Despite inconsistencies, durable, versatile small forward having career year

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers forward, twists through the Cleveland defense for a layup. Batum describes himself as a weird player.Following the Trail Blazers’ 113-112 loss to Golden State on Sunday night at the Moda Center, Nicolas Batum was as despondent as media members could remember seeing him during his six years in Portland.

In the closing seconds, Batum had missed the second of two free throws that could have tied the score, then missed a shot at the buzzer that would have given Portland the victory.

“I was mad because since I can remember, every free-throw situation I have to win or tie a game, I’ve never missed one,” the native of France explains the following day. “A shot is different. (Opponents) are playing defense on you. But miss a free throw? In the last 10 seconds to win or tie? Never. I was surprised, actually. And very mad at myself.”

Too bad, because Batum — an 82-percent foul shooter this season — had absolutely wasted Andre Iguodala in the battle of small forwards, with 23 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and three steals to Iguodala’s four points, five rebounds and two assists for the Warriors.

In so doing, Batum became the only player in franchise history with back-to-back games of at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and four 3-point baskets.

In the previous game, a 111-103 win at New Orleans, Batum had totaled 22 points, 18 rebounds, five assists and four 3-pointers — joining LeBron James, Kevin Love and Antoine Walker as the only NBA players to post such numbers in an NBA game.

Several times this season, the Blazers’ media-relations department has released esoteric statistical data that begins, “Nicolas Batum became the first NBA player since ...”

“And every time they put out stats, he’s always in such great company,” Portland coach Terry Stotts says.

Here’s another, this one coming from Bleacher Report: Batum ranks sixth in the NBA in clutch play over the final two minutes of games separated by five points or fewer, just ahead of teammate Damian Lillard and trailing only Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, James Harden, Thaddeus Young and James.

So the misfires at the end of the Golden State were an aberration for the 6-8 sixth-year pro, who at age 25 is having “a terrific year,” Stotts says. “In some ways, a career year.”

Batum is averaging 13.2 points, down slightly from his scoring average the previous two seasons. But he is on pace to set career highs in rebounds (7.3) and assists (5.1), joining James, Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah as the only players to average 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists this season.

If there’s a Mr. Versatility in the NBA, it’s Batum, who guards four positions — all but the center spot — and attempts 49 percent of his shots from 3-point range but is also adept at taking the ball to the basket for a layup, dunk or three-point opportunity.

This season, he has been Mr. Durability, too, putting himself in line to not miss a game for the first time in his career while playing through an assortment of nagging injuries.

Batum is finally beginning to shed his reputation as a “floater,” a player who coasts at times and struggles with inconsistency.

“Consistency was my weakness before, but I don’t think I’ve been that inconsistent this year,” he contends. “Sometime I get 25 points, and maybe the next game I get 10, but I get 10 rebounds. My scoring goes up and down, but I do something every game.

“I’ve had a better year with consistency. In this league, where you go up against the best in the world every night, some nights you can’t do everything you want. That’s the NBA. We are the best in the world in what we do. Bad nights happen.”

Batum has reached the 20-point mark 12 times this season, but has been even more important in other areas. Through a month of games from December to January, he took on the role of facilitator, dealing out 10 or more assists four times and notching his fourth career triple-double. Lately, Batum has been a rebounding machine, grabbing 12 or more in seven of the first nine games in March — more than any player in the NBA.

“With (LaMarcus Aldridge out), he is making a conscious effort to rebound, because we need it,” Stotts says. “That’s one of the things I like about Nic. He is able to fill holes.”

For awhile, Stotts was using Batum’s length to defend opposing point guards for long stretches of games. More often than not, he was effective.

“I do what I have to do,” Batum says. “I know I can do better sometimes. I can do more. But yeah, I play my game to do what I can to help our team win.

“I can do so many different things. Sometimes I have to adjust my game throughout the course of a game. Sometimes I have to score; sometimes I have to rebound; sometimes I have to forget about offense and lock down on defense. Like at Indiana, my job was to stop Paul George. Nobody cared about the offense.”

Asked to compare Batum to another player in the NBA, Stotts squirms.

“I don’t know if there’s a guy who’s the same, who can do a little bit of everything on the court like he does,” the second-year Blazer mentor says. “I’m reluctant to compare him to past players, too. He’s his own man; he’s his own player.”

Batum refers to himself as “a weird player.”

When it is suggested that “unique” is more appropriate, he shakes his head.

“I’m weird,” he says, smiling. “I’m not a typical player. I’m a small forward, but 22 (points), 18 (rebounds), five (assists) and four 3’s? Weird.”

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers forward, says he has become more consistent and learned a lot about the NBA over his years with Portland.Batum offers what are probably the best historical comparisons. “My favorite player of all-time was Scottie Pippen,” he says. “Him and Andrei Kirilenko. I watched so many videos of those guys. When I was young, I watched Pippen. When I was older, I watched Kirilenko. I tried to model after those guys.”

Pippen averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists through his Hall of Fame career. Kirilenko’s averages are 12.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists along with 1.9 blocks. Batum could be in the same neighborhood before he’s through.

Fans cry for Batum to be more “aggressive.” Stotts disdains the insinuation.

“With a lot of people, that’s code for, ‘He needs to take more shots,’ “ he says. “Aggressive is a lot of things. Nic needs to look for his scoring opportunities, but it also means running the floor hard, going after rebounds, making an aggressive play off a pick-and-roll, being aggressive defensively.”

Batum meets the subject with perspective.

“I come from a little country town (Pont-l’Eveque) in France of 6,500 people,” he says. “Not a country town from the U.S — a country town from France. Since I’m young, people say I have to be more consistent, I have to be more aggressive. Yeah, OK. But I made it to the NBA. And I’m not doing too bad.”

Batum often thinks of his late father, Richard, a native of the African nation Cameroon who died of an aneurysm on the basketball court when Nic was 2. “He’s the main reason why I played basketball,” he says, “to live his legacy.”

Batum’s mother, Sylvie, never remarried. He says there was never a father figure in his life.

“Of course you miss that,” he says. “I never had a dad, a man in the house. But my mom did a great job with my sister and me.”

Syvlie, who turns 54 in May, supported the family as a baby sitter.

“She retired the day I got drafted,” Batum says. “I said, ‘Stop working. Stop (doing) anything.’ “

Mother and son remain close. Sylvie has flown in twice this season, staying at least six weeks each time with Nicolas at his Lake Oswego home. She will return in time for the playoffs.

“She told me, ‘I just come back for the second round,’ “ he says with a laugh. “She told me the same thing for Eurobasket (the 2013 European Championships in Slovenia). She said, ‘I don’t come for the qualifying round. I just come for the big games.’ “

The sister, Pauline, graduated from Lake Oswego High in 2010. Now 22, she has returned to France and is helping Sylvie run Foundation Batum, which focuses on aiding pregnant women and single women raising families in Africa. The impetus from that came when Sylvie and Pauline vacationed in Senegal in 2010.

“My mom was supposed to stay two days,” Batum says. “She stayed 10.”

The Batums visited a nursery in a small Senegal town. Sylvie instantly related with all the young single mothers.

“She was a single mom by herself, but we were in France, where we didn’t have money but it was much easier to raise kids,” Batum says. In Africa, “sometimes they get raped and end up with a baby. They saw a little girl who was 11 years old, and she had a baby because she got raped. When you are unmarried and have a baby there, they often take you from the family. Those women have nobody else. They end up with a baby and have no means to support it.”

This summer, Sylvie will again visit Senegal and “begin the process” of support through Foundation Batum, Nic says.

“We will take care of them, give them an education and help take care of the baby,” he says. “We’ll start with 50 or 60 moms and then grow from there.”

Batum’s other pet project is the Caen club team in France, with whom he played when he was 13 and 14. He said he serves as the team’s general manager and tweets game results every Saturday night.

“We’re Fourth Division now, but we’re going to move up,” he says. “We’re 21-1 and we’ll go up to Third Division next year. My best friend plays on the team. I want us to get to the pro league. I have the power to help us do that. I want to bring the team to the top.”

In the offseason, Batum loves to travel. “When I have free time, I don’t want to stay in one place,” he says. Last summer saw stops in Cameroon, Spain, Italy and Dubai. This summer, he hopes to visit South Africa.

Batum says he has no girlfriend at the moment, but is on the lookout.

“I want a family,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with a dad, so I want to be one. We never know when that will happen. I don’t want to set a timetable. Maybe it will be when I’m 30. Maybe a woman will come into my life tomorrow.”

Batum has a condo in Paris, a 90-minute drive from his hometown. He spends much of the offseason there, but finds himself homesick for Portland, too.

“I’m happy here,” he says. “I love this city. Sometimes I miss France when I’m here. But when I’m in France after month or two, I miss Portland and I want to come back. This is my home, too.”

Batum is optimistic that the Blazers can make an extended run in the playoffs through the next few years. “We’re a young team, and we have talent,” he says.

He lived through a rebuilding project when he first arrived in Portland, though, under coach Nate McMillan and with teammates such as Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.

“I learned something about the NBA,” he says. “You can’t just be the best young team, and then five years from now, you’re going to be good.”

He reaches down and taps the hardcourt at the Blazers’ practice facility.

“So far, we’re OK,” he says. “But you never know what’s

going to happen in this league.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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