For his entire career, Nicolas Batum has been the kind of player that entranced scouts and opposing GMs with his potential. The 24-year-old Frenchman possesses an impossibly smooth shooting stroke and freakish length that gives one every reason to think he has the ability to become an elite two-way wing. And although he’s improved every season he’s been in the NBA, the four-year, $46 million offer sheet he signed this summer with the Minnesota Timberwolves was a lightning rod in Portland. The talent was clearly there, but Neil Olshey’s decision to match Minnesota’s offer sheet signified a turning point for Batum. He couldn’t get by on upside alone anymore. He’s being paid like a star, so it was time for him to start playing like one.
Two months into the season, Batum has made it abundantly clear that he’s worth the Blazers’ investment in him. He’s been a perfect fit for Terry Stotts’ movement-heavy, free-flowing offense, and the degree to which he’s thriving in his setting only drives home how much his talents were being wasted as a glorified spot-up shooter under Nate McMillan. He’s proven that he has the ability to score in a wider variety of ways, something that was clear to anyone who watched him with the French national team in the Olympics this summer. But the biggest stride he’s made, and the most surprising, has been his effectiveness as a passer out of the pick-and-roll.
Watching Batum this season, his improved confidence and creativity as a passer are plainly apparent. A cursory glance at his assist numbers backs this up: he’s averaging 4.5 assists per game this season, tripling his previous career-best mark of 1.5 in 2010-11. According to Basketball Reference, he’s assisting on 19.3 percent of all baskets while he’s on the floor, which more than doubles the rate of any of his four previous seasons. But while the surface-level stats seem to back up the eye test he’s acing, it’s when you dig deeper into his pick-and-roll playmaking statistics that a clearer picture starts to emerge of just how much better he’s gotten.
According to Synergy’s play data, last season Batum ran a total of 66 plays as the ballhandler in a pick-and-roll, either shooting or passing to a shooter. These plays produced a decidedly mediocre .848 points per possession, 41st percentile in the league. 34 games into the 2012-13 season, he’s already virtually doubled the amount of pick-and-rolls he’s run, and those 131 plays have produced 1.031 points per possession, putting him in the 89th percentile. Needless to say, this is a dramatic improvement over last year, and the improvement is made even more impressive by the increased number of chances he’s had.
The numbers get even more impressive when you look at his passing alone. His pick-and-roll possessions skew 45-55 between going to his own offense and creating a shot for a teammate. Pick-and-roll possessions which end with Batum taking a shot result in .9ppp, the 19th-best mark in the league. The possessions on which he passes to a teammate are a different story. These plays have led to 1.158ppp, the 10th-best overall mark, and second-best among non-guards behind Chandler Parsons.
This may be the most striking area of improvement for Batum, but it certainly isn’t the only one. He’s starting to make good on reputation of a lockdown defender that was given to him before he had earned it. His success defending pick-and-rolls and isolations has been noticeable, as he’s allowing just .59ppp on the former (18th-best in the NBA by Synergy) and .53ppp on the latter (16th-best). His three-point shooting has taken a slight dip, but he’s comfortable shooting from more places on the floor. A comparison between his shot charts from the last two seasons bears this out.
Here’s where he was shooting in 2011-12:
And here’s what he’s been doing this year:
In nearly every facet of the game, we’re starting to see a more complete Nicolas Batum emerge, one that is finally ready to take the mantle of franchise cornerstone that his limitless raw tools always suggested was in the cards.