The Blazers have three players in action during this Summer Olympiad. Of those three, Nicolas Batum will be the one Portland fans are most likely to pay attention to. Yes Victor Claver is on the better team, but he hardly plays. Joel Freeland plays, but because Great Britain are in the pool opposite the United States, probably won’t make it out of group play, and have only one other NBA player on their roster, there’s a good chance he and his team will get limited prime time run, even though they are the host nation.
Claver and Freeland have the benefit of being new to most Blazer fans, so they have that over Nic, but they aren’t the ones that signed the huge off-season contract amid more than their fair share of controversy and media attention.
With that being said, I’m guessing most hard-core Portland fans tuned in this morning to watch France kick-off their Olympic tournament against arguably the most highly touted U.S. squad since 1992, hoping to catch a glimpse of the second-richest Blazer in action.
The Americans did not disappoint. Depending on how much you like basketball, how much you know about the French national team, or how dominant you think Nicolas Batum can be, you may have been disappointed by Le Bleu.
During last season’s mid-summer lockout, I spent more time than I ever have watching European basketball. I checked out a fair amount of group play for Eurobasket, and barely missed an elimination game. Here’s what I wrote about it. Ignore the part about Ricky Rubio, I have since changed my opinion.
At the time, I was impressed by the French. They looked sloppy most of the time beyond their big three or four of Boris Diaw, Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, and Joakim Noah. Their bench players of Nando de Colo, Kevin Seraphin, Ali Traore, and Florent Pietrus looked decent but streaky. When everything was clicking for the French, as it was in their first two games of Eurobasket’s knock-out stage, they were clearly the second-best or possibly the best team in the draw. However, when they ran into an NBA-talent laden squad like the Spanish in the Finals, it all kind of fell apart.
Sunday morning was no different. Down by only a single bucket in a first half that ran for an extra 12 seconds following an interesting experiment in running-clock basketball, the final three quarters the French could get absolutely nothing offensively, and were less than helpless to stop the American offense that is built to run, shoot, and score at the rim.
Over the years, the NBA game has evolved to favor guys that can create off the dribble, pull-up for contested jumpers, and attack the basket. Basically, the best five to ten players in the NBA play the exact same way. All those guys are on this iteration of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
The European game is much more about ball movement to create uncontested shots. When it’s at its best, as it was in maybe the best advertisement for international basketball ever the Gold Medal Game at the Beijing Olympics, it can beat the NBA game. When it’s not at its best, the NBA game eats its lunch.
France plays a combination of the Euro style and the NBA style that is directly proportional to the number of European club players and NBA players on their roster. In the first half, the French stayed close because they start four guys with at least one season of NBA time under their belts and one guy who is on the short list for MVP every year and could naturalize and start for the US.
The bench for France, however, could not maintain the pace, and halfway through the second quarter this one was over. To be honest though, that’s what the Americans should be trying to do. Only Spain will run with this American team for 40 minutes. If at any time the US is tested, that should be considered a loss.
So how about Nicolas Batum specifically? Well I’m glad you asked.
Tony Parker is the unquestioned leader of the French National Team. After his majesty, it is up for grabs as to who is the second-most important player on the squad. Boris Diaw seems to be more engaged for the French than he was for the Bobcats, maybe not more than he was for the Spurs, and when Big Boris is locked in, he can be very effective. But after him, Nicolas Batum has as much right to claim second-best as anybody.
Here’s the other thing too. Parker, Diaw, and Ronny Turiaf are of the same generation. Parker and Diaw are 30; Ronny is 29. They’re the old (or older) guard of French international basketball. The ones that paved the way for all the young Frenchmen who are current or soon-to-be NBA players. Batum is one of those young Frenchmen. A member of that next generation; the leader of that next generation.
International dominance seems to be generation. Argentina and Spain are examples of teams that have maintained the same roster for more than 10 years, and built those rosters into teams that can compete with the United States. They get into trouble when all their players age out at the same time.
For the French to reach or maintain any type of international acclaim, they need to successfully transition from the Tony Parker era to the post Tony Parker era because unlike the aforementioned Spanish and Argentine squads, the first generation of outstanding French basketball players produced only two really excellent players.
So, what does this have to do with Nicolas Batum, you ask? As Eurobasket was last summer, London 2012 is the time for him to take control. Time for him to show that he can be a dominate player and a team leader in the mold of Kevin Durant. If he can do it with his national team, he should be able to do it for the Blazers.
Monday, Doug Collins (calling the game for NBC and still not accepting his 1972 Olympic Silver Medal) made a call that might haunt Blazer fans forever. He said that Batum sometimes gets lost on the court and is unable to put his fingerprints on a game. Part of Nic’s failure to impact Monday’s game came from Tony Parker, a score-first point guard. Some of it came from the fact that Nic still struggles to create his own shot. Part of it came from his inability to connect on open looks. Part of it came from the simple fact that outside of Ali Traore, playing garbage-time minutes against a guy he had a couple inches and forty pounds on, not a single French guy could make a dent in the Re-Dream Team’s armor.
The French have the benefit of playing in a group that futures Tunisia and Nigeria, and of playing the Yanks first. They’ll get some wins, and they’ll get out of the group play. In those games, Nicolas Batum has to assert himself offensively. It may not be the difference between France winning or losing (my guess is France will beat both African teams, split Argentina and Lithuania, and then ultimately lose to either Brazil or Spain in the elimination round), but it should be a kick-start for Nic’s run as the number-two option for the Blazers.
Last season was Nicolas’s best as an American professional. At least some of the credit for the boost in his game has to be given to his performance in Eurobasket. Nic is now a rich man, or a richer man. He won’t earn that money in the Olympics, but if he wants to earn that money once NBA 2012-13 starts he can ill-afford to get lost on the court too often in London.
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