Nicolas Batum Could Be The NBA’s Most Improved Player This Season

Signing a huge deal affects athletes in different ways. For some players, the pressure of living up to the cash is just too much to bear and their play suffers from the added expectations. Others put up career numbers in a contract year to earn the big payday, and then relax on the court as they watch their bank accounts swell. In addition to frustrating the Hell out of loyal fan bases, these reactions can lead to general managers prematurely cleaning out their offices and updating their resumes for a new line of work.

All franchises hope their big earners fall into a third category – the category of players that view the new cash as a validation of their hard work, a sign they have arrived as one of the best at their craft. These players are the rare few that earn every penny of their lucrative deal. Their play improves after the ink dries on the new contract. They become leaders. They push themselves even harder now that they have earned the money.

Luckily for the Portland Trail Blazers and GM Neil Olshey, Nicolas Batum has been the embodiment of this third category.

When Batum was drafted in 2008, he was blessed and cursed with the “high potential” label. Portland fans fell in love with his length and smooth game, but were often wondering when he would make the next step. Consistency has never been his greatest strength, as he would routinely follow up a great game with a complete head-scratcher. He would stuff the box score one night then pull a Houdini and disappear the next. As frustrating as his play was at times, those glimpses of his potential, coupled with his youth, kept Blazers fans salivating for what he could become. But is potential worth a four-year, $46 million deal? Had Batum done enough to become one of the highest paid small forwards in the NBA?

Through two games this season, it wasn’t looking good. His 26-point, six-rebound and three-steal opening night against the Lakers was exactly what the Blazers were expecting after making him an awfully rich man. It was one of the most engaged games he’s had as a pro – never drifting or disappearing when the ball wasn’t coming his way. The next game against the Thunder, however, was a different story and the worries about Batum’s lack of consistency popped back up to the forefront. He was downright dismal in Oklahoma City. While his three points on 1-for-11 shooting was troubling enough, it was his lack on contributions in other ways that were the most frightening. One rebound in 36 minutes is the $2-million-a-year Batum, not the $10-million-a-year workhouse the Blazers expected when they matched the Timberwolves’ summer offer.

So how would Batum bounce back? Were the expectations too much? Did the Blazers fall victim to overpaying another promising young player? Since that game in OKC, Batum has rattled off – by far – the best and most consistent stretch of his young career. He has been a go-to scorer late in games, hitting huge shots and proving that new coach Terry Stotts can feel comfortable calling his number with the game on the line. As spectacular as rookie point guard Damian Lillard has been this season, Batum has been the beast that has these young Blazers playing better than anyone expected.

Through 10 games, Batum is averaging career highs in virtually every statistical category. His 20.8 points per game is the tenth-best scoring average in the league. He’s fifth in the league in steals and second in threes made. He trails only LeBron James and Kevin Durant in PER for small forwards averaging at least 15 minutes a game. He became the first player in NBA history to score 35 points with five threes made and five blocks in one game when he destroyed the Rockets last week.

What changed for Batum? Is it the new coach and system? The added responsibility? The fact that he no longer battles for minutes? Maybe a natural maturation process as he’s now in his fifth season?

So far it looks like all of the above.

It became apparent this past summer that Batum didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with former Blazers coach Nate McMillan. When the Timberwolves aggressively courted Batum, he publically stated his desire to play under coach Rick Adelman, rustling more than a few feathers among the Blazers faithful. Batum cited his limited role in McMillan’s offense as a contributing factor in his request to flee the West Coast for Minneapolis (although he did praise McMillan for giving him a chance to play as rookie). Batum was often left prone in the corner while he watched Brandon Roy (and later Jamal Crawford) isolate and break down defenders off the dribble or LaMarcus Aldridge go to work on the block. McMillan’s offense did little for Batum’s strengths as a fluid cutter and excellent finisher.

This year, Stotts has Batum operating all over the court. Batum’s been successful drilling jumpers off the curl, hitting step back threes, and even backing down smaller opponents – something he rarely did the last few years under McMillan. While this can certainly be attributed to Stotts’ offensive sets, it would be a mistake to overlook the obvious boost in Batum’s confidence this season. Instead of disappearing during a bad shooting night, Batum will attack and get to the rim, showing that he has the tools and confidence to be a great scorer for this Blazers squad. Batum has continuously asked for more responsibility, and now that he has it, there is no question it’s well deserved.

Before the trade deadline deal that sent Gerald Wallace to the Nets last season, Batum battled every night with the veteran for minutes. McMillan was bringing Batum off the bench and clearly had more trust in the energetic Wallace than in the young and often inconsistent Batum. This season, Batum is averaging nearly 40 minutes a game, good for the second-highest average in the league. Yes it’s partly due to Portland’s extremely thin bench, but Batum is playing marathon minutes because it’s nearly impossible to take him off the court.

It’s far too early in the season to start discussing whether or not Batum has reached his lofty potential. Maybe it’s too early to even start contemplating Batum’s chances of making his first All-Star Game. But, so far, Batum’s stellar play is making the Blazers’ decision to match the Timberwolves’ offer sheet look like the no-brainer decision of the offseason.

Is Batum an All-Star this year?

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