Proof that Nicolas Batum (pictured, lower left) actually played on Sunday (Getty Images)
On Sunday, Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum disappointed greatly in his Olympics debut with his French team. Appearing to be an afterthought, in an up and down game that would seem to suit his athletic gifts, Batum played a listless style of ball and only contributed seven points, two rebounds and two turnovers as Team USA blew out the French squad.
Following the game, with a Portland-area columnist asking the tough questions and wondering if Blazer fans should be worried about the team's new $46 million investment, Batum pointed to a back injury as the source of his woes. He then pointed to a strange source of the injury: Friday's extended Opening Ceremony, the length of which apparently bothered Batum so much that he was completely taken out of the action a day and a half later in the loss to Team USA. Here's Nicolas, as quoted by the Oregonian:
"I'm not used to standing like that," he said, "four or five hours just killed me."
OK, pal. Sure thing. Oregonian columnist John Canzano then asked if the added pressure of his new contract would force Batum into a rough night out, or a rough 2012-13 season with the Blazers. Could the expectations be getting to him? Here's Canzano:
I asked Batum if he felt additional expectations after signing his new contract.
"Not for the national team," he said. "Not in my country, maybe in your country I will."
No pressure in France, bro. Lots of pressure in the U.S. Maybe.
It has to have been a strange month for Batum. The Minnesota Timberwolves took to completely decimating their roster in order to free up cap space to make a four-year, $46 million offer to the restricted free agent, and the Blazers (seeing something in him that we didn't) quickly matched. Batum is now an eight-figure a year guy, making about the same scratch as fellow small forwards Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala. This is the ceiling that both the Wolves and Blazers have predicted for him.
While we like Batum's game at times, Sunday's performance seemed right in line with his typical NBA play. Yes, there are times where the athletic forward can act a marvel in transition or nail 3-pointer after 3-pointer, but by and large Batum is a floater above all. He'll make the difference in a win from time to time, to be sure, but he'll also disappear for long stretches.
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The potential? It's OK to wonder, as you look at Batum's length and touch and age — he doesn't turn 24 until a month into the 2012-13 season. Batum managed a career year last season by doing just about everything well across the board, averaging 16.4 points and 5.4 rebounds for every 36 minutes the Blazers played him, while making 39 percent of his 3-pointers. And the NBA, coming off of a summer where the players absolutely dominated team GMs in a seller's market, is paying players of his ilk quite a bit these days, especially as we look at the eight-figure a season deals handed to Brooklyn's Gerald Wallace, and Batum's Minnesota replacement in Andrei Kirilenko.
Canzano's point, and our worry, is the way Batum is handling his Olympic play, and how that's going to go over with rabid Blazers fans who don't mind getting up at 6:30 in the morning to watch him float around the court in a 28-point loss.
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Travel and back injuries and a limited practice schedule (especially with Batum, presumably, taking it easy on the conditioning while working without a contract for most of July) are worth considering. But to call out the Opening Ceremony? To be the one athlete in all of London to blame that for sub-standard play?
That can't go over too well. It certainly isn't with us, and we're not Blazer fans. Fretting over that $46 million deal. Wondering if Batum understands that the time to tempt and excite with potential has passed, and that now it's time to demand the ball, attempt to work and score from different angles, and to act like a go-to guy.
In all, an uneasy start for all involved.
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- Nicolas Batum
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