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Batum a leader in the making

Solid performance with France can help Blazers

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers Writer
Published: October 4, 2014, 5:00pm

When looking back at Nicolas Batum’s bronze medal run and All-Tournament honors while representing France at this summer’s FIBA World Championships, it’s easy to forget it almost didn’t happen at all.

After their loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs, Batum was non-committal about his participation in the summer tournament and he’d dropped clues all year that he was leaning toward a tournament-free summer.

But as the offseason went on, it became clear that France’s two biggest stars, San Antonio’s Tony Parker and Chicago’s Joakim Noah wouldn’t be suiting up for the national team.

“They really wanted me to play,” he remembers from speaking to France head coach Vincent Collet and the French Basketball Federation.

When the federation asked Batum to participate, he still wasn’t sure, so he solicited advice from his mother, Sylvie.

“My mom was like, ‘You know if you watch them on TV you’ll want to go there. You’ll be dying in front of the TV and be like man, I should be on the court with them.’ I said ‘yeah, you’re right, I got to go.’ So I went.”

As the old saying goes, Mother knows best and it led to Batum’s best summer in a French uniform after his best year pro season.

Batum has played for France every summer since 2009, but this year there was a difference.

“This was my first time since I got drafted I had a team for me. I had a challenge ahead of me,” he said.

He had San Antonio’s Boris Diaw, who helped knock out the Blazers, but the keys to the team were turned over to Batum.

“I was the leader. Coach really gave me the team for the World Cup. That was big for me. I learned a lot,” Batum said. “The first seven games I was Nic Batum, run around, play the team game.”

Batum shouldered a big defensive responsibility for France and although his outside shot didn’t fall, he got to the foul line and helped lead them to a stunning upset of host country Spain in the quarterfinals.

Then in the semifinal and bronze medal games, Batum averaged 31 points per game going 10 of 17 from three-point land and continuing to attack the basket.

“Somebody needs to have the ball and take over the game and not just play,” he said. “For the bronze medal game too, I took the challenge to try to dominate. That was big for me, that was huge.”

While Batum knows he still has the responsibility to be Portland’s “Mr. Everything,” he says he plans on being more assertive in looking for his shot.

He wants to get on the line more than he did, which can only help the Blazers.

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“That’s one aspect of my game I want to improve more this year,” Batum said. “Being on the line more, being more aggressive. Last year Wes (Matthews), LA (LaMarcus Aldridge) and Dame (Damian Lillard) were the scorers.”

For all the Blazers offensive excellence, they struggle getting to the free-throw line. They ranked below the NBA average in free-throw attempt rate according to NBA.com and the Blazers didn’t have a player in the top-20 in free-throw attempts per game.

Lillard comes in at No. 24 and Batum averaged the fewest attempts out of all five starters.

Batum also wants to be more of a leader on the defensive end.

It’s early in training camp, but Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he hopes that Batum’s experience will lead to leadership.

“I’m hoping that’s the case,” he said. “It’s difficult to say, but I do know when players are put in the position that Nic was put in this summer, being the best player on a team that wins the bronze medal, that responsibility and having it be successful changes your mentality.”

Steve Blake, who was with Batum as a rookie and returned to Portland this season, says he’s seen Batum’s comfort grow over the years.

“He knows the game a lot better, everyone trusts him,” Blake said. “He’s become a better shooter, passer, his game has just gotten better and better. He’s always been great, but he’s just more mature and knows the language a bit better, which helps.”

Batum has come back from every summer feeling good, but now the player whose made his mark to blend thinks his experience of having no choice but to lead will help him be more of a leader on the Blazers along with the likes of Aldridge and Lillard.

“I can bring that. I played big games every summer and we had a big win this year,” Batum said. “You learn from those games and the pressure.”

And while the Blazers have had all summer to think about their playoff loss, Batum says that the Blazers haven’t forgotten the feeling of last season. And his pal Diaw didn’t let him forget either.

“I told him, ‘you see it’s going to be different this year,’ and he was like ‘yeah right.’ So we’ll see,” Batum said.

And as much the Blazers must improve their bench depth, Batum continuing to stay and perhaps rise among the league’s elite wings could give Portland the jump they need to fulfill Batum’s expectations of being a top-four team in the West and having home court in the playoffs.

Columbian Trail Blazers Writer