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The Season in Review: Nicolas Batum

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 Our alphabetical post-season march through the roster continues today with Nicolas Batum. 

If you haven't read the conversation guidelines for these threads, please take a look before commenting.

There's been a request that I put last year's stats alongside this year's for comparison and I think I'll be able to do that.  In this case, obviously, they don't apply, so you only get one column.  Links to other stats are listed at the end of the post.  Feel free to explore and bring up anything you find that's significant.  That's part of the fun of doing these.

 

The stats:

Games Played

79

Games Started

76

Minutes per Game

18.4

Points per Game

5.4

FG ATT per Game

4.6

FG%

44.6%

3PT ATT per Game

2.1

3PT%

36.9%

FT ATT per Game

0.7

FT%

80.8%

Off Rebs per Game

1.1

Def Rebs per Game

1.7

Total Rebs per Game

2.8

Assists

0.9

Steals

0.6

Blocks

0.5

Turnovers

0.6

Personal Fouls

1.8

Effective FG%

53.2%

PER

12.9

Plus/Minus

+2.35

If you're looking for the most pleasant surprise of the 2008-09 roster, look no farther than Nicolas Batum.  After a Summer League performance most properly described as "comatose" most people who saw him, including me, figured that despite his obvious grace on the floor he was a couple years from contributing.  Then Martell Webster suffered his season-ending foot injury and a couple years became a couple months in short order.  Even so, with Nate McMillan's penchant for reliability and proven performance, there was at least a 50-50 chance that Batum sliding into the starting small forward role initially said as much about Travis Outlaw's suitability for the position--demonstrated in pre-season and in the first game debacle against the L*kers--as it did about Nic's readiness.  Fortunately the kid took to on-the-job training like Jimi Hendrix to a six-string.  He remained the starter throughout the season.

Batum's calling card this year was his defense.  As the year progressed he became the designated defender of the team's best small scorer.  This took pressure off of Brandon Roy, allowing him to conserve his energy in the first stages of the game and taking away much of the potential for early foul trouble against our main guy.  I'm not sure about physical durability per se, but Brandon can attribute at least some of his ability to stay on the court consistently this year to Nicolas Batum.

It's not like Nicolas revolutionized the Blazer defense.  No rookie was going to do that.  But you can't underestimate the value of knowing at least one opponent is taken care of.  That's a rare commodity on the current Blazer team.  In years past you never knew where the attack was coming from.  Nobody could stay in front of their man.  This put incredible strain on the interior defenders as well as the subsequent defensive rotations.  Nicolas' lateral speed and commitment allowed him to stay in position most of the time.  When he didn't stay in front of his guy he was often able to make a play from behind once the interior guys had slowed his man down.  Unlike some other wing defenders he never gave up on a play.  This eased the burden on those responsible for watching the paint as they could rely on at least one section of the court being covered and know that they weren't solely responsible for emergency containment from that angle.  Joel Przybilla had a fantastic defensive season mostly on his own merits.  But having Batum out there helped him a little as well.

Batum's speed and never-say-die attitude also translated into some spectacular swats from behind when the opponent was on the break.  At times he looked Michael Cooper-esque in his ability to chase down the enemy and block the layup at the last second.  It got to the point where you could call it before it happened.  That's downright amazing.

The Blazers' rebounding was slightly better when Batum was in the lineup.  Opponent free throws attempted and made were down and opponent turnovers were up.  The opponent's effective field goal percentage was actually higher when Batum was on the court but this can be partially explained by him playing almost exclusively early-half minutes against opposing starters and stars rather than against the bench.

Despite all this, there were nights when Batum was simply overmatched.  Usually this happened against bigger opponents who were also athletic...not exactly a rarity at small forward in this league.  Sometimes he would get surprised by the array of options available to NBA-caliber scorers as well.  You'd see him defend plays similarly Tuesday and Wednesday when the guys he faced on those two nights had much different tendencies.  The latter will be solved by experience.  The former, though, will require some extra strength without losing the quickness that makes him special.  Work on his body and stamina will be crucial for his continued development.

The best way to describe Batum's offensive season is "good, as far as it went".  He shot a good percentage, even more so from the three-point arc where almost half of his attempts came.  The current Portland offensive scheme has the small forward out beyond the arc on the side, waiting to receive a pass off of other players' aggressiveness.  However the small forward's game plan isn't limited to that role.  This is what Nicolas has to realize.  He is far, far too good on the drive with his speed (and on the finish with his leaping ability) to become a stand-still shooter alone.  He needs to be dunking as well as bombing. 

The way the system is set up he has to make enough threes to make him a credible threat.  Once that happens, however, the entire side of the floor opens up to him.  If he can get people closing out trying to stop his jumper he can give a little fake and then drive right by them.  If he gets half a step on the defender the world is his oyster.  (Somebody better than I will have to translate that idiom into French.  "What is this he is saying?  The globe is a slimy, shelled mollusk?")  If the defense rotates quickly to stop him he can pull up for the short jumper.  If they're even a little bit slow it's dunk city.  In either case another pass to a perpendicular cutter is a possibility.  Nic's offense is not going to improve by shooting alone.  He's going to make his money on the drive and getting fouled.

Body development and offensive aggressiveness are the two areas that will earn Batum more minutes next year and eventually turn him from a surprise starter into the small forward of the future.  And make no mistake, more than just fans are speculating that will be his exact role with this team.  As such Batum is probably the nearest player to untouchable on the team without being truly untouchable.  Other teams will be interested.  The Blazers are not likely to part with him for less than a small fortune. 

See more stats at 82Games.com  and BasketballReference.com.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)