TUALATIN, Ore. — Nicolas Batum can remember when he first encountered the rookie wall. Although it can be hard to explain and even difficult to forecast, Batum hit it so hard that he wanted to buy a one-way ticket back to France.
His wall truly began gathering bricks and mortar in the summer of 2008. Batum was drafted in the first round, played summer league and then crossed the Atlantic for 12 games with his national team that stretched into early September. The morning after the final game in the EuroBasket tournament, he flew back to Portland for Trail Blazers’ workouts.
The season started well enough, but after a while, Batum crashed into an obstacle called the month of December.
“For me,” Batum said, “it was terrible.”
“I never stopped playing so by December, I was done,” Batum continued. “I wanted to go home. (I thought) ‘Why am I in the NBA? Why did I come here? Why?’ “
The Blazers will meet the Milwaukee Bucks tonight for their 40th game and as they near the midway mark of the NBA regular season, their five first-year players are also nearing the dreaded yet undefined ‘rookie wall.’
“That’s kind of a nebulous concept. I think its different for different players,” head coach Terry Stotts said. “In the NBA, in general, there’s a mental fatigue in January and February and every player has to fight that.”
If the dog days of winter ever existed, then Blazer rookies — Will Barton, Victor Claver, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Damian Lillard — are experiencing them for the first time.
“We’re rookies and we’re supposed to hit it,” guard Will Barton said, explaining what he has heard about the wall. “Whether mentally or physically.”
The holidays have past. The scouting reports have evolved. After tonight, Portland will have faced every NBA opponent at least once and so the fresh plastic wrapping has long been torn off this new and exciting NBA life. And besides the emotional and mental impact, the season takes a physical toll on limbs and muscles that have never been iced this much before.
Among the entire rookie class of the NBA, Lillard has played the most and meant the most for his team. Also, Lillard, it seems, will be the most guarded against the wall.
“I’ve heard a lot about it,” Lillard said, “but I’m not concerned about it at all.”
Last season at Weber State, Lillard played 32 games as one of the top collegiate scorers in the nation. Already in this rookie campaign, Lillard has surpassed that total by starting all 39 games for the Blazers.
In Game No. 33 — which marked new territory for Lillard — the Blazers played the finale of a four-game road trip in Minnesota. And if that was the wall, Lillard blew right through it for 20 points (7-of-14 from the floor), six assists and four rebounds in the victory.
However, Lillard’s marksmanship has trended downward over the past seven games as he’s shooting 37.8 percent — his Jan. 11 showcase in his hometown the exception when he dropped a career-high 37 points (15 of 25) against the Golden State Warriors.
“I think it’s tougher because teams start to prepare for you,” Lillard said. “They know more about you and they try to stop you but I think I’m doing everything right as far as getting rest and taking care of my body. I think it’s just a matter of me starting to figure out how teams are adjusting to guarding me.”
Batum — now 24 years old and in his fifth NBA season — offers his wily, veteran advice on avoiding the wall.
“Some rookies are counting the days until the All-Star break,” he said. “I was like them.
“Off the court, don’t be crazy. That’s the most important thing off the court. When you’re on the court, do your thing, but when you’re off the court just don’t be crazy. Get rest. Don’t walk in the mall for an hour, don’t go out to eat burgers all day.”
Leonard returns to practice — Leonard, who has been sidelined the last 10 games due to a sprained right ankle, participated in his first full-contact practice on Friday morning.
After the workout, Leonard looked spry as he jumped from a set position underneath the basket to throw down a powerful one-handed dunk. The display of athleticism showed just how far Leonard, a 7-foot-1 center, has come since sustaining the injury on Dec. 29, but was not an indication that he would return to the lineup.
When asked by reporters on the likelihood of playing against the Bucks, Leonard smiled and pantomimed a coin flip.
“I would say 50-50,” Leonard said. “We’ll just have to reassess in the morning and see how I feel when I get out of bed after our first practice.”
“Every now and then I can feel it if I make a cut, turn around and try do something, go for a rebound, really take off. You can tell it’s not all there but once again, I’m happy with where I’m at.”