Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum is now a key cog on an elite Western Conference team that could very well compete for a title this year, but it’s easy to forget that just a few years ago he signed an offer sheet to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, which would have altered both his own personal trajectory and the trajectory of the Blazers pretty dramatically.
While Batum is grateful for the way things turned out, he still believes the decision to sign that offer sheet was the smartest route for him back in the summer of 2012.
“At the time when I signed [Minnesota’s offer sheet], it was different,” Batum said. “We had no coach, I didn’t know Damian [Lillard] back at the time. And Minnesota was a different situation. They had Kevin Love, Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio that was the way it was set up really. Now that I see the way we play, how I am right now with Terry Stotts, I’m glad I’m here now.”
Batum, originally from France, has faced a lot of challenges to make it where he is in the NBA. He’s a starter on a really good NBA team now, but he admits that the journey to that point was extremely daunting.
“It’s not easy to come over [to the U.S.] and establish yourself in this country because the NBA is pretty tough,” Batum said. “We’re not coming from college. When we get drafted people don’t know us. We don’t play in March Madness, we don’t play in the NCAA tournament, so people don’t know us because we play overseas. That is why it’s difficult for us because when you come over you have to make a name first to break the rotation then end up getting playing time.
“So when I was drafted, I was 19. When I got to Portland, I was 19 years old and we were an established team already. That was tough for me, but I just worked out every day and was in the gym every day. That was big for me, and I’m kind of proud about it and about myself because I established myself in the NBA. Now, more and more guys came over and are doing the same thing.”
It would be hard not to be content with his current situation, starting for the Northwest Division-leading Blazers and coming off a year that pushed them hard toward being a real contender. With the fourth-best record in the tough Western Conference, some would call this team elite, but Batum brushes off that sentiment.
“I don’t feel we are an elite team,” Batum said. “There are a lot of good teams. At least like 10 or 11 teams can have a 50-win season, so while we know we are on top right by those teams, we want just play our game. We don’t consider ourselves as an elite team yet. We know what we are, and we want to be an elite team, for sure, but we have to complete something to be an elite team.”
He’s right that the team is in the middle of something, and Batum has been in Portland long enough to know that what’s going on right now is special.
“We started this new project two years ago with this team when we drafted Damian, so we have had the same lineup for two years now and we started just growing together,” Batum explained. “We’re getting more mature and we grew up.
“Two years ago we were young and we had a good season, then last year we had a good season too. We made the playoffs, got past the first round and then lost to the Spurs. That was a good learning experience for us, that series against San Antonio. So this year we’ve just learned from the two previous years. We added Robin Lopez last year, and that was a huge addition for us. This year we added Steve Blake and Chris Kaman too, so we’re getting better, we have more experience and we have guys who really fit with this group.”
In other words, taking a core that grew together last year and adding a few veterans has really helped Portland leap forward a tier this season, but Batum mostly credits continuity for the team’s hot start.
“All of the best teams right now are that way because they have kept the same core of guys for a while now,” Batum said. “Memphis, Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, I mean all of those teams had the same core of guys for a while. And with us, we’ve had the same core for a couple years now, too.”
They hope to keep that core together for much longer, particularly now that it’s performing so well. Batum, after his unique journey to this point, has been an important part of that team’s success and will continue to be for as long as Portland keeps the band together.
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