It seems like almost everyone started out doubting Nicolas Batum.
After Kevin Pritchard and his staff orchestrated a trade with Houston to acquire the lanky Frenchman, the overwhelming sentiment amongst the media was that he would stay in Europe for at least another year, maybe more. People wondered whether his slight frame would allow him play the more physical NBA game. There were questions regarding a physical he took in Toronto. And his statistics in the EuroLeague lead one respected journalist to declare definitely that Batum was nowhere near ready.
His performance in the Las Vegas Summer League didn’t do anything to quiet those sentiments. He looked overwhelmed against NBA players; unable to do anything that would lead anyone to believe he belonged on the Trail Blazers’ roster.
So it came as a surprise to most people when the team announced Batum would make his way to Portland rather than spending another season with Le Mans. Once that little piece of conventional wisdom was debunked, the standard narrative changed. While Batum might now be under contract with the Trail Blazers, there was no way he could or would get minutes. A stint with the Idaho Stampede was surely in his future.
Maybe that was Portland’s plan, but it wasn’t Batum’s. He wasn’t going to leave behind his family, friends and teammates in France to pull a tour in Boise. His heart had been questioned, both literally and figuratively. It was then, after a tumultuous four months that saw him drop in the draft and flame out at summer league, that Batum decided he had had enough.
“People were walking over me,” said Batum. “When I think that people told me you maybe need to go to the D-League, in my head, I say ‘No. I am in the NBA; I don’t want to go to the D-League.’ If I come here, I come to play in the NBA. So I just try to keep confidence in myself, try to play hard every time, every practice, to play hard, to be the first in the gym. That’s what I did and that’s why I did a great season.”
Batum’s 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds averages in a little over 18 minutes per game might not scream “great season,” but his better-than-average three-point shooting and his status as the team’s best wing defender made his rookie season an unqualified success, especially given the surprise nature of his contributions. And the confidence and maturity Batum gained throughout the 2008-09 season and over the summer playing for the French national team would prove more important to the long-term success of the Trail Blazers than raw per game averages.
Head coach Nate McMillan has seen the difference in Batum through the first days of training camp. The quiet, tentative kid who was left on the doorstep of the Trail Blazers practice facility has been replaced with a self-assured man ready to contribute from the jump.
“Last year (Batum) came in as a rookie not really knowing what to expect,” said McMillan. “This year you see him not thinking, but more reacting. Very aggressive. He knows he can play at this level and play with this group of guys and play in this league. You’re seeing a guy who is very aggressive, attacking the glass. He’s looking to put the ball on the floor, looking more relaxed, more confident in his ability.”
You can see that confidence in the way Batum carries himself. The swagger he showed in fits and starts last season is now ever-present. He’s become more assertive, instinctual.
“I feel better than last year,” said Batum. “I am more comfortable, more confident in my game. I’ll keep playing defense like I did last year and be more aggressive on offense, to go to the rim, take my shots and don’t be shy.”
Shyness is no longer a problem for Batum, on or off the court. A year older and wiser, he’s set his sights on keeping his starting spot, being more than just a defensive specialist and proving to all of those who doubted him, those who passed him over, that they made a serious miscalculation.
“I’m more mature than last year,” said Batum. “Now I know the NBA life and the NBA game. I know this life. I’m different than last year. I grew up a lot.”