Taking Stock: Will Nicolas Batum Ever Be a Star?

USA TODAY Sports

Our series on the State of the Trail Blazers continues with a look at starting small forward Nicolas Batum. How did he fare this season and what can we expect in the future?

We're in the process of taking a hard look at the Portland Trail Blazers roster with an eye towards improvements and moving pieces during the critical Summer of 2013. In our first two installments we covered LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Those were fairly easy calls. Now we get to the tough stuff, trying to figure out how Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews fit into the picture.

Nicolas Batum did three things of significance this season:

1. He signed an $11 million contract.

2. He shot a metric ton of three-pointers, finishing 10th in the league in overall attempts from the arc, 9th in attempts per game, 70th in attempts per minute. 53% of his total field goal attempts came from distance this year.

3. He passed a bunch, more than tripling his per-game assist rate and almost tripling his per-36-minute rate.

A fairly-reasonably priced three-point threat small forward with court vision and defensive chops is a fine asset to any team. That's what Batum was, a fine asset.

Whether that's satisfactory depends on your perspective. You could make the argument that the Blazers got about what they paid for and should go home happy with the purchase. End of story, just like any other player.

Few have watched Batum without dreaming that he'd become more than just "pretty good for the money", however. You could make a highlight reel of Nic's plays that would make him look like one of the NBA's ultra-elite players. The Blazers themselves spent half the season trumpeting his "only Nicolas Batum and LeBron James are doing this" numbers. That they were only comparing small forwards and that the gap was enough to float a cruise ship through sideways didn't matter. The message was clear: this guy is special.

But in the end he really kind of...wasn't. For years Blazers fans took up the refrain that Nate McMillan was stifling Batum, holding back his natural talent, not giving him enough minutes or shots or the chance to create off the dribble. Batum had all that and more this season on a team that was starving for talent, inspiration, scoring, a secondary ball-handler, rim attacks, defense, and a hundred other things. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet of opportunity playing for a coach who encouraged everything folks want to see from Batum.

With so many attempts coming from distance you'd expect Batum's overall field goal percentage to fall. The drop from a fine 45% to a mediocre 42% wasn't a surprise. But Batum's three-point percentage itself fell from an almost-special 39% to a good-enough 37%. Living on the perimeter also caused his already-unimpressive free throw rate to drop. As a result his True Shooting Percentage declined slightly despite the increased three-point volume. Points per minute also declined to his lowest rate since his rookie season.

Batum's final tally of 14 points, 5 assists, 5.5 rebounds in 38.5 minutes per game tells the story as well as anything. Those are decent all-around numbers. They don't knock your socks off.

Spectacular plays aside, defense has been the distinguishing aspect of Batum's game over the years. He's Portland's go-to guy when an opposing wing or point guard needs extra guarding. Defensive stat work is an inexact science. Depending on what stats you use the Blazers were either marginally better, about the same, or marginally worse with Batum on the floor. His individual defensive stats are average. You're left with anecdotes of key stops or massive come-from-behind blocks to tell the tale. Those are legit. The numbers don't encompass the whole of Batum's defense.

But anecdotes will also tell you that Batum continued his career-long habit of disappearing from large swaths of games when the Blazers needed help. He rarely looked to drive or get aggressive on offense. As the season wound down he appeared to be running away from scoring opportunities, passing the ball to a fault, costing his team the only open looks they'd see in a given shot clock. His defensive work also blended into the background. The silence became as dramatic as his highlight moves.

Batum and his handlers cited a wrist injury as at least partial cause for his production issues this year. At different points in the season this was highlighted and then played down. More specifically it would look like he was injured and detached from a given game until a five-minute flurry where he appeared just fine, then it'd be back to non-production again. Opposing analysts made a habit of questioning his injury status...a rarity in this league, especially coming from former players. Was he a courageous player giving his all for the team despite being injured or was he an inconsistent player whose weakest facets got exposed by extra pain? No matter which interpretation you subscribe to, this is the third season out of five in which injuries seriously affected Batum's play...a concern in itself.

Nicolas Batum's talent level and highlight-reel effect on the court put him in the conversation with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard as star-level players. You can look at a couple early seasons and make the argument that he's been one of the most promising young players in the league, period. As optimism has given way to reality the gap between Batum and the two stars on his own team has widened, let alone the gap between him and the league's elite players. He's neither consistent nor assertive enough. His great plays drown in a surge of mediocrity until only the tip of the iceberg remains above water. The validity of experience and coaching as excuses is rapidly dwindling. With all the opportunity in the world before him it's two steps forward, a step and a half back. He's gaining ground but the basic flaws in his game aren't subsiding.

This put the Blazers in a tough spot. Batum is too good to trade but too inconsistent to depend on. Fortunately they're under no pressure to make a decision about him now. In their current state it's all good. They're just happy to have the talent. If and when the team gets into a position to win, however, Batum could prove a conundrum. The best solution would be to build such a strong team around him that you can take advantage of his great moments and live with the rest. But you have to consider that we've now described both Lillard and Aldridge as "very good, but needing help". From whence will this help come? You're starting to run out of positions. How long can you afford to carry a guy who's occasionally good but frequently invisible?

Barring somebody making a critical offer with him in the mix, the Blazers have at least another year to figure out Batum's place and prowess. Maybe the story will change next season. But after five years of mostly the same thing, the pressure's on Batum to prove it rather than on observers to anticipate it. Promise only goes so far and "good enough" only nets you so much credit. As we said earlier in the season, as you pass your fifth season your status in this league is determined by what you actually do, not what you might do. If it doesn't happen night to night it doesn't matter. Right now Batum is a 14, 5, and 5 guy with average defensive production in 38 minutes...no less, but no more either.

Is that good enough? What do you think? Weigh in below.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

P.S. Congratulations to Elephant03 who, pending security checks, won the final month of our Blazer's Edge Jersey Contest. Thanks to everyone who played along this year!

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