Covering the NBA is all about paying attention to superstars and the markets that matter. But what about finding a superstar before they become one in a city which should matter? The Portland Trail Blazers have been a sneaky good organization over the years, and folks need to pay attention now. While draft busts like Greg Oden get all the play, it’s actually the guys they have hit on we should be paying attention to. Nicolas Batum, the 23-year old Frenchman, is the perfect example.
Batum was drafted by Portland with the 25th overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft. Standing at a lean 6’8, most of the early impressions of Batum were of a raw but athletic young player. Batum did not disappoint early in his career either. Outside his rookie campaign (5.4 points per game), Batum has averaged over double-digits every year while shooting over 45 percent from the field.
That’s all well and good for a player folks never expect anything out of. Yet, after last season had ended, the buzz around Batum’s star potential began to get louder. This past July, the Minnesota Timberwolves had Batum signed to an offer sheet reportedly worth $46 million over the next four years. That is a lot of money for a player who never averaged over 14 points per game in his previous four seasons. However, just four days later, the Trail Blazers seized the opportunity to match the offer sheet and keep Batum in Portland.
There must have been a reason two teams wanted Batum’s services so badly. And we are finding out the answer every time we watch him step out on the hardwood this season. Through 11 games this year, Batum is averaging 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals per game. This is on a Portland team that has three other players who attempt 13 shots or more a game, two of whom actually attempt more in LaMarcus Aldridge (18.9 FGA) and Damian Lillard (15 FGA).
That’s not a lot of shots to go around, so you better be efficient at getting your buckets to average 20 a game. Batum does exactly that, shooting .481 from the floor and a much improved .395 from beyond the arc. But those stats aren’t the most telling. Batum is getting to the free-throw line with much more frequency this season. Through his first four years in the NBA, Batum averaged just 1.8 attempts from the charity strip a game. He’s more than doubled that, as he now attempts four a game. That’s a lot of easy points for a player who shoots .831 percent from the line over his career.
Portland has a lot of nice young pieces to build around. Aldridge (Portland big men curse on hold?) is an already established double-double machine who happens to be one of the few legitimate scoring big men left in the NBA. Lilliard is a rookie who just radiates that superstar feeling with every dribble with the basketball. And then there’s their rookie Meyers Leonard, who at best can be one of the better complimentary big men in the league and at worst a solid rotational big who prevents a huge drop in play when going to the bench.
Alas, there is still Batum. One of the most overshadowed players in the entire NBA. I don’t know if it’s because he plays in a place where nobody leaves after visiting. Or maybe it’s because of the other players that surround him – Lilliard more flashy and fun to watch, Aldridge more name-recognizable. Who knows, but at the end of the day, none of that really matters.
I don’t know if Batum will ever become a top 10-15 player. It could be that he’s just off to a really good start, and the play of Aldridge and Lilliard are leaving him with a much easier chance to be successful. Whatever is going on in Portland, it’s working out for Batum and the Blazers.
Possibly the oddest part of the whole Batum story is the number he wears on the court, 88. Generally a number that high is reserved for a player who’s not expected to make it out of the NBA Summer League. So while the potential to be a top-15 player in the league might be questionable, I doubt Batum will ever have a hard time making it through Summer League.
Joe covers the Big East for Rant Sports and occasionally dabbles in the NBA. Follow Joe on Twitter @JosephNardone