Nicolas Batum started 76 games his rookie season, which gave the first year Frenchman a semblance of NBA credibility, especially after a lackluster summer league performance that had many assuming he'd stay in Europe or pull extended duty in the D-League. But though he played, Batum was rarely on the floor when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, and that probably hurt him in the playoff series against Houston, when every quarter was like the fourth.
Things have changed for Batum. He's spent the past two summers playing in top-level international competition while assuming a leadership role with the French national team. He's got another playoff series under his belt. He's matured both mentally and physically and the results have been impressive.
In the first three games this season, Batum has become a mainstay of Nate McMillan's fourth quarter lineup, the results of which we saw Saturday night against the Knicks, as he blocked Raymond Felton's shot (though the scorers incorrectly attributed the block to Marcus Camby) with 20 seconds to play, denying New York what would have been a one-point lead and late-game momentum.
But it's not just about defense anymore for Nic. Along with late-game minutes, Batum is also getting touches on the offensive end, something that, in the past two seasons, has been more of a rarity than fourth quarter playing time.
"I just tried to be more aggressive and people look at me much more than last year," said Batum, who is averaging 14.7 points on 60 percent shooting from the field. "BRoy try to look at me. Dre told me when you're wide open, ask me for the ball every time. Camby watched me. They trust me much more than the last two years.
"I shot 17 times in 27 minutes (in the opener against the Suns). I've never done that. I know I'm going to get wide open shots because teams double team Dre, LA, BRoy, those guys. So I have to be ready, don't be relaxed."
We saw a taste of Batum's budding offensive game last seasons, specifically in a two game stretch in which he scored 31 and 21 against Minnesota and Memphis, respectively. But back then, an increase in Batum's scoring would result in a decline in his primary role as the team's best defender. Being able to do both is still a work in progress, but the early returns have been promising.
"When you're out on the floor you've got to play both ends of the floor," said Nate McMillan. "(Batum) can do some good things on both ends of the floor so that's part of consistency and learning to do that and not allowing one end to affect the other. If you're out there defending, you've still got to try to give something on the offensive end. And if your shots are falling you've still got to defend. You've got to play both ends of the floor."
Even through Batum's ability to put the ball in the hole has improved, he's still unlikely to have his number called out of the huddle by Coach McMillan. He is still the fourth offensive option, at best, in Portland's starting lineup, and that's unlikely to change, at least this season. But Batum is finding that there's plenty of opportunities to be had even if he's still on page 2 of opposing teams' scouting report.
"He's just playing basketball," said McMillan. "He's getting to the open spot and he's knocking down shots. We've been moving the ball. He's doing a good job of moving and playing off of the ball. One of the biggest things guys need to learn to do in this league is playing off the ball. A lot of things can happen if you know how to play off the ball. He's done a good job of moving, going to the offensive glass, getting out in transition, coming off screens."
By doing those things, Batum has earned a prized spot in the Portland rotation as a starter, a finisher and a scorer. Two years ago, only one of those labels would have been applicable.
"(McMillan) trust me," said Batum. "It's my third year. I know the game, I know I'll play in the last quarter. I know pressure, I know the game, I know the plays, I know what I have to do in defense and offense. I've got no pressure. I'm not scared."