Blazers' Batum serves notice

Portland’s Batum getting attention for defensive prowess

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

Published:

 
photoPortland’s Nicolas Batum, center, drew praise from NBA All-Star Kevin Durant (35) of Oklahoma City for his defensive play.

(/The Columbian)

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TODAY'S GAME

Grizzlies vs. Blazers, 5 p.m. at the FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tenn.

TV: CSN (cable Ch. 37)

Radio: 95.5 FM

Probable Starters

Blazers (6-5)

Position/player Ht. Avg.

F Nicolas Batum 6-8 14.2

F LaMarcus Aldridge 6-11 17.0

C Marcus Camby 6-11 7.5

G Brandon Roy* 6-6 18.1

G Andre Miller 6-2 13.2

*questionable (knee)

Grizzlies (4-7)

Position/player Ht. Avg.

F Rudy Gay 6-8 23.7

F Zach Randolph 6-9 16.0

C Marc Gasol 7-1 12.2

G O.J. Mayo 6-4 15.4

G Mike Conley 6-1 14.4

PORTLAND — Imagine baking a soufflé and getting a thumbs up from Wolfgang Puck, or painting a portrait Picasso wanted to buy.

The feeling would likely resemble what third-year Blazers forward Nicolas Batum experienced two Thursdays ago when Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant spoke these words: “He’s there.”

The two syllables escaped Durant’s mouth after the Thunder’s win over Portland in the Rose Garden, when a reporter relayed how Batum wants to be a defender feared by the NBA’s offensive elite. And before the scribe could finish his question, the league’s reigning scoring champion cut him off — Batum-style — to bestow his validation.

“He’s a great defender,” said Durant, who was held scoreless in overtime. “He’s long and athletic. He’s one of those guys that frustrates you a lot. You gotta take what he gives you.”

It’s a bit oxymoronic, is it not? A Frenchman charged with defending attacks?

But the 6-foot-8 Batum, whose Blazers meet the Grizzlies in Memphis tonight, has welcomed the role with open arms spanning 85 inches.

The 22-year-old studies game film of the Lakers’ Ron Artest and former Spurs stopper Bruce Bowen. He dreams not of sinking the buzzer-beating bucket, but of making the game-winning stop. His favorite all-time player isn’t a retired Chicago Bull named Michael Jordan — it’s his Hall of Fame, defensive-specialist teammate (and former Blazer) Scottie Pippen.

It is a convenient idolization, because it's hard going two Google search pages without stumbling onto a Batum-Pippen comparison. Jordan himself has likened the two, as has every Blazer blog commenter in the Pacific Northwest. Portland center Marcus Camby, meanwhile, calls Batum “Scottie” every day in practice, and that was before he knew of Nic’s reverence for the six-time champion.

“That’s good. I want to play just like him,” said Batum, who has never met Pippen but admits he would be intimidated by the prospect. “I have to be the best defender. I have to stop every night players like LeBron and Kobe. And if I want to be the best defender in the league, I have to think like that.”

This was not always the case.

Defense is sort of like the NBA’s evangelism — its practitioners discover it later in life, then become consumed by it.

Did you know anything about Bowen or Dennis Rodman before they reached the NBA? Were the undrafted likes of Ben Wallace or Raja Bell considered future commodities?

Heck, no.

But after revamping their games with a defense-first mindset, all were considered indispensable at one point in their careers.

Batum, who was taken 25th in the 2008 draft, is adjusting similarly. Like most NBA players, the native of Lisieux, France, was his team’s first option on offense at every level before this one, and when asked if he used to think much about defense before arriving in Portland, Batum said bluntly: “No.”

Then again, he's not doing a terrible Pippen impression on offense, either. Through 11 games, Batum is averaging 14.2 points in 29.4 minutes while shooting .508 from the field and .385 from deep. He has established himself as a clear No. 3 option and may see an expanded offensive role if Brandon Roy’s knee problems persist.

This prowess on both ends of the floor is why Batum’s name keeps popping up in trade-rumor talks, and also is why the Blazers are reluctant to give him up for anything but a superstar. Still, despite that 7-foot-1 wingspan, this butterfly remains in the cocoon.

Batum’s game-saving block in the final seconds against the Knicks last month offered a glimpse into the future, but Durant’s 34 points on 13-of-21 shooting Friday reinforced the strides he must make in the present. And much of that, Blazers coach Nate McMillan said, is not something learned watching film.

“So much of it is about attitude. He’s not a physical, nasty guy by nature. He has to change out of the suit and into his uniform once he takes the floor and become a different person,” McMillan said. “But I think he can be a pest, that he can really disrupt a team by taking out one of their players. He has the potential and skill to become that.”

Matt Calkins is the Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 ormatt.calkins@columbian.com