That old adage about an injury to one player being an opportunity for another certainly applies to Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, now that guard Brandon Roy has been ruled out indefinitely.
But there are some added layers to this injury/opportunity situation for the French forward, now 22, who has virtually grown up in Portland's locker room since he arrived as a teenager, a place where Roy has always been the man.
Batum has had an up-and-down 2010-2011 season so far, and he has mostly flown under the radar due to the injuries to both Roy and center Greg Oden, as well as the much-ballyhooed arrival of guard Wesley Matthews. In less than forty games, Batum has gone from starting at small forward alongside Roy, to playing backup small forward behind Matthews, to starting at small forward next to Matthews. Those shakeups, of course, have prompted peaks and valleys in the quality of his play. At times, he's been a non-factor, an eyewitness to the rest of the offense. Other times, he's flown up and down the court, using his long arms to carefully deposit the basketball in the hoop for two points in transition.
With Roy out indefinitely, though, Batum's minutes will stabilize and his role will expand, and Portland's new-found offensive focus on motion, cutting and pushing tempo in certain circumstances figures to benefit Batum more than almost any other Blazer.
His game Sunday night against the Houston Rockets encapsulated some of the desired developments: Batum finished in transition, hit high-percentage jumpers off curl routes, made his defender work throughout possessions by working hard off the ball, and helped crash the offensive glass. If ever there was a player who might welcome these changes, it would seem to be Batum, whose length, versatility and gracefulness have often been viewed as wasted talents in Portland's slow-down system, by opposing scouts, media and fans alike.
But Batum, even though he's now in his third season in the league, remains as polite and respectful an NBA player as you'll find. Sunday night, for example, he stood silently for minutes, clad in towel and shower sandals, as reporters who were interviewing Marcus Camby blocked his locker, waiting patiently for them to finish asking questions before he moved to sit at his stall and change. The same thing happened his rookie year, and we chalked it up to freshman passivity. Turns out, that's just who he is.
In that vein, Batum approached the issue of his potential expanding role in Roy's absence with a delicacy and sensitivity not often seen.
"B. Roy has a certain game, Wesley has a certain game," Batum explained when asked whether he preferred the team's new offensive direction and its impact on his role. "Some [players] may bring some [different] things. B. Roy has success, Wes has success, it's not the same game. I can't say it's better like this, it's just different."
Asked whether he felt more comfortable now that his minutes and touches are starting to come more steadily, Batum brushed off the idea that there was ever an issue with his performance earlier this year. "That's a long season," he said with a wide smile. "You can't play 82 good games. Nobody can play 82 good games. Tell me one player who can play 82 good games. Nobody does that. We have to [try to] play maximum good games. I try to minimize my bad games."
In Roy's absence, Batum does envision himself taking on more responsibility, but only within a team context. "I can play my same game," he said. "Just step up a little bit, be more aggressive. Everybody has to step up. LA has to step up, Wes step up, I gotta step up, everybody gotta step up because we miss B. Roy. That's why it was my game tonight, maybe tomorrow it will be Camby again, or LA or Patty or Rudy."
If Batum doesn't display a typical "I'll get mine" mentality that many NBA players are quick to project, that's due, in part, to his relationship with Roy and his own injury history. Batum empathizes with his teammate, and drew a comparison between Roy's knees and his own shoulder surgery last season. Indeed, after watching a teammate he knows well lagging in pain, Batum told me that last week's "shut down" decision didn't come at a surprise at all.
"I felt it. I felt it," Batum said, tapping his chest lightly. "He didn't play a lot. He stopped for three games, then they said he won't play the three next games. I said, 'OK, he'll be out a couple months.' Last week, when they said he won't be on the road trip, I said, 'OK, we won't see him until the All-Star break.'
"He's got to take care of his body first. I could play last year, but it was too much, so I said, 'stop, I'll do my surgery.' And sometimes, even if you're on top, you've got to take care of your body. He's 26 only. He can play eight, 10 years," Batum said, his eyes widening at the thought. "He's got to take care of his body this year. If he has to stop for the rest of the season, do it. I'm not mad at it. If he has a problem with his knee, he has to take care of his knees first."
The $82 million question, of course, is what Roy's game will look like when he returns to the court after this indefinite break, whether this season or next. If you're still expecting a full recovery from Roy, count Batum as a co-signer.
"He'll be back," Batum said matter-of-factly, when asked what Roy's game might look like next year or two years down the road. "He's going to be Brandon Roy."
The same Roy that he has always been?
"Yeah," Batum said again, without a doubt or hesitation.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter