Nic Batum has been nothing if not durable: Only twice in his nine previous NBA seasons has Batum failed to play in at least 70 of 82 regular-season games.
There was a serious risk this time that Batum’s regular-season appearances would be zero.
Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow last month during a preseason exhibition against the Detroit Pistons. This was not a typical basketball injury; something more common to baseball pitchers, often requiring so-called “Tommy John” surgery.
Ideally, Nic Batum would be cleared to play in the nationally televised home game Nov. 15 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Batum avoided any surgery at all. A specialist in Dallas approved him letting the tendon mend naturally. Had he injured the same ligament in his right elbow – his shooting arm – it could have been a “tragedy,” Batum said shortly after his diagnosis.
Now he’s closing in on playing, at the most optimistic end of his minimum six- to eight-week recovery timetable. He is expected to play some 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 at practice Thursday in Boston.. If all goes well, the plan is for him to go 5-on-5 once the Hornets return from their current four-game trip at the end of the week.
Ideally, Batum would be cleared to play in the nationally televised home game Nov. 15 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Hornets have four days without games leading up to that date, which could serve as Batum’s minicamp.
“It’s getting better every day: Working out by myself, and doing all the things I used to do. No pain at all,” Batum told the Observer at the Sunday morning shootaround in Minneapolis. “I used to shoot with a tape (protecting his left elbow) every time. Now I can shoot without it when I’m shooting by myself.
“I’ll still need tape when I do contact, but I don’t need the tape when I just shoot because no more pain. That’s a good sign!”
Batum, in the second season of a five-year, $120 million contract signed in July 2016, is the Hornets’ most versatile player. A 6-8 guard-forward from France, he averaged 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists last season. He wasn’t as efficient as in his first Hornets season, particularly as a shooter (40 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range).
But the 5-5 Hornets miss him, particularly for his organizational skills on offense.
“You don’t replace a Nic Batum,” Hornets power forward Marvin Williams said shortly after Batum’s injury. “He does so much.”
I’m being totally careful. I won’t do anything crazy.
The Hornets have lacked key parts throughout their start. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has missed five games with two separate excused personal absences. Backup center Cody Zeller missed four games with a knee bruise. Backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams just returned following summer-long soreness in both knees.
Think of Batum as this team’s nerve center; he takes some playmaking responsibilities off point guard Kemba Walker when playing with the starters. Then, he’s key to keeping a flawed second unit organized.
Coach Steve Clifford has said Batum would be a natural to work in an NBA front office someday, because he views talent combinations so well. An example: Batum was thinking out loud Sunday morning about how he might fit with Jeremy Lamb, who’s been thrust into a starter’s role. Batum said it makes sense for him to defend small forwards (where he played with the Portland Trail Blazers) in that combination because Lamb matches up better with shooting guards.
But it’s the physical, not the mental, that make up his next steps toward playing.
“I’m going to start doing contact 1-on-1 or 2-on-2” in practices in New York and Boston, Batum said. “Then, maybe 5-on-5 next week.”
Batum had lunch in San Antonio with fellow Frenchman Tony Parker; the Spurs point guard is recovering from a severe calf injury that has been more debilitating than Batum’s situation.
“The biggest thing is trying to stay in shape. When you have a leg injury, that’s so hard,” Batum said. “I have an arm injury, so the first week I could do some (stationary) bike, and then some running.”
Batum has been active at practice, participating in noncontact drills and walk-throughs of the team’s offensive and defensive sets. Clifford anticipates a simple transition once Batum is medically cleared to play.
“From a conditioning standpoint, it won’t take him very long,” Clifford said.
The Hornets were warned to be careful not to rush Batum back; that his elbow might feel healed before he was actually ready for the rough-and-tumble of an NBA game.
“I took my time: Trust me, the last thing I want is to be hurting it” again, Batum said.
“I went back to Dallas to see the specialist again (last Monday), to be ready for the next step. I’m being totally careful. I won’t do anything crazy.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell