Mar 8, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts talks with forward Nicolas Batum (88) during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at the AT

Nicolas Batum: The 3 Year Plan

To the concern of some cautious Blazer fans, Nicolas Batum was signed to a 4 year $48 million dollar contract  last year, in hopes that he would soon reach a rather optimistic ceiling. One season later, Nicolas Batum’s value is still up for debate. However; it is clear that the Blazers are invested in him, for better or worse, so there is no reason not to plan ahead.

Despite marked improvement as a facilitator, Batum’s 5th NBA season was underwhelming. That is not to say that he performed especially poorly, but he did not meet the expectations his inflated contract bred. For $11 million at 24 years old, one’s points per 36 minutes should not suffer a decline as his did (16.4 in 2011-2012, 13.4 in 2012-2013).

Only so much of this can be blamed on injury. Batum’s wrist gave him difficulty most of the season, but I’m not going to let him off the hook. You can’t score 19 one night, slum for 5 and 3 the next few, then return to form with 15 and blame the dip on affliction. I understand the need to play gingerly at times, but many were quick to mask blatant inconsistency with the convenient blanket excuse of “soreness”.

The problem is not that Batum is good unless he feels bad; the problem is that there are two Nicolas Batums in the first place. One is the chase-down defender and knock-down shooter Portland paid $11 million for, and the other bleeds turnovers that require the chase-downs and can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

In order for Batum to be worth his contract, I want to see the following ‘per game’ progression over the next three years (if not better, of course):

Points

Rebounds

Assists

Steals

Blocks

2012-2013

14.3

5.6

4.9

1.2

1.1

2013-2014

16.0

6.0

5.0

1.5

1.2

2014-2015

17.0

6.5

5.0

1.8

1.4

2015-2016

18.5

7.0

5.3

2.0

1.5

 

First things first, Batum has to get a midrange game. He’s a respectable 3-point shooter and a strong finisher at the rim, but to be the complete package Portland needs, he MUST become a more efficient jump shooter. Batum shot just 34.6% anywhere between 3 feet out and the 3 point line all season. These majestic clunkers made up 26% of Batum’s shot attempts. He has to get more comfortable at the elbow so the offense does not stagnate into predictability (more so).

As for rebounding, I’m less concerned. Batum has a 7’4” wingspan and an athletic build, he just needs to work on boxing out. Most of his contested boards come from reaching over opponents rather than edging them off the ball. At this point, it’s unrealistic for him to add weight, but learning to use his better is within reason. His tendency to fly into the scrum should be converted into starting there to begin with.

Assists were a pleasant surprise from Batum last season, but not without cost. His newly discovered knack for finding seams was met with a fair number of imagined gaps. Sloppy passes to unavailable teammates gave away key possessions in a game where each one counts. His decision making has improved, but his court vision isn’t where it could be. When Batum is able to recognize defense poised in the passing lanes before committing to the swing, his value will skyrocket.

Speaking of passing lanes, Batum’s long arms make him an ideal perimeter defender. This is why Terry Stotts will occasionally put him on opposing point guards.  The sheer width of a strafing Batum is enough to force opponents into bad passes. I want to see Batum’s name displayed in the top 10 on the steals leaderboard one day. Perhaps, as a forward, this is an unrealistic expectation, but the potential is there depending upon how the Blazers’ evolving defense changes.

Where blocking is concerned, Batum’s numbers are fine; it’s the type of blocks I want to see change. It’s no secret that Batum excels at transition defense, so why do I want to see fewer flying leaps to save the day? Because when he’s the first one back to play savior, it usually means he turned the ball over moments earlier on the other end. Instead, I want to see Batum stuffing would-be put-backs and finger-tipping jumpshots. His aforementioned athleticism and Condor-esque wingspan should prove useful tools in this regard.

Batum’s role with the Blazers is still in flux. It seems they saw him as an “every-man” and paid top dollar to keep him around, but haven’t filled the gaps in his game to actualize their vision. For Batum to have earned his contract by the time it expires in 3 years, he needs to: 1) increase his mid-range proficiency to capitalize on available shots, 2) join the scrum and battle for rebounds instead of relying solely on length and circumstance, 3) learn to read the defense to avoid turnovers in a facilitating role, 4) continue using his length to shut down passing lanes and pressure opponents into turnovers, and 5) develop a stronger defensive game beyond (within) the perimeter.

When Batum hits 27 and the Blazers are faced with the decision to try to keep him or let him go, it needs to be a no-brainer. As of yet, his potential is apparent, but not reached. He has 3 years to impress before we can truly judge the value of his contract. Right now, Blazer fans can retain optimism, but have the right to be uneasy. More than anything, consistency will be key when his game peaks. Hopefully that will happen before his current contract in Portland expires.

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