Scott Fowler

Nic Batum leaves Rio behind, returns to full strength with Charlotte Hornets

Nicolas Batum is back to being the player the Charlotte Hornets loved enough to make him the highest-paid player in franchise history, not the one who struggled for France in the Rio Olympics over the summer.
Nicolas Batum is back to being the player the Charlotte Hornets loved enough to make him the highest-paid player in franchise history, not the one who struggled for France in the Rio Olympics over the summer. Getty Images

The pass was one in a thousand, the sort that you might throw in a video game but rarely see in real life.

Nic Batum had the ball Saturday night. Kemba Walker was cutting toward the basket. The problem was that New Orleans center Omer Asik – all 7 feet and 255 pounds of him – was directly between the two of them.

Batum made it no problem, though, by firing a highlight-reel bounce pass directly between the legs of Asik that hit Walker perfectly in stride for a layup.

In soccer, you would call this a nutmeg. For the 8-4 Charlotte Hornets – who are about to enter a difficult four-games-in-six-days stretch this week – you just call it more evidence that Batum is back.

I was worried about Batum this summer, honestly. I saw him play in person twice for the French national team during the Rio Olympics, and both times he was a ghost of the player that the Hornets loved so much that they gave him a five-year, $120-million contract this summer.

In the worst of those Olympic games, Batum actually posted a double-zero – zero points and zero rebounds for France in 18 minutes in a 25-point loss to Spain that knocked the underachieving French out of the Olympics with no medal.

It was obvious France’s coach, Vincent Collet, gave Batum a reduced role on the French team. Batum rarely touched the ball, often camping out in the corner to occasionally shoot a three-pointer. But still – a double-zero?

Turns out my worry was for naught, however. Batum is playing well and has been a significant part of the Hornets’ fine start.

“I told you it would be OK,” Batum said with a smile recently when I approached him in the Hornets’ locker room. “They just let me do so much more here. It’s so nice.”

So far this season Nic Batum is averaging 14.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Those numbers are almost exactly the same as the ones he had a season ago, when he helped guide the Hornets to a 48-win season.

While Kemba Walker has developed into the Hornets’ biggest star, Batum has had a significant role in turning not only Walker but also Cody Zeller into far better players than they were before he got to Charlotte.

Batum finds Zeller on pick-and-roll plays constantly, which often lead to dunks. For Walker, Batum relieves some of the ball-handling pressure and allows Kemba to sometimes receive the ball on a cut instead of always having to create his own shot. Batum has said his primary individual goal this season is to get Walker into the NBA all-star game (I think it will happen).

On Friday night, Walker, Batum and Zeller each scored at least 20 points as Charlotte got its best win of the season, at home against Atlanta.

“Cody and I tried to carry this team through three quarters, and then the little guy (Walker) took over like he has done for us all year long,” Batum said.

On Saturday, when Charlotte lost a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and the game to New Orleans, it didn’t work out so well. Batum had a chance at a game-tying three-pointer late in overtime, but missed it.

This week Batum and the Hornets will be severely tested, with home games against Memphis, San Antonio and the New York Knicks and a road trip to face the Knicks as well. It’s a difficult week that is part of an 18-games-in-32-days stretch that coach Steve Clifford often has referred to as the litmus test that will show what kind of team he really has. Certainly, that team needs Batum on the floor every night.

Rio seems like a distant memory now. The old Nic is back.

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