Charlotte Hornets

Hornets’ Nic Batum ‘got lost a little bit.’ Will finding his way back quiet critics?

Charlotte Hornets forward Nic Batum knows he “got lost a little bit” at times this season. He’s finding his way back.

Back-to-back games of 18 and 19 points indicate that, although never in his 10-plus NBA seasons has Batum defined his value as a basketball player purely by his scoring. Batum, the highest-paid player on this roster, comes from a basketball culture in France where if your team wins, and you contributed, that trumps numbers on a statistics sheet.

Batum signed a five-year, $120 million contract with the Hornets in the summer 2016, following what was arguably his best NBA season and first in Charlotte. That contract was the largest in the history of team sports in Charlotte and draws abundant scrutiny from fans.

In an exclusive interview with Batum Sunday, I asked him if that contract feels like a burden.

“No,” Batum said. “I’ve never been that guy who scored 25 points per game since I was a pro. When I was in France (playing professionally as a teenager) people would say, ‘He’ll never get to the (NBA)‘ because I never scored 20 points. But I scored 14 points and had five rebounds and six assists.

“I never really cared about how people outside basketball think of me. Coaches or players saying ‘I love to play with you’ (matters) but I don’t really care what people think of me.

“That does not mean I think I’m a great player. I make a lot of mistakes on the court and I have some bad games. Some criticism is justified, for sure.”

Batum by far draws the most negative attention from the fan base. Turn on Charlotte sports-talk radio, now that the Carolina Panthers’ season is over, and it won’t take long for some caller to say Batum doesn’t come close to earning the $24 million he makes this season. When Batum plays well, as in games in Memphis and Milwaukee last week, it triggers discussion of how to trade his remaining $52 million-plus over the next two seasons to another team.

Like Batum said, he makes plenty of mistakes. He’ll commit a turnover about once a game that defines a reckless pass. But he’s right when he says teammates respect his professionalism, particularly his focus on the greater good, What he’s gone through this season with a sense of grace illustrates that.

Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum, left, confers with head coach James Borrego in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) David Zalubowski AP

A different path

When James Borrego replaced Steve Clifford as Hornets coach last summer, one of Borrego’s top priorities was finding point guard Kemba Walker more offensive help. To that end, he replaced defensive specialist Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting lineup with Jeremy Lamb.

That had the tumble-down effect of Batum shifting from shooting guard to small forward (a position he played previously with the Portland Trail Blazers). More specifically, it meant asking Batum to defend the opposing teams’ top perimeter scorer most games, whether that meant a small forward, shooting guard or point guard.

Also, with future Hall-of-Famer Tony Parker signing as a free agent as Walker’s backup, some of Batum’s prior passing responsibilities were reduced.

Borrego said Sunday he’s never heard Batum mope about what has been a major shift.

“When there is change, a new role, that’s not easy,” Borrego said of Batum. “Especially, when you’ve been a guy asked to handle the ball a tremendous amount and been a playmaker your whole career.

“It’s a two-fold thing: He’s been one of our most consistent defenders. He’s taking the main matchup on the perimeter every single night. That’s been MKG in the past. And offensively, it’s been a challenge for him figuring out where he fits in this offense. He’s a rhythm guy and he needs to get touches to have rhythm. But he’s embraced how we’re trying to play with all the ball-movement and multiple ballhandlers.”

Batum endorsed all of this, excited by how Lamb could improve the half-court offense. He pushed the front office to pursue Parker, a fellow Frenchman and close friend who was a superstar in his prime with the San Antonio Spurs and who dominates the ball far more than Walker does.

Just because something is good doesn’t make it easy: Batum struggled to figure out how to contribute offensively while having the ball less, and that’s where his “got lost a little bit” description applies. Also, it’s meant redistributing his energy between offense and defense, because he now guards a spectrum of elite players ranging from Oklahoma City forward Paul George to Boston point guard Kyrie Irving.

“In this league, every single night I have someone crazy good to guard at the wing spots, or sometimes at point guard. And when I guard the point guards, I’ve got to pick them up full-court to deny them the ball, to slow them down,” Batum described.

“That’s the biggest difference, but it’s on offense, too. I knew Jeremy would get the ball a lot more and take more shots (than Kidd-Gilchrist) and I’m cool with that. The team needed that.”

Be himself

Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum has never been a big scorer, which leads some to question whether he can justify his NBA salary. Brandon Dill AP

Shortly after Batum signed the big contract in 2016, Clifford was asked what he needed from Batum to justify the salary. Clifford went out of his way to say Batum shouldn’t try to be something he’s not. Specifically, Clifford said, it would be detrimental for him to attempt to be a 25-points-per-game scorer because that’s not his skill set. He’s a generalist, someone whose collection of points, rebounds, assists and steals are what made him valuable in the Hornets’ 48-win season in 2015-16.

Batum hasn’t been as good as he was that season and neither have the Hornets. He currently averages 9.3 points, which would be his lowest scoring average since his rookie season in Portland in 2008-09. However, he’s having by far his best shooting season as a Hornet, averaging 46.4 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from 3-point range.

Batum said he’s felt more comfortable in the offense the past two weeks. Borrego said he’s made some tweaks of late to find more catch-and-shoot and driving opportunities for both Batum and rookie Miles Bridges.

I asked Batum Sunday where scoring fits in his priorities. I found it interesting he responded by mentioning his favorite player growing up was Scottie Pippen, who complemented a great scorer — now-Hornets owner Michael Jordan — by filling other gaps during the Chicago Bulls’ championship runs.

“There are guys who want to score to win. Maybe there are also guys who score to pump (up) their numbers, for contract stuff or to stay in the league or to get minutes,” Batum said. “It’s not all about numbers. It’s also about defense. If you don’t play defense, you’ve got a problem.”

Batum concluded by saying he knows teammates understand his contribution to the bottom line, and that makes it not hard to tune out noise.

“I don’t care about myself,” Batum said. “I always put the team first. All four years here it’s been team-first.”

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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