A Late-Blooming Beanpole Aims to Be an NBA Force

Nicolas Claxton (No. 33) of the Georgia Bulldogs collects a loose ball against the Mississippi Rebels at Stegeman Coliseum on Feb. 9, 2019, in Athens, Georgia.

Source Logan Riely/Getty

Why you should care

Because your team could end up with this intriguing sleeper talent.

When Georgia big man Nicolas Claxton heads across the stage in Brooklyn on Thursday, his NBA fate manifested in the flat-billed cap he grabs from commissioner Adam Silver’s hand, he wants you to be thinking about hard work even as you might gawk at his rail-thin frame.

It takes work for a midlevel recruit from Greenville, South Carolina — ranked the No. 272 prospect in the country, with no scholarship offers from major college hoops powers — to become a possible lottery pick. He had to grind on defense and take shots when they’re not falling, in the name of building versatility and putting himself among the biggest risers in a 2019 draft dominated by undeniable stars Zion Williamson and Ja Morant — but with a ton of uncertainty coming after that top two.

“I always carry that chip on my shoulder,” says Claxton, 20. “That’s how it’s been since high school, and it’s going to continue to be like that.” The drive to overcome expectation is baked into him.

The intrigue with guys like Nic Claxton is immense.

Corey Evans, national recruiting analyst at Rivals

Players who love to dig in and get defensive stops are a different basketball breed than those who simply happen to be long and tall. Claxton revels in the ability to surprise people with his energy, to show up opposing players who don’t expect him to be able to demonstrate such skill at a skinny 6-foot-11, 217 pounds. “My defense can speak for itself,” he says. “Guys with bigger names, there’s nothing wrong with that, but [I’m] going out there and showing I can compete too.”

Claxton may not have felt that way a year ago. It only took until the second day of practice after new coach Tom Crean took over Bulldogs basketball in 2018 for Crean to appreciate Claxton’s potential, but he knew that chiseling it out of the sophomore would be a test. “You could see some of it on film, but until you got into it on the court with him, I couldn’t see it,” Crean says. “We just kept challenging him through the spring to extend his game.”

 

Crean, who has turned multiyear college players like Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo into top-level prospects throughout his career, asked Claxton to fill in at all five positions on each end of the floor, take more 3s and handle the ball. As a tactic to help Georgia compete in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), it didn’t work: the Bulldogs finished with a 2-16 league record. But it did help Claxton blossom into an NBA talent. “The biggest thing with us was putting him in mentally challenging situations,” Crean says. “Once we play somebody that way, the NBA is going to be that much more enamored with that as they see it.”

Claxton’s name shot up on draft projections as he took on more responsibility on offense (leading the team with 13 points per game), but also created more turnovers on defense, improved his shooting efficiency and dominated the glass. Now, Claxton is confident enough that he’ll be picked in the first round — which means at least a guaranteed two-year, multimillion-dollar contract — that he opted to remain in the draft rather than return for a third year in Athens. It was a hard choice, as he wasn’t interested in college as a pit stop like so many top prospects. The kid bleeds red and black.  

That connection comes by way of his father, Charles, a 7-foot center from the U.S. Virgin Islands who earned All-SEC honors when playing for the Bulldogs from 1992-95 and had a three-game NBA career. Now Charles Claxton and his wife run a delivery business. The son says his drive on defense came from Dad, still second all-time in blocks at Georgia, and Charles has been a source of support throughout Nic’s come-up.

During their one season together, Crean says Claxton spent much of his free time with a serious girlfriend and was never someone the coach went to sleep worrying about. “I’m not real flashy on social media and everything, I let my work speak for itself and my play and production speak for itself,” Claxton says. But it’s clear the big man notices slights when they arise.

Far from checking out of school early, Nic led recruiting visits for Georgia’s incredible incoming freshman class, which includes megaprospect Anthony Edwards Jr., and appeared genuinely torn about whether to return — working out with Bulldog teammates and quizzing Crean about when fall practice would begin. A lack of fanaticism about his own future in the NBA is understandable given Claxton’s under-the-radar rise to relevance among pro scouts, but his versatility was intriguing to evaluators early on, says Corey Evans, a national recruiting analyst at Rivals.

Evans scouted Claxton when he played travel ball with Morant, an electric point guard and this year’s presumptive No. 2 pick. Back then, Evans says, the ball was in Claxton’s hands most of the time — not Morant’s. The ability of the near-7-footer to run the offense even after a growth spurt in high school only made evaluators more interested. “There’s no mathematical equation that shows that guy’s going to make it and that guy’s not,” Evans says. “There are a lot of flameouts. That’s why the intrigue with guys like Nic Claxton is immense.” The intrigue is immense enough that in a show of confidence, Claxton stopped working out for teams picking lower than No. 14, according to a report from The Athletic that Claxton retweeted.

But his draft status — and NBA success — remain far from assured.

At a workout early in the predraft process, executives on one NBA team, which Claxton declined to name, were grilling him about all the weaknesses they saw in his game, making it known they were not impressed with what he did on the court. Having heard all of the noise about his inconsistent jumper and thin frame before, he emerged from the experience unfazed.

“There are 29 other teams,” he says, “and one team is going to fall in love with me.”

Read more: Inside De’Andre Hunter’s road to the national title — and the NBA lottery. 

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