As Nicolas Batum backpedaled down-court to play defense, he had a menacing look in his eye. The Portland Trail Blazers forward had just hit a deep three-pointer with just under two and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Hornets, giving his team an 82-71 lead and essentially icing the victory. He looked determined. He clearly loved the moment he knew he would relish in. And another side of Batum came out, the aggressive side–the side that said a 23-year-old immensely talented piece to the puzzle is ready to break out of his shell and be the player his potential suggests.
He has had his moments throughout his career; performances that made the Blazers and their fans just smile and think about what the future holds for the 23-year-old Frenchman. Lanky with a tremendous defensive mentality and a smooth offensive game, Batum has seen limited action this season after Gerald Wallace was acquired last season. He is no longer in the starter’s role, but his play in the last two games may warrant a change.
Wallace, a free-agent after the season, has been immensely valuable for Portland. He has brought the team a toughness they didn’t previously have. He can score, defend, and isn’t afraid to be aggressive on either end. But he hasn’t been the small forward that has made the most noise lately. Batum has.
The fourth-year player has scored 48 points over the Blazers past two games–29 in a loss to Houston and 19 in a win over the aforementioned Hornets. His minutes, and therefore his production, have fluctuated so far this season, but with increased playing time against these two teams he took the bull by the horns and made a significant impact. In 42 minutes against Houston, he shot 9-15 from the field, including a blistering 6-7 from three-point range, and had eight rebounds and four blocks. Portland came up short, but he made sure they would bounce back by shooting 6-11 from the field against New Orleans in 32 minutes. None of his six field goals were more important than the late three-pointer.
That he came through in this fashion wasn’t surprising. Through 12 games he is shooting 48 percent, 19 for 39, from three-point range. He has done much more than be stationary on the wings of late, though, as he is cutting to the basket, taking mid-range jump-shots, and flying downcourt for fastbreak baskets. The all-around offensive game, coupled with his disruptive defense, has shown up in spurts, but judging by his reaction to the dagger that did in New Orleans it doesn’t appear this will just be a little hot-streak.
If he keeps playing like this, head coach Nate McMillan will have to take a hint and play him the minutes he deserves. More plying time, more production, and a greater chance at overall success. That may create a complicated situation, though. Wallace is the starting small forward and Wesley Matthews is the starting shooting guard. There isn’t room for Batum alongside those two. A change would have to be made, and neither Wallace nor Matthews are in line for a demotion.
So what happens? If McMillan can give Batum 30 minutes off the bench–as he did against the Hornets–by either playing him with Wallace or as his replacement, then that should be satisfactory for now. A lineup featuring Wallace at the power forward spot and Batum at the small forward spot paid dividends for Portland in their win. No matter how McMillan goes about it, Batum needs the chance to have games like this on a regular basis.
This is all well and good, but the future on this front is murky. If Batum is not signed to an extension by Portland by January 25th, he will be a restricted free-agent after the season. Wallace, who has no desire to sign an extension during the season, will be an unrestricted free-agent after the season. Who will be the top priority? Will Batum sign an extension before the deadline? If he does, will Portland still go after Wallace during free-agency? What happens if they sign him, too?
There are so many questions pertaining to this issue, and it isn’t altogether fun to think about. I have always thought Batum could be a special player, perhaps the next Scottie Pippen. That is certainly a tough act to follow, but he has the tools to become that productive. And it isn’t hard to tell how anxious he is to. At times, judging by his mannerisms, he has wished the ball would come his way; hopping up and down on the wing as it goes elsewhere. He knows what he can do. It is clear he wants to be set free. Will that happen with Portland?
That can’t be the topic of discussion right now. Right now, Batum’s current success with the Blazers is the story. He is in a zone, and, as a result, is coming into his own. There have been stretches like this before from the Frenchman, but this time the safe bet would be for him to keep producing at a high level. Why? There is the 48 points in the past two games, but, more importantly, there was that look in his eye after that three-pointer.