazz — a victory that snapped a four-game losing streak — Claxton went up for a block with his left hand, and when Jazz guard Collin Sexton switched hands in mid-air, so did Claxton, who proceeded to reject him with the right.
It was a play superstar forward Kevin Durant pointed out on Twitter, saying “Still can’t believe he got this block. Three three (Claxton wears the No. 33) been locked in.”
Claxton’s defensive impact supports an offensive arsenal that has grown year over year.
Claxton leads the NBA in field goal percentage among all players to attempt an average of at least five shots per game. Once specifically known as purely a dunker, Claxton’s off-season work has paid dividends. He has scored 20 points in back to back games and has scored in double figures in four of the five games the Nets have played with Kevin Durant sidelined with a sprained MCL.
This season, he has taken the ball coast-to-coast to score off of a rebound, has finished euro-step layups around defenders and even hit a turnaround fadeaway jump shot on a broken possession in Brooklyn’s win over the Jazz.
Which makes him a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year, as well, positioning Claxton for a hefty pay day in the near future.
Just months after signing a two-year deal worth $20 million, he is providing excellent value on a team-friendly deal.
Claxton’s game isn’t perfect, but the progress is notable. Three-point shooting still remains a work in progress. As do the free throws. After breaking Shaquille O’Neale’s long-standing record of 10 straight missed free throws before a make in a game, Claxton’s free throw efficiency has regressed from a mark of 58% last season to just 47% this year.
His rebounding has improved, as has his ability to handle physical centers, like when outplayed known bruiser Jonas Valanciunas in Brooklyn’s Jan. 6 win against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Claxton is now on the radar. On a team with three players on max contracts, Claxton is the third-most impactful on the roster behind Durant and Kyrie Irving. He is in the race for both Defensive Player and Most Improved Player of the Year.
It’s only a matter of how high he finishes — and how his competition in each award category fares this season.