Top of the class: Nicolas Batum.
If you asked me which player on this Blazer team needed to have a career year in 2012-13, I would have probably said Nicolas Batum. Even so, Nicolas Batum having a career year is easily the most important thing of the first half of Portland's season. Batum's stats are at career high levels across the board (minutes played, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and most importantly points scored). His shooting numbers have dropped some, but that's caused by the increase overall in the number of looks he is getting. Nicolas Batum should be an All-Star (he won't be though), and if there is any common sense around the NBA, he'll be on the short list of Most Improved Player of 2012-13.
There are still areas of improvement for Nic, he's too loose with the ball, he sometimes makes very bad passes, and he doesn't attack the rim nearly enough, but on a game-by-game, play-by-play basis, Nic's good outpaces his bad nearly two to one.
Think about it like this: there have been two major statistical nights in Portland's first half, a very rare five-by-five and a not so rare but still special triple-double, both of them have been recorded by Nicolas Batum. Nicolas was once the picture of potential. He is now the picture of potential realized. What we have to ask is, where is his ceiling. I feel like he's nearing it, but I do know that he works very hard on his game, and he's clearly not satisfied whit how his team limped into Game 42.
Grade: A+ (head of the class)
Bottom of the class: Nolan Smith.
We know the story on Nolan Smith, we've known it for awhile. Nolan's a great kid, he's got a great story, the best coach in the world has his back, he'll certainly have a long and fruitful career. Unfortunately, that long and fruitful career won't be with the Blazers and probably shouldn't be in professional basketball. It's hard to watch Nolan this season and not wonder what the Blazers were thinking by selecting him, while also wondering what Nolan himself must be thinking watching a kid from Weber State fill the role of point guard of the future that he was selected to maybe try to fill.
Smith fell out of the rotation early in the season, after recovering from a concussion in Summer League, but was given a second chance to prove himself in January. That second change got away from him early in Portland's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. As I said at the time, it's hard to stick a whole loss on a guy who played less than three minutes in the actual game in question, but Nolan's +/- for that game speaks for itself. Before you call me a Nolan hater, let me say that I watched him in Summer League too, before the concussion of course, and though that maybe he had turned a corner. If Nolan could prove he's an NBA player, I would gladly keep him around.
Regardless, we'll always have December 10th of last year. That night in Portland Nolan scored 11 points (a season high), helping his team knock off the Toronto Raptors.
More grades here from Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune. More midseason thoughts here from Sean Highkin of Portland Roundball Society. Matt Moore of CBSSports.com gave the Blazers a "B" overall here.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter