Meet Nicolas Batum, the Forgotten Portland Trail Blazers Star

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Meet Nicolas Batum, the Forgotten Portland Trail Blazers Star
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The Portland Trail Blazers thought they might be expanding their superstar ranks when they landed swingman Nicolas Batum in a 2008 draft-night exchange.

What they found was something even rarer.

The 25-year-old has all of the necessary superstar tools: good size (6'8", 200 lbs), great length (7'4" wingspan), top-shelf court vision, perimeter proficiency.

Even with all of these gifts, though, his greatest value might come from what he doesn't have: selfishness.

Some look at the stat sheet and wonder why his superstar skills haven't shown up there. Others might sit through a Blazers game (or three or four) and never be wowed by the man with wow-worthy talent.

Batum isn't playing for those people. He's giving everything he has to better his team, a blue-collar grinder with white-collar ability.

He's held himself out of the spotlight so it can shine on his team as legitimate championship contenders.

 

He Does the Dirty Work

Height-length-athleticism combination and all, Batum's work on the glass of late still borders on absurd.

He's always been an active rebounder but never a game-breaking presence on the boards (career 4.7 rebounds per game). Well, never before now, that is:

People don't stumble into three straight games of 15-plus rebounds. Not unless they're a former Defensive Player of the Year winner (Dwight Howard), a D.P.O.Y. candidate (DeAndre Jordan, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut), a budding franchise centerpiece (Andre Drummond) or a glass-eater people watch with history books in hand (Kevin Love).

Batum is none of those things. Heck, he rarely ventures away from his small forward spot (88 percent of his minutes come at the 3, via Basketball-Reference).

Yet, here he is chasing errant shots like autograph-seekers hound the rebounding company he now keeps. He's hauled in 11.8 boards over his last six games—only four players have a better average on the season.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

The sample size is admittedly small, but it's allowed to be in this case.

Rebounding isn't typically high on his priority list. Not with players like LaMarcus Aldridge (11.1 rebounds) and Robin Lopez (8.7) propelling Portland to the league's fifth-best rebounding rate (52.0 percent).

The Blazers, though, needed him on the glass, and he responded with one of the finest showings the league has seen this season. 

Why? Because that's just what he does for this team—whatever it takes.

"He’s stealing rebounds, right?" Wesley Matthews joked after Batum's 18-rebound effort in Portland's 102-78 win over the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday, via NBA.com. "Nah, he’s playing well. He’s doing everything which is what his best asset is. He’s a jack of all trades and we’re feeding off of that.”

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Batum is the backbone in a league that only celebrates the faces. He does everything behind the scenes so that Portland's "real" stars can thrive.

Second-year Blazers coach Terry Stotts is still getting a handle on Batum's talents, looking to kill as many birds as possible with this multilayered stone.

These experiments have led to Stotts employing Batum on the league's best point guards, a challenge the Frenchman hasn't hesitated to accept.

"I guess that’s going to be my job now sometimes,” Batum said of the new assignment, via Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. “I’m cool with it."

Of course he is. If Portland has a need, it doesn't take long to show up on Batum's to-do list.

 

He's the Motor of Portland's Offense

Batum's box scores aren't devoid of superstar showings.

On the rare night the league's third-most efficient offense stalls, Batum is ready to scratch whatever itch arises.

He's more than comfortable behind the three-point arc. A 36.8 percent long-range shooter for his career, his volume of perimeter production over the last four seasons is almost unmatched:

As a distributor, he's unfairly skilled. His 5.2 assists rank 24th overall and No. 3 among all non-guards, trailing only LeBron James at 6.4 and Kevin Durant at 5.5.

If Batum needs to be selfish, he can do that too. He's attempted at least 15 field goals six times this season, averaging 20.2 points on 47.8 percent shooting.

In crunch time, he's punished teams for giving Aldridge and Damian Lillard too much attention. In the final five minutes of five-point games this season, Batum has posted an efficient .475/.417/.955 shooting slash.

Some see him as too passive for his own good, as if there's something wrong with a guy deferring to a pair of All-Stars (Aldridge at 23.5 points and Lillard at 21.0) and a Most Improved Player candidate (Matthews at 16.2).

This offense doesn't work without him.

The pick-and-roll combo of Lillard and Aldridge gives this offense its punch, but Batum's versatility packs the real knockout power.

Batum is the reason the ball doesn't stick in an offense led by a pair of score-first point guards (Lillard and Mo Williams) and a dominant low-post scorer (Aldridge). Batum keeps the ball whipping around the perimeter, finds shooters in the corner or hits slashers over the top.

When the pass isn't there, he'll put it on the deck to drive for his own score or create a passing lane along the way. If he gets within five feet of the basket, he's nearly unstoppable (74.1 percent).

On a team full of dynamic offensive weapons, it's the sneaky attacks that often sting the most.

 

He's the Key to Portland's Potential

Praise has deservedly been delivered by the busload to Lillard and Aldridge.

In a superstars' league, it takes superstars to contend for anything of substance. If Lillard and Aldridge aren't full-fledged superstars already, their membership applications are being processed.

Inside of that locker room, though, these players know who's been making everything click.

"He's Mr. Everything," Lillard said of Batum, via James Herbert of SB Nation.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to capture Batum's importance any better than that.

He's a featured face who plays like he's battling for a roster spot. He has the second-highest salary on the team ($11.3 million, via ShamSports.com), but you get the sense he'd give the same kind of effort for free.

And he isn't going to change.

"My goal is to improve my all-around game, set better screens, and help drive and kick to the shooters," he told Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry.

Setting better screens, improving a drive-and-kick game that's already among the league's besthe's addressing the little things.

That's what he does best, after all.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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