It is often said that certain players are fluid. Usually I take this as a descriptor of physical grace, lanky looseness of movement more improvisatory than rote. Fluidity seems to have a type—Rudy Gay, perhaps, is the closest walking player to the archetype, but it may just be that he’s on my mind with the Grizzlies buzz swirling around right now. At any rate, if there is a genus Fluid in the NBA family, Nic Batum is certainly a representative specimen. But in Batum’s case, the term may not be going far enough descriptively.
Watching him this season, I have begun to think of Batum as liquid, seeping into the cracks of a game and blasting cataracts where structural weakness permits. Through ten games, he has almost certainly been the Blazers’ best player, though Damian Lillard’s emergence and LaMarcus Aldridge’s continued presence might seem to obscure the fact. Superficially, he leads the team in Win Shares, PER, true shooting percentage, and individual offensive rating. He shares the team lead for individual defensive rating among regular rotation players. On a deeper level, his leap in production seems to encapsulate a Portland team that is finding ways to compete despite glaring limitations.
When Batum signed his 4 year/ $45ish million dollar deal this summer, many—including me—doubted his ability to live up to the contract. Batum seemed like a player whose youth belied the fact that he’d more or less reached his ceiling as a role player deluxe: the minutes were there, and he was getting shots, so where was there left for him to go?
The answer is, well, everywhere. With Terry Stott’s spread-out style replacing Nate McMillan’s rigid isolation offense, Batum has been able to flourish by flowing into available space on the floor. He was never cut out to be the kind of player who could thrive as an isolation ball handler or a ball-dominating pick and roll scorer; instead, Batum materializes at the periphery of plays when your focus is elsewhere, rushing through an opening, so to speak, before your eyes have fully tracked the ball reversal.
So it is that sixteen seconds of high screens for Lillard ends up with a weak-side jumper for Batum. Or how an opposing forward might bang JJ Hickson for seconds before Batum swoops in for a block. As water lacks form until given a vessel, so has Batum spread out and filled the space available to him so far this season.
In the past several games Batum has made a habit of fittingly blowing up in the third quarter. As teams regroup after halftime, figuring out which of their adjustments have been counter-adjusted to, Batum floats in. When a game is in flux and the trenches haven’t been dug, he may score 9 points on three straight shots. He may uncork a trigonometric backdoor pass, or slither into the lane for an offensive rebound. Present an opening, and in he floods, weighing on the weak beams until they snap.
One of my favorite things about watching Batum, though, is how he is idiosyncratically unable to look like the star of a game. When he puts the ball on the deck with his surprising handle and elevates with his surprising hops, his layups almost always go long, glancing off the far rim or striking backboard only. It’s as if he’s surprised to find himself above the fray, exposed, and the efficacy of his ambush basketball is diminished.
It happens, too, when he’s hit two or three shots in a row and the Blazers run a play everybody knows is coming to get him a good shot. He’s been stroking it, he frees himself and rounds a screen, he elevates for the shot to bring Portland all the way back—it’s long. These aren’t heat checks, and they’re not reckless. He can shoot, and he’s open. It’s just that he seems to become dissolute the moment you train your eyes on him, until the next play you forget to look for him and he bursts through.
I’m not writing that he’s not “the man” or “not clutch;” through ten games, he’s been insane in the clutch, with a 60% Win% and 21.7 points per 48 crunch time minutes. Fittingly, though, literally 100% of his clutch baskets have been assisted. Whatever gene or machismo required to take hold of the game in its tensest moments he has in spades. But on those few shots where the game grinds to a halt and turns its attention to a single player—that ain’t Nic.
All of which is to say that he’s become one of my very favorite players to watch, and one of the biggest reasons the Blazers are so enjoyable. His shooting, his athleticism, his versatility: it all adds up to a player forming the engine of Portland’s successes. But in his liquid cantilevered style, he’s more the current that buoys the team than the foundation it sits on.