When the Portland Trail Blazers announced they had acquired a 6'8" forward from France via a trade on draft day in 2008, few Blazers fans knew of the name, Nicolas Batum.
Houston had selected him with the 25th pick of the draft, then traded him to Portland for Darrell Arthur and Joey Dorsey (also selected in that draft). It was a day that the Blazers made several draft-day trades and, when the smoke cleared, many Portland fans would ask: who is Nicolas Batum?
Then-general manager Kevin Pritchard referred to Nicolas as a "project" who the Blazers intended to develop over the course of a few years; and as a defensive specialist.
This project came off the bench in his first three games in the NBA. In his fourth game, he was inserted into the starting lineup. he would start the rest of the 75 games in his rookie year in which he played. Granted, he averaged less than usual starters minutes -- 18.4 -- but he showed raw athleticism and a keen ability to defend. he also showed signs of his outside shooting, hitting nearly 37 percent of his three-point attempts. Nicolas averaged 5.4 points 2.6 rebounds per game during his rookie season. It was during that rookie campaign that Brandon Roy claimed Nicolas as "his rookie," becoming a mentor, friend and even protector to him.
"You could say that Brandon took me under his wing, both on and off the court," Nicolas told BasketUSA.com on October 8, 2009. "One time, we went out together after a game. A guy started bothering me, Roy came and got rid of him real quick.
"He gave me confidence, explaining to me that he also struggled with the 'rookie wall' at that point of the season. When your franchise player takes an interest in you like that, it's reassuring and encouraging."
A shoulder injury he sustained against Dallas late in his rookie season would lead to surgery and sideline Nicolas for the first 45 games of his second season. He actually finished the season and played for the French national team during the summer before being examined by Portland's doctors. As the Blazers were riddled with injuries during the season, it was one of the initial injuries to affect the team.
When he came back, he returned to a team sorely in need of his services. He answered the call, playing the last 37 games of the season, including 25 starts. He nearly doubled his point average (10.1) and improved to 3.8 rebounds in 24 minutes per game. Perhaps the telling stats from that season are that he shot 52 percent from the floor, 84 percent from the line and 41 percent from behind the three-point arc.
He captured career highs in points (31) and assists (7) in a Blazers' win over Minnesota on February 27, 2010. Nicolas returned from injury confident and intent on improving.
"I think I'm more mature this year. My approach of the game is different," he told Sean Meagher of OregonLive.com after that career game. "When I play the game I'm different because I see more. I've learned a lot. I'm just more mature than last year.
"I want to be more aggressive on offense. Do my thing on offense and have fun," he added. "I just want the game come to me. The more I play, the more it comes to me."
Coach McMillan noticed the difference as well. "This year he's much more comfortable with himself, the game, what we expect (and) his role. He's playing with more confidence," the coach said in the same article.
After playing for his country's national team in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, Nicolas came in ready to embark on his third NBA season. Despite being in and out of the starting lineup, he has shown improvement in several offensive categories, including points (11.8), rebounds (4.5) and assists (1.6). He's played all but one of the Blazers games this season, with 59 starts.
His defense has been as reliable as ever. On offense, he's added a couple moves to the hoop and has become adept at coming off the pick. Nicolas is very cognizant of the areas of his game on which he has to work.
"Offense. Especially post-up moves. So mostly post-up or the jump shot," he told bustabucket.com on November 29, 2010. "Because most of the time, they put a small guy on me, so I have to post up that guy more in games. It's good."
This year's Portland team is very close-knit and works very well together on the court. The blazers feature several athletic players who remain active on both ends of the floor.
"We are so athletic, so aggressive, so talented ... we've got a (starting) lineup and then we've got Brandon Roy, Marcus Camby and Rudy Fernandez from the bench," he said to blazersedge.com on March 19.
Nicolas continues to improve his game and fit into his role as the Blazers work toward this year's playoffs, and their collective desire to win the championship. As with most things, it's a work in progress.
Part of that is the continued evolution of their "project."