Two minutes into his first pickup game as a Charlotte Hornet, Tony Parker was screaming at everyone on the practice court.
“And he was screaming at me first!” fellow Frenchman Nic Batum recalled Monday.
Good. Batum needs that, and I can’t think of anyone better suited than Parker for the job. He was the “Boris Whisperer” in San Antonio, drawing the best from former Charlotte Bobcat Boris Diaw as a Spur. Parker can now be the “Nic Whisperer” to another countryman in the NBA.
Batum, 29, was bad last season. Not horrible, the way some fans viewed him, but well off the best he’s played in his three seasons since the trade from Portland to Charlotte in 2015. His points, assists and rebounds were all down from the prior season. More importantly, he wasn’t the high impact, versatile connector that gave management incentive to sign him to a five-season, $120 million contract in the summer of 2016.
There is still about $75 million guaranteed over three seasons on the deal. The Hornets looked to trade Batum. I know they asked the Cleveland Cavaliers to accept Batum as part of a package when the Cavs inquired about guard Kemba Walker’s availability. That was apparently a dead end.
There’s a difference between overpaid and obsolete. Batum is far from obsolete. I would argue its new coach James Borrego’s top job to figure out how better to use Batum going forward.
We’ve already seen steps in that direction. The Hornets traded center Dwight Howard in July in part because he’s a ball-stopper who would have clogged up the quick-decision, fluid offense Borrego wants. No one on this roster is a better conductor of that sort of offense than Batum, who defined himself Monday as a “point forward.” Howard and Batum never clicked and it marginalized some of what Batum does best.
Batum is all for Borrego’s intention to move him from shooting guard back to small forward, his primary position with the Portland Trail Blazers before joining the Hornets. That means someone else becomes the starting shooting guard, someone with more of a score-first mentality.
“We need a shooting guard next to me and Kemba” Walker, Batum said. “We have Jeremy Lamb, we have Malik Monk, we have Dwayne Bacon. Those three are shooting guards who can be great in that spot.”
Batum is never going to average 25 points per game, nor should he attempt to be that player. But there’s a difference between gunner and passive, and Batum needs to rediscover aggression.
Kick in the butt?
Sometimes your true friends are the ones who tell you the thing you don’t enjoy hearing, but need to know. That could apply to what Parker and Walker each said Monday regarding Batum - that he must be more aggressive.
“Nic is really laid back. He loves to do the small things,” Walker said. “But we’ve got to get him to understand that we need him to do a little bit more than the small things. He will. I think he’s ready to step it up this year and be better.”
The evidence is there from that first season after the trade, when Batum frequently flirted, and sometimes assembled, triple-doubles.
“The first year he was here, he was awesome,” Walker recalled. “That’s the Nic we need.”
That’s the Nic who Parker, signed by the Hornets after 17 seasons with the Spurs, can hopefully help re-ignite. They have a history with the French national team that formed a deep bond. When Batum calls Parker his big brother, it’s way more than good manners and marketing. It’s why Parker could show up on Batum’s turf, immediately start screaming at him, and it be constructive.
“Last season was a tough season for him, the way they were playing with Dwight and putting the ball inside a lot,” Parker said. “Nic is the type of guy who is not going to force it.”
Batum says everything professionally about the last year turned out “weird.” Thinking he needed to guard against burnout, he didn’t play much in the summer of 2017, a radical departure for a guy who devoted off-seasons to France’s national program. That, combined with an elbow injury in October, threw him off precipitously.
“I went from April to December with no games. That never happened to me in my life,” Batum recalled. “I didn’t really know where I was, my rhythm was off, it was weird.”
So this past summer was an extreme reset: He said he was back on the court three days after the Hornets season ended in April. He took only one full week of the summer off, for a vacation with his wife in Italy. Now, he has a whole new coaching staff and front office to satisfy.
“We changed the offense. We changed the coach. We changed the whole style of play,” Batum concluded.
And now the Hornets need a changed Batum to bring it together.