Nicolas Batum knew he needed a fresh start. The Hornets knew they needed a scorer on the wing. Both are happy to have found each other.
In his seven seasons with the Trail Blazers, Nicolas Batum was never asked to do anything more on offense than shoot, move the ball, and play within the team’s system. Now in Charlotte, Batum’s being asked to do more than ever, and as he has done for most of his career, he’s settled into his role seamlessly.
For years in Portland, Batum provided backup vocals to other leading voices. Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard all had focal roles on offense, while he made necessary passes and provided complementary offense from the outside. He averaged around five assists per 36 minutes from 2012 to 2015, and managed to shoot 36.3% from deep during his stay.
After a slightly disappointing, but otherwise solid 2013–14 campaign, the window began to close on Batum and the Blazers. He played through several minor injuries last season, leading to a career-low 40% shooting from the field and just 10 points per contest. The team was ousted in the first round of the playoffs, and three starters, including Aldridge, prepared to enter free agency.
“I kind of knew, like, that era was over,” Batum recently told SI.com. “With [Robin] Lopez going to New York, with Wesley [Matthews] going to the Mavericks, especially LaMarcus going to San Antonio, I said, ‘those three guys are gone, that might be it for me, too.’”
The Charlotte Hornets had one of the worst offenses in the league last season and ranked dead last in three-point percentage. Ready for a revamp and in need of an influx of offense, the team sent Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh to the Blazers in exchange for Batum. The Hornets targeted the swingman as someone who could create offense, convert jumpshots and improve the team’s offensive flow.
“I knew I was about to go, and then I was gone,” he said. “But that was a good thing for me, maybe. Of course, I had great years over [in Portland], but we both thought it was good, especially for them, to send me away.”
With one year remaining on his contract, Batum now has the opportunity to try to start anew, and the Trail Blazers can focus on building around Damian Lillard with young prospects like C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard.
“This is a new role, a new job for me, new opportunity, new challenge, new everything with this team,” Batum said.
The new season has also led to the Hornets ripping the wrapping paper off Batum and unleashing his full offensive arsenal. For the first time in his career, he’s a primary option on offense with 62.4 touches per game (second on team), and he’s responded in a big way, earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors and scoring 20 or more points in four of his last five games. That equals the number of 20-point games he recorded in his prior 78 games dating back to the start of last season, according to Elias Sports.
Batum is one of the driving forces behind the facelift of the Hornets’ offense, which is noticeably different just 12 games into this season. They’re shooting over seven more threes per game on average, and their three-point percentage is up to No. 8 in the league at 35.8%. With Batum on the floor, the team is scoring 106.9 points per 100 possessions (up from 100.1 last year). Without him, their offensive rating is just 98.1.
Batum has also been a fluid rhythm shooter, going 51.9% on catch-and-shoot tries. Only three players with at least 50 catch-and-shoot attempts have converted a higher percentage this season—Memphis’s Marc Gasol, Milwaukee’s Jerryd Bayless and Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki.
It’s also Batum’s ability to distribute the basketball in a rapid and decisive manner that helps boost the team’s output during his minutes on the court.
“It’s just really simple. When he catches the ball, he makes simple, quick plays, and he’s usually right,” said head coach Steve Clifford. “So, if he’s open, he shoots it. If he’s defended, he passes and cuts. The other thing is that he already has an understanding of is the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates. He never leads them into trouble. And then he has the size, exceptional skill level, and passing ability to deliver passes from really anywhere. He’s a really talented player. He actually plays, to me, a lot like Tracy McGrady played. Great size, excellent vision, and the ability to deliver passes also off the dribble. Right now, he’s playing at a high, high level.”
Batum is averaging 7.8 potential assists per game, which is in the upper echelon of wing players, and 5.3 adjusted assists, which factors in passes that help teammates get to the free throw line, and ‘hockey’ assists.
He’s also raised the productivity level of his teammates, who enjoy playing with the unselfish and smart veteran.
“He’s got an incredible basketball IQ,” said Hornets forward Marvin Williams “He knows where guys are supposed to be, he knows where guys like the ball, which is why I think he makes his teammates better. He’s a hell of a player. I’ve competed against him for a lot of years now, so it’s kind of fun to play with him.”
Batum is a firm representative of a new era of Hornets basketball, one that hopes to keep pace with the rest of the league in shooting the three. Along with Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson, and a cast of emerging NBA talent, Michael Jordan’s team may return to the playoffs this season. With Batum, they now have a legitimate scoring threat on the wing, and it will be up to general manager Rich Cho to retain him as he enters free agency next July.