Nic Claxton is coming off the best season of his young career. But the Nets need next season to be better. Much better.
No matter how much it costs them.
Brooklyn’s young center has spent much of the summer in the gym, honing his game. And not just fine-tuning it, but expanding it.
A second-round draft pick in 2019, Claxton arrived in Brooklyn along with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. When those stars were around — along with James Harden for parts of two seasons — the Nets didn’t need much offense from Claxton other than rim-running and being a lob threat. But it was clear he was capable of more.
It didn’t take long for Claxton to impress coaches and teammates in the HSS Training Center. Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie proclaimed at the time that the rookie was the second-most gifted player on a roster that included himself, Irving and future All-Star Jarrett Allen.
“So, I still believe [Jarrett Allen] is going to be an All-Star, but Nic is the second-most talented player on this team,” Dinwiddie told The Post that season. “[First] is KD, either the first or second-most talented scorer of all-time. But Nic’s got game. He’s got a chance [to be great].”
Four years later, the Nets don’t need Claxton to be great. But with their entire Big Three gone, they’ll need the 24-year-old to be even better than he’s been. Even if that means paying him significantly more next summer in unrestricted free agency, something general manager Sean Marks is likely already bracing for. Or should be.
Claxton finished fifth in the NBA Most Improved Player balloting last season, right behind teammate Mikal Bridges. With Brooklyn retooling behind Bridges, and needing all the offensive punch they can get, Claxton has to take another leap forward, fine-tuning some tantalizing raw skills that have heretofore only been teased or left undeveloped.
Spending much of the summer working out in California with Dinwiddie, Claxton has been not just tightening up his handle, but honing a turnaround jumper and even a 3-point shot.
And, most of all, shoring up his biggest, most vulnerable Achilles’ heel: Shaky free throw shooting.
If he can do that, he can start to close in on his sky-high ceiling.
“Oh, it’s high, you know?” Cam Thomas said recently on The SchuZ Show. “Because Claxton is a great finisher [and a] great defender. The main thing really — and even he’ll tell you — [is] the free throws. I think if he knocks down at least 60, 70 percent of his free throws, that’s way better than anything.
“Instead of like 12 points (per game), whatever he had, that could be like 15 [or] 16. So, that’s really the main thing with Claxton. But Claxton’s super talented. Finish both hands, guard the perimeter, guard the paint and [made] way big jumps [from] when I came in to now. So that’s really the main thing. That’s the big thing. His ceiling is unmatched.”
Claxton is coming off a career year that saw him average 12.6 points and 9.2 rebounds. His 70.5 shooting percentage led the league and his 2.5 blocks were second-best. But Thomas wasn’t wrong about him leaving points on the table.
The free throw line has been a constant struggle, shooting just .540 in his career and a terrible .470 through the end of January. But from February on, Claxton settled in and hit a far more respectable .653 from the charity stripe.
If Claxton could consistently drill 65 or even 70 percent of his foul shots as Thomas suggests, he could develop into an offensive threat that actually approaches 20 points per game.
To this point, Claxton has been limited to playing off others as a roll man, or finishing off lobs at the basket. Opportunities for the latter dried up when he was robbed of Durant and Irving’s gravity, a big reason his scoring took a hit following the trade deadline. Defensively speaking, it’s easier to slow a one-trick pony — or even a two-trick one.
While Claxton has been known to put the ball on the floor on occasion over his first four seasons, videos have surfaced on social media this summer of him finishing off a dribble move not with a dunk or layup, but by taking a midrange turnaround jumper.
That’s new. And encouraging.
So, too, is the range he’s shown in some of those videos that extends out to the 3-point line.
Earlier this offseason, a participant at Claxton’s basketball camp had asked if Brooklyn was in the middle of a rebuild, and he ensured they’ll be better than advertised.
“I wouldn’t say we’re in the middle of a rebuild,” Claxton said with a laugh. “We’ve got some really good dudes on the team and I think that we’re going to turn some heads this year. Yeah, I don’t think we’re in the middle of a rebuild.”
Claxton knows from exceeding expectations.
After Marks retained him with a two-year, $17.25 million contract last summer, Claxton made it look like a bargain. Hoopshype listed him as one of the league’s top 20 underpaid players, with the site’s Real Value metric estimating that he outperformed his contract by $10.9 million.
But that comes with a downside — namely Claxton being guaranteed of hitting unrestricted free agency in a year. Only players coming off rookie deals are restricted; and since he inked a two-year pact instead of three, Brooklyn isn’t allowed to extend him with a season left on his contract.
“In our business, you never really know what’s going to happen as far as trades, contracts and everything,” Claxton told The Post at the end of the season. “But I’ve been here four years, and Brooklyn has been … huge, played a huge role in my growth, and I’d love to be here. But we’ll see how that shakes out. I’m just taking it day-by-day, have a great summer working out and figure all that stuff out later.”
The Nets have spent a couple of second-round picks to move off older higher-salaried players. It gives them flexibility to potentially give Claxton the raise he’ll warrant and still stay under the dreaded second apron (expected to be $17.5 million over the luxury tax threshold).
Claxton — who has a base salary of $8.75 million, and a cap hit of $9.625 million — could easily double his pay in free agency. A cap expert who spoke with The Post estimated even without making any improvement from this past season, Claxton is “looking at least at [Jakob] Poetl money.”
The Toronto Raptors center is on a four-year, $78 million contract.
It could be more.
The league source told The Post, “if more cap space teams don’t surface, they’ll probably end up getting him back at market value,” or somewhere in the range of Clint Capela, on a two-year, $45.8 million deal.
That assumes he remains the players he has been. Should he expand along the lines of what he’s shown in those training videos, of course, the Nets will gladly take the progress and figure out the pay.
The league released its regular-season schedule this week, with some eye-openers as far as the Nets are concerned.
• Brooklyn was on ABC, ESPN or TNT 26 times two seasons ago. They originally were to have 13 last season, but saw two dumped in the wake of the Durant and Irving trades. They have just five games on those outlets this coming season. Sign of the times.
• Bridges, who hasn’t missed a game since his junior year in high school, will play his 400th consecutive NBA game on Nov. 8 against the Clippers at Barclays Center.
• The Nets’ slate is going to get considerably harder the next month, culminating in a brutal five-game West Coast gantlet that includes four contenders. They play at Sacramento on Dec. 11, then at Durant and the Suns, on to defending NBA champion Denver, before facing Steph Curry and the Warriors. They end in Utah on Dec. 18.
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