Nicolas Batum has always been on the top of fantasy draft boards. The man just knew how to fill up a box score. Batum has four triple doubles since the 2013 season. He has never been the leading scorer on any team — career averages of 11.2 points per game on 53.2 percent effective field goal percentage. His 2014 season was his best — 13.0 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game and 5.0 assists per game. He seemed ready to take a major step forward. He grew as a shooter and became a facilitator for a growing Blazers team. Injuries limited him in 2015 and then he got traded to Charlotte.
This was his new beginning. In a contract year no less, with a team desperate for relevance after the most embarrassing season in league history and a free agent gaffe in Lance Stephenson that halted the positive momentum of a playoff berth in 2014.
Batum was going to be key.
Coach Steve Clifford likened Batum’s ability to fill a stat sheet to Hedo Turkoglu with his 2009 Magic team. He foresaw Batum as a guy who could be that playmaker as a taller player and make shots when the moment called for it. Unsurprisingly, playmaking forwards like Mike Dunleavy and Boris Diaw appear in Batum’s CARMELO comparisons on FiveThirtyEight, for whatever those might be worth.
His original role will not change. His importance will not change. But the pressure for him to fill that playmaking role, the one the Hornets failed to execute with Lance Stephenson last year, is the key for the Hornets season.
Charlotte’s defensive backstop in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went down in the first preseason game. His return is unknown. Charlotte is very much searching for its identity.
Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker can provide some offense. Clifford will have to reconfigure the defense though because neither are particularly strong in that area. Batum himself could fill many of the roles and many of the responsibilities left by Kidd-Gilchrist’s absence. Maybe not all of them but certainly some.
Batum posted a 2.6 defensive box plus/minus last year according to Basketball-Reference. He has largely been a plus defender throughout his career, even without a strong rim protector behind him — LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Kaman and Robin Lopez are among the starting centers behind him.
He will have every opportunity to get entrusted with leadership on this team.
The Hornets’ problem for several years now though has been their offense. They finished 28th in the league in offensive rating last year, according to Basketball-Reference, and 24th in their 2014 playoff run. The Hornets/Bobcats have not finished in the top-20 in the franchise’s history.
It is easy to see why Charlotte is searching for a playmaker to make things even just a little bit easier.
Batum can be that guy, although he has never quite been used in that way. He has been used more as a filler. He did a lot of the gritty work and helped facilitate an offense. The Hornets players have given the preseason spiel that this is a team with more offensive weapons — Jeremy Lin among them, which does not provide a ton of confidence.
For all it is worth, Batum is averaging 11.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in his 20.9 minutes per game of preseason action. He is shooting just 39.4 percent from the floor on 8.3 field goal attempts per game.
After the first preseason game in Orlando, Batum said being more aggressive seeking his shot was part of his work this summer.
“I try to expand my offensive arsenal to be more aggressive and get more shots especially after dribble, after pick and roll, after pin down,” Batum said. “I know it is going to be my job with them this year. It will be different from what I have been through the last couple of years. I am just trying to be a little bit more aggressive.”
That aggression still has to come with efficiency. And with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist out, the need for everyone on the roster to take a step up is even larger.
Batum is the new piece to the offense now. The one meant to save it and make it work. With the defense sure to take a hit, he and everyone else needs to step up and make the whole thing work. The pressure though lands squarely on Batum to deliver.
Batum has had the promise before. He has put up the strong numbers on an ensemble. He has never had to have the ball in his hands this much, or at least as much as the Hornets seem to anticipate. Batum will have to deliver in a way he never has before. And the pressure only increases for a team desperate to perform again.