Nicolas Batum spent most of his seven NBA seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers deferring to stars.
In Charlotte he’s been told to be a star.
The Hornets made over roughly half their roster in the offseason, acquiring seven players for a maximum 15 regular-season roster spots. Batum, a 6-foot-8 shooting guard/small forward, was the most prominent of those acquisitions and almost certainly the most consequential.
From the day Batum arrived in Charlotte in June, coach Steve Clifford described an expanded role that will put the ball in his hands as much as any Hornet’s. General manager Rich Cho, who worked for the Trail Blazers before coming to Charlotte, says one of the things he likes most about Batum is how he “embraces” that responsibility.
The question, though, is whether he’s up to this. While Batum has a wide skill set, he has never been asked to take charge of an NBA team. Throughout his time in Portland (the Houston Rockets drafted him 25th overall in 2008, then traded him to the Trail Blazers), Batum played with an All-Star in forward in LaMarcus Aldridge. Later in his Portland career, he played alongside point guard Damien Lillard.
To call him an afterthought in Portland would not be accurate. But he was never that team’s primary offensive option.
“Nic has always been third or fourth option,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said at Friday’s media day. “Now he’s going to be second or first option.”
Batum, who recently played for his native France at Eurobasket, believes he’s up to the task. His career NBA statistics are modest: 11.2 points per game, three assists and 5.1 rebounds. He’s coming off his least productive NBA season since being a rookie. Last season his scoring dipped to 9.4 points per game and he had career lows in field-goal percentage (40 percent) and 3-point percentage (32 percent).
Batum acknowledged shortly after the trade that he welcomed a change. The Blazers busted up their roster in anticipation of Aldridge leaving (he signed with the San Antonio Spurs).
Clifford desperately needs a more functional, skilled offense to complement the strong defense the Hornets have played the past two seasons. He has frequently made the analogy between what he wants from Batum and what small forward Hedo Turkoglu did with the Orlando Magic when Clifford was an assistant coach there.
“I think he can be very much like how Hedo was for us in Orlando. We were already good, but he made us better by going from a good, solid NBA player to an All-Star-caliber player,” Clifford said. “When I watch Nic on film, I think he can do the same.”
Don’t confuse offense with individual points: Clifford wants Batum’s decision-making and playmaking for teammates as much as he wants Batum baskets. The Hornets are making a bet (Batum will be an unrestricted free agent in July) that he can improve ball movement on a team that struggled in that area since the departure of power forward Josh McRoberts last year.
“I won’t be the guy who takes 25 shots, no. But I have the game to help this team win games,” Batum said. “We’re a playoff team and we need to show it from day one. I know I can be a guy who does more than I have been doing the past few years.”
Batum is a basketball nerd in the best sense of the term: When the Hornets traded for him (giving up Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh to make the deal happen), Batum quickly started studying his new teammates. He thinks he’ll be a good fit with big man Al Jefferson and believes point guard Kemba Walker has All-Star potential.
“I love watching games. I study all the time,” Batum said. “I always talk NBA and I love touching the basketball. I try to know every guy(’s game) in this league. I want to know what I’m facing. Know the weakness, know the strength. I think I know the game and want to be the best at knowing the game.”
In that regard he’s somewhat like close friend and fellow Frenchman Boris Diaw, a former Charlotte Bobcat. When Diaw had it going in Charlotte (and, yes, it didn’t end well under then-coach Paul Silas), Diaw was tremendous at keeping the ball moving. There is a selflessness about how most French players are taught the game.
“I like when the ball is moving. I hate when it gets stuck with one guy,” Batum said. “It’s a beautiful game. I’m going to try to be the guy who shows them how that game can be played. That’s the way we’re going to win games.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell