By doing a little—or increasingly, a lot—of everything, Nicolas Batum has become the leader of the Trail Blazers.
by Lang Whitaker / @langwhitaker
Numbers sometimes lie. As sports fans we have this symbiotic relationship where we simultaneously consume them and attempt to contextualize them, yet there they are, in programs, on web pages, in newspapers. Numbers tell us how to feel about teams and players. And they often do this even before we’ve ever seen the team or the player.
What matters is which numbers we weigh with faith. Before Nicolas Batum arrived in the NBA in the summer of 2008, his digits were all over the place. He was 6-8 and just 19 years old, and though he averaged just a relatively paltry 12 and 5 in France’s top league, he was still considered a first-round prospect. The averages weren’t eye-popping, but they suggested something more prominent to come.
The first time I saw Nic Batum play in person, I came away puzzled. It was New Year’s ’08, and Batum was playing for Le Mans in France’s Ligue Nationale de Basket. There had been speculation that Batum would join the ’07 Draft, but he stayed in France for one final season, and the Draft cognoscenti were beginning to chatter that the longer he stayed, the further he’d drop. Batum’s promise was known enough that I cut a day out of a Parisian vacation with my family to spend a few hours in a cement arena checking out Batum, who was playing in the LNB All-Star Game. And it wasn’t that Batum was bad, it’s just that he wasn’t amazing. He obviously had the size and the smarts—he finished exactly with his season averages of 12 and 5—but he seemed tentative and passive. And most relevantly, Batum was hard to define. Was he a scorer? A facilitator? A defensive specialist?
What I didn’t know was that he knew. Sure, scoring a bunch of points looks great, but Batum wasn’t focused on that. He cared more about being robust, about being a complete basketball player, numbers be damned.
“My first year in France, I was mad because I wanted to score all the time,” Batum says. “Then I understood that if you wanted to play, you had to do something different—you had people in front of you, so you had to do different for the team. I learned that before I got to the NBA.”
It helped his hoops education that Batum has basketball in his blood, quite literally. His father, Richard, spent a decade playing professionally in France. When Nic was 2 years old, he was in the stands at one of his father’s games when his dad suffered a ruptured aneurysm while on the court, killing him. Still, the tragedy didn’t dissuade Nic from pursuing his own hoop dreams. “I always wanted to do that, to play basketball,” he says. “All my life. I played basketball since I was 4 or 5 years old, so that was all I wanted to do, the only thing I wanted to do.
“I tried to watch the NBA, but the games were at 2 or 4 a.m., so sometimes I’d get up that early to watch the games. When the NBA Finals were on, I had school the next day, and my mom would not be too happy,” he recalls with a laugh.
It is at this exact point in the Nic Batum continuum where the equation begins to take on some sort of shape and form, and where it begins to make more sense than it does if considered without proper circumstance. Looking at the collection of basketball tools available to Batum, expecting him to be a specialist—to become a scorer like Durant or a rebounder like Varejao—was never of interest to Batum. Forget being like Mike. “I always liked Chicago, and Scottie Pippen was my favorite player,” Batum says. “When he played for the Bulls, then when he went to Houston and then Portland, he was always my favorite player. Whichever team he was playing for, that was my favorite team. I always liked that he played on both ends. He wanted to play defense, He would have 13 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks. He could do everything, and that’s what I try to do, even now.”
“I can see a lot of that, for sure,” says Clipper guard Jamal Crawford, who played with Batum in Portland last season, when informed of Batum’s childhood obsession with Pippen. “That makes a lot of sense.”
“For me, teams wanted me to score, even now,” Batum says. “But I want to do everything. I love to make assists, I love to get blocks, to get steals, to rebound the ball. I love to do everything.”
“Nic can handle the ball, make the assist, guard some of the better players in the League and then shoot the ball, of course,” Crawford says. “He’s a guy who can play on any kind of team, because he just fits on the court.”
After being drafted 25th overall by Houston, then moved to Portlandia in a three-way deal, Batum wasn’t immediately sure of his place with the Blazers. “I knew my game would fit in the NBA, I knew that,” Batum remembers. “It was no problem. When I got drafted, I remember the GM told me I was the future, and I said, No, I’m going to play right now. I didn’t stay in France, I never played in the D-League. I was like, Let me show you that I’m going to play from the beginning. And I started 72 games my rookie year.”
Part of cracking that lineup was Batum knowing his role (word to Dwayne Johnson), even as a rookie.“We had Brandon Roy, we had Travis Outlaw, we had Greg Oden. I knew if I wanted to be on the court, I had to sacrifice and play for the team and play defense, and that’s what I tried to do my rookie year, I tried to play for the team. And I played maybe 20-25 minutes (per game), and I was 19 years old, just moved here from France. But I got those minutes because I sacrificed myself for the team. Now I get more responsibilities. Back then I knew what I had to do, because we had so many people on that team.”
During Batum’s first four seasons in Portland, the Blazers went from contenders to rebuilders, mostly due to a combination of unfortunate injuries as well as mismanagement of what was at one time considered an embarrassment of riches. The Blazers slowly slipped, from a winning percentage of 66 Batum’s rookie season, to 61 to 59 to last season’s brutal 42 (28-38).
And then this summer, at the tender age of 23, Batum had four years of NBA experience and was a restricted free agent. He’d had an up-and-down quartet of seasons, but it was impossible to miss that unique and highly prized set of skills. It also speaks to Batum’s glaring potential that even after being a secondary player on a sub-.500 team, he was still considered one of the market’s most valued free agents. (Batum told The Oregonian that in the first 24 hours of free agency, 16 different teams contacted his agent to express some level of interest.)
After signing a reported $46 million offer sheet with the TWolves, the Blazers matched the deal to make sure Batum stayed in Portland. (“We were never not going to have Nicolas back,” said Portland GM Neal Olshey.) Once Batum was guaranteed a return to PDX, he went about learning the system proffered by new coach Terry Stotts, in which Batum works in a role he’s been uniquely preparing for his entire life. “Coach wants me to do a little bit of everything. We have the coach, and I talked a lot with the coach, and he wants me to be everywhere, wants me to score, rebound, assist, create for everybody. So the coach helps me a lot this time.”
While the coach may be giving Batum license to ill, it’s Batum who’s taking advantage, averaging career highs across the board, from points (15.7) to rebounds (6.0) to assists (4.9) to steals (1.3) to minutes (38.8). It’s the stuff fantasy titles are won with, and it’s working pretty well in real life, too. Batum has found common ground with teammates like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard and JJ Hickson, and in the second week of February ’13, the Blazers are 25-25 and in the ninth spot in the Western Conference.
“We’ve played some good teams, but we’ve lost some games we’re supposed to win. We’ve played almost .500 basketball, but we’re a young team with five rookies, so we have a lot of young guys. So we have no pressure, but we’re trying to surprise people this year.”
While discussing the way the Trail Blazers have surprised people, Batum casually mentions, “Well, I’m the leader of this team, so I have to set an example for the young guys.” These are great words, the very sort of sentiment any franchise hopes to hear from a player they’re paying eight figures a season. Yet it’s also kind of jarring to balance them against the reality: Batum may be assuming the leadership mantle, but he’s still just a kid, isn’t he?
“Of course, I’m in my fifth year, so I have to show them how to work.”
Wait, how old are you, again?
“I mean, I’m only 24,” he allows with a laugh. “I guess it’s more about experience than age.”
As part of that leadership role, do you feel like you can still improve? “I can improve a lot. I think I can be a better shooter, and I can get bigger. I can improve my post-up game, my pick-and-roll game, my defense. I can improve a lot, I know that.”
So if you’re going to improve a lot, that means we might see you averaging what, 30 points a game?
“We never know. We’ll see.”