Scott Fowler

Nic Batum better not play like that when he gets back to Charlotte

A disappointed Nic Batum answers questions in a hallway in Rio following France’s 87-66 loss to Australia in Olympic round-robin play Saturday.
A disappointed Nic Batum answers questions in a hallway in Rio following France’s 87-66 loss to Australia in Olympic round-robin play Saturday. sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

If all you knew about Nic Batum was the one game he played in these Olympics so far, you would truly believe that the Charlotte Hornets just made the worst decision of their lives last month when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history.

Batum was absolutely awful Saturday as his France team got drilled by Australia 87-66 in the first game of round-robin play. How awful? He started and played 22 minutes, but he didn’t take a shot or score until the third quarter.

Batum ended up with five points. Worse than that, his turnovers (four) matched his assists and rebounds combined (two apiece). And, like the rest of the French team, he kept getting beaten on clever backdoor plays by an Australian team that looked like it was running the Princeton offense.

“We were not ready to play,” Batum said. “We played bad. They played great. That’s it.”

You have to take the long view with Batum, and I still believe the Hornets did what they had to do when they gave him a five-year, $120-million contract in July to stick around. He helped Kemba Walker to his best season in 2015-16, taking a lot of the playmaking pressure off the point guard.

Batum’s lone season for the Hornets was the team’s best since 2002, as it won 48 regular-season games and took Miami to a Game 7 in the first round of the NBA playoffs before losing. That Charlotte team has been dramatically reconfigured in the past month. Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee signed big contracts elsewhere. Marvin Williams signed a new deal and stuck around like Batum, and the Hornets added Ramon Sessions, Marco Belinelli and Roy Hibbert.

“That’s just the NBA,” Batum told me in a hallway in Arena Carioca 1 on Saturday after France’s loss. “We get new teammates. We have to adjust. But we still will have a good team. I’m not complaining about it.”

More immediately concerning to Batum is the way he and France played Saturday. Although Batum struggled with a foot injury during the NBA playoffs, he said he felt healthy. “I’m good,” he said. Nevertheless, he never drove to the basket, mostly content to pass the ball around the perimeter and defer to point guard Tony Parker.

While Parker had a strong first half with 16 points, he scored only two more in the second half. France could find no other decent scoring option after that. Australia, led by NBA players Patty Mills (21 points) and Andrew Bogut (18), dominated the game and never trailed.

Australia coach Andrej Lemanis used a series of players defensively on Batum that matched his 6-foot-8 height and also had those players never leave Batum even if Parker was able to penetrate.

“If he gets just one or two (baskets), Batum can be a problem for you all night,” Lemanis said. “We just kept some size on him, and tried to not let him get any kick-out threes.”

It worked. But it’s also early. In the Las Vegas odds, France was considered the third-best team in this 12-team Olympic tournament, behind only the U.S. (a prohibitive favorite to win another gold medal) and Spain. Australia was considered only the ninth-best team, so this was a bad loss for the French.

France has four more round-robin games – including one against the U.S. on Aug. 14 – to get it together before the knockout stage.

Batum was obviously disappointed with what happened and he shared the blame for it. He only took three shots. Every Hornets fan has seen Batum overpass at times, and his unselfishness is generally a positive thing. But this French team already has one former Hornet who is an overpasser (Boris Diaw) and it just doesn’t have many pure scorers other than Parker.

France needs the same Batum who averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists last season for the Hornets, playing the way he wanted to play for the first time in his career. There were only five other NBA players who had averages of at least 14-6-5 last season. They were Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden, Golden State’s Draymond Green and Cleveland’s LeBron James.

That’s good company, as are the Olympics.

There are a slew of great players in Rio.

Batum needs to remember that he’s one of them.

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