Summer Reading: Nicolas Batum

This is part of an offseason series on various things of certain natures that each Blazer can work on during the summer to prepare for the 2010-2011 title push. This is strictly about on-court performance, so topics like trades and contracts are not discussed at length. Remember to click “Continue Reading” at the jump.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trailblazers

Just as long as he sticks to the light side of the force. (Source: Yardbarker.com)

It’s easy to forget just how unique of a situation Nicolas Batum is in. He’s a unique player, sure, as we’ll get to later, but how many success stories come out of the late first round? How many of those are international players? How many still couldn’t drink an alcoholic beverage in the United States until a month into their sophomore season. And then how many of those started 101 of their first 116 career games, on a two-time 50-game winner, while dealing with shoulder injuries throughout?

There’s only one Nicolas Batum.

And that’s why he’s one of the three most untouchable players on the Blazers, over even $65 million-dollar man LaMarcus Aldridge. A year ago, Portland wouldn’t trade Batum for Gerald Wallace because Batum might be the perfect role player to play next to Brandon Roy and the Blazers’ large frontcourt. He can spread the floor as a 40-percent three-point shooter, he can run the floor as someone who scores 1.48 points per transition possession, he has the length and speed to defend most any situation — allowing scores in both pick-and-rolls and isolations under 40 percent of the time — and doesn’t make a fuss about darn near anything.

Shoot, he even shoots better than 80 percent from the free-throw line, rebounds well on the defensive end, gets the occasional assist, hardly ever turns the ball over (1.1 turnovers per 36 minutes) and doesn’t need plays ran for him, using up just 16.4 percent of all offensive possessions while he’s on the floor.

Add in that Batum doesn’t back down to defensive challenges and, despite a slender frame, has shown remarkable mental toughness for a 21-year old, and you aren’t finding a better small forward for this team outside of the likes of LeBron James or Danny Granger.

Still, there’s plenty we don’t know about Batum, primarily just how good he can be. With just one offseason under his belt, Batum has shown exceptional growth, raising his three-point percentage 40 points and his overall shooting 73 points while improving his ballhandling, allowing him to occasionally take opponents off the dribble, or at least step in for a closer shot. Essentially, in one offseason spent with the French National Team and a bum shoulder, Batum improved in the areas you’ve been waiting for Martell Webster to improve on for the past five years.

Again, he doesn’t turn 22 until December.

Of course there’s plenty to improve on, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Batum should be working on. We know what he can improve on from last season, but if he follows the same growth curve, he could come back next season a very different player, and one with a different arsenal of skills to evaluate. But since we don’t have one of those machines in the Mall that tells you what your children will look like, it isn’t prudent to extrapolate on the unknown of youth. Whatever he is to becomes, here are some things we know, for sure, he can work on:

  • There is no wall: As mentioned before, Batum was very effective against the screen-roll, allowing 0.73 points per possession. But since he started the season so late, those numbers came on just 54 such situations. Batum does a good job anticipating the pick and sticks the ballhandler very well, either stopping him outright or funneling him to where the help defense should be. His problem, like Jerryd Bayless, is getting hung up on the picks. It’s not that Batum doesn’t try to fight through them, he’s just often running into a wall and losing momentum. This is partially due to his lean frame and to his shoulder nearly falling out of the socket every time he got hit, but that doesn’t change the fact that Batum needs to make quicker decisions to go above or below the pick, and fight through the bigger bodies. With all the talented scorers he’ll be guarding throughout his career, the Blazers can’t afford to be switching on a good percentage of screen-rolls.
  • Always be creating: Batum does an excellent job moving off the ball and staying active in offense sets in which he’s not a first, second or third option. This in itself creates space for his teammates. But where Batum surprised a lot of people this season was his ability to play off the dribble, either with the Travis-Outlaw-Memorial one-dribble-pullup, or by turning the corner off makeshift screens and going straight to the hoop. If Batum can be a three-dribble threat — that is, someone who can not only drive, but change directions with the ball and use mutliple dribbles to evade defenders — then he could create a pick-your-poison scenario, with his defender incapable of helping on the likes of Oden and Aldridge from the weakside for fear of what Batum can create. And if he can become a legitimate passer in these situations, even if it’s just a few times a game to change the offense up, then there’s not much more you can ask.
  • Build it…: It goes without saying that Batum, at 200 pounds, could use a little extra muscle. But the key for him is not adding weight, it’s adding lean muscle that doesn’t sacrifice his quickness or endurance. Adding too much weight onto that frame probably increases the risk for injury, too. But as Batum was last season, it was a little too easy for Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James to muscle him around when they felt so inclined. As Batum’s body matures, this will becomes less of a problem.
  • Pick those spots, and more of them: Nic certainly isn’t passive, but he could also force the issue a little more on offense, particularly in initiating the fast break and making a play before the shot clock gets below five. The reps with the French National Team help, as will increased confidence in his ballhandling, but just because Batum is a supporting player, that doesn’t mean he has to be a reactive player to what Brandon Roy and the others create.

Admittedly, of all the lists of summer reading we’ve been giving Portland’s player, this one might be the least set in stone, because again, so much of Batum’s growth will come organically it makes it difficult to single out a hard three or four things for him to focus on. Chances are, if we did All-Star Break Reading next February for Batum, the list would look very different.

Now, many people seem to want to compare Batum to Scottie Pippen, which does make sense in some ways. They’re both super long, super athletic defenders that can guard four positions on the floor. But Pippen is one of the greatest point forwards of all time, a vastly superior ballhandler to Batum, and also one of the more powerful players to play the position. Did you ever look at Scottie’s shoulders? They were transplants from Dwight Howard. Batum isn’t going to have the same physique, nor is he likely to ever be a primary ballhandler.

No, Batum is smooth. Not a having the pure scoring gene like other smooth gentlemen like George Gervin or Walt Frazier, Batum needs to be the ultimate play finisher, a wide receiver on the fast break that everyone on the team knows they can outlet too. For that role, Batum can watch a similarly athletic player who, in his best years, rarely saw his usage rate dip above 22 percent. James Worthy:

Topics: James Worthy, Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers, Scottie Pippen, Summer Reading

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  • Raaaaaaaandy

    sign and trade with bosh, move LA to small forward.

    just kiddinggggg. He’ll never be an allstar though, even though the morning local sports talk loves to emphasize that he will for many years after every 20+ game Nic has. He could get the “dwight schrute – assistant to the regional manager” award soon enough though, like josh smith is (was? 33 days ’til free agency 2010!) to all-star joe johnson. or luol deng is to all-star derick rose.

  • PS

    I agree with Raaaandy.

    LA does not bang enough and settles for fade away’s and 12 footers way to often. Bosh as a true PF and LA moved to Small Forward with Oden in the middle.

    Id love to see those three starring down Gasol, Bynum and Odom. To win the west they need to be able to match up and beat the Lakers. This would better their chances.

  • http://ripcityproject.com Coup

    So in that situation, you’re trading Batum for Bosh? I don’t see how LA could guard small forwards.

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