Return to Natural Position, Increased Aggressiveness Key to Batum’s 2018-19 Season

By Sam Perley

Just over one year ago, Nic Batum was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A freak, out-of-nowhere elbow injury suffered in the team’s second exhibition contest last October only sidelined Batum for a handful of games, but it turned his 2017-18 season into a “weird” one, according to teammate Kemba Walker. Combined with not playing for his French National Team over the summer, the veteran admittedly never really found his rhythm.

Fast forward to this year’s training camp and things are much different for Batum, who says he feels rejuvenated and refreshed following the trying season, but productive summer.

“Last year when I came in, I thought I had a good summer. I thought if I didn’t play, I’d be more relaxed,” said Batum on Hornets Media Day. “I really tried to correct that this summer. I don’t think I’ve spent as much time in the U.S. in the summertime [as this offseason]. I really tried to focus on working out, being ready for this season.”

A major tweaking coming this year for Batum will be his return to the small forward position, which he manned his first eight NBA seasons. He has spent the last two years as the Hornets’ first-string shooting guard, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist filled the three-spot.

The Frenchman was originally going to move to the two-guard position when he was traded to Charlotte in June of 2015, but Kidd-Gilchrist’s 75-game absence forced the Hornets to do some shuffling. Batum posted career highs in scoring (14.9 points) and assists (5.8) to go along with 6.1 rebounds in 70 outings in 2015-16, spending 89 percent of his on-court time at the three.

“When you’re a shooting guard, you’re a shooting guard,” said Batum. “That’s the term of that position. Small forward is my natural position. That’s where I got drafted, played as a rookie. I was a small forward for a playoff team in the west my seven years [in Portland].”

Batum has been an above-average shooter most of his career (43.4 FG%; 35.5 3P%), but he’s known more as a playmaker and a talented one at that. But a major factor in the team’s success this season will be Batum’s ability to balance his trademark unselfishness with a dash of selfishness at times.

Of the 67 players who averaged at least 30.0 minutes in 60+ games last season, Batum recorded the 11th-fewest field-goal attempts per outing in the league (10.2). He also took just 2.0 free-throw shots per game, a sharp drop from the 3.7 he put up in 2016-17. Coaches love having a player that looks to set up his teammates and moves the ball, but it can’t necessarily come at the expense of passing up favorable offensive opportunities.

“We need Nic to be Nic. We need Nic to be the overall player that he is,” stated Walker. “Making plays defensively, passing the ball like he does, taking shots like how he takes shots. We need him to be aggressive.”

Walker added, “There’s plenty of times I go up to Nic and say, ‘Nic, I need you to be more aggressive.’ He responds well. Nic is very laidback. He loves to do the small things. We’ve got to get him to understand that we need him to do more than just the small things and he will. I’m very confident.”

With Batum moving over a spot on the depth chart, it appears Jeremy Lamb is in line to be the team’s opening night shooting guard in the first unit. Lamb is coming off the best season of his six-year NBA career and has started all five of Charlotte’s exhibition outings.

The pair played 285 minutes together during the 2016-17 season, outscoring opponents by an average of 5.2 points per 100 possessions. For what it’s worth, Batum and Cody Zeller – who missed the majority of last year with a knee injury – averaged 12.4 points more per 100 possessions than opponents when playing alongside in 2017-18, although that equaled just under 120 minutes.

After two weeks of training camp and preseason, Batum says he feels like his rhythm is already way ahead of what it was last year, even before the injury and now with a new coaching staff in place. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 13.0 points on 9.9 attempts, 9.5 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.1 steals in four preseason appearances.

Vintage Batum was very much on display in the team’s 110-104 exhibition home win over Chicago on Oct. 8 as he racked up seven points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block in 27 minutes of action.

“The rebounding really gets him going,” said Head Coach James Borrego after the game. “When he rebounds, he can push the break for us. He’s engaged in the game and he can really move the ball for us. He got seven assists, but I think he moved the ball even more. Those two numbers, his assists and his rebounds, are big for us. He was hitting guys, going after every rebound and trying to go after blocked shots. That sort of engagement we may not always see on the box score.”

The more Batum can add to his offensive arsenal this year, the more it’ll free up the rest of the team in terms of spacing. The Hornets need a turnaround season and the timing is as good as ever for Nic Batum to play a critical role and have a bounce-back campaign himself.