Before the Charlotte Hornets’ eventual fourth quarter collapse to the Boston Celtics last week, Nicolas Batum was out on the floor doing his usual pregame workout. On his way back to the locker room, Batum promised to grab some old shoes for a Hornets fan bold enough to mingle by the tunnel 45 minutes prior to tip-off. Over his 10-year career, Batum’s generosity and humbleness have been well-documented — but right now, it’s the Frenchman’s tenacity on both sides of the ball that Charlotte has missed the most.
In early October, Batum tore the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his left elbow, a crushing injury that would delay the anticipated partnership with Kemba Walker and newcomer Dwight Howard. Through 12 games, it’s obvious how much this Hornets team has hurt without Batum. Charlotte currently holds a 5-7 record, good for a spot third-to-last in the Eastern Conference and only better than the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks.
Thankfully, Batum is set to make his season debut tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. His arrival comes at the perfect moment as the Hornets face a nightmarish end to November that will pit them against the Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and the Cavaliers once more for good measure.
Last season, Batum averaged 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Batum’s contributions will be key for a Hornets team looking to re-climb the conference ladder. Of course, that didn’t stop Batum from praising just about everybody else when he talked to Basketball Insiders last week.
While the Hornets are still very much alive in the topsy-turvy conference, the situation could be much worse if not for Jeremy Lamb, one of the league’s biggest breakout stars through the first month. Lamb is averaging career-highs across the board, including a big jump from 9.7 to 16.7 points per game, and the 6-foot-5 scorer appears to be fulfilling some of the potential Oklahoma City saw back in 2012.
For what it’s worth, Batum saw Lamb’s improvement coming from a mile away.
“I’m not really surprised, he was turning into that guy before I got hurt,” Batum told Basketball Insiders. “[Between] training camp and the work he put in all summer long, we were really excited. I’ve been on the side and it’s been a big opportunity for him to showcase [how he’s improved]. That’s been great for our team.”
But beyond that, Batum acknowledges that the Hornets have more or less treaded water because of how deep the roster is. From the massive offseason trade for Howard to the ready-made abilities of rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, Charlotte had a defensive-minded nine-man rotation for head coach Steve Clifford immediately, even with the lingering injuries.
Monk was hailed as an elite shooting prospect back in June, so when the former Kentucky star slipped to No. 11 overall, Charlotte gladly scooped him up. Although professional shooters are often streaky, and Monk is no different, it’s already clear that he’ll be around for quite some time. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard has already surpassed 20 points on two occasions, knocking down five three-pointers each time as well.
In Bacon’s case, a smooth-scoring prospect out of the south, he’s succeeded in small doses too. Through 12 games, Bacon has tallied three double-digit point efforts and even snagged a career-high 11 rebounds in his second-ever professional contest. Bacon, the No. 40 overall selection out of Florida State, has been an effective spark plug for Charlotte without Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist in the lineup.
In 2016-17, Charlotte finished with 36.6 bench points per game, a mark that left them toward the middle of the pack. That group included, at times, Ramon Sessions, Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee and Frank Kaminsky, the latter of which came off the bench for all but 16 games last season. Of those players, Kaminsky is the only one that still remains with Charlotte and his efforts with Monk, Bacon and Cody Zeller, who slid to the bench after Howard’s acquisition, have made for an overall stronger second unit.
Even with their fair share of struggles so far, Batum credited the two rookies with developing quickly and efficiently.
“That’s why I told people that we’d be alright, we have a very deep roster,” Batum said. “Guys like Malik and Dwayne, they’re both rookies but they don’t really play like it. So, that’s cool, they just go out there and play their game — that’s why we’re in good shape right now.”
As for Howard, the future Hall of Famer has been a much-needed boost to the Hornets’ frontcourt. Howard, an eight-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, has averaged 14.4 points and 13.1 rebounds, an exciting resurgence after a disappointing season with the Hawks last year. In fact, it’s Howard’s highest average in points since 2014-15 and his best rebounding mark since 2011-12, the center’s last season with the Orlando Magic.
For a price that only demanded Plumlee (who hasn’t played yet this season due to injury), Belinelli (12.3 points, 2.5 three-pointers) and a second-round pick (Tyler Dorsey), Howard has changed the dynamic of a Hornets team that fell well short of the postseason last year. Howard is no longer a guaranteed lock for All-Star festivities, nor is he still a defensive freak, but Batum believes that the center is a game-changer for Charlotte.
“From his rebounds, his presence in the paint and the offense is doing good as well — he’s still Dwight Howard,” Batum said. “You can’t replace a 7-foot, 260-pound muscle guy in the paint, so he’s great to have around on and off the court.”
Finally, there’s the aforementioned Walker, the Hornets’ clutch, electric point guard that has excelled with Batum by his side. Naturally, Walker’s 23.2 points, 5.5 assists and three three-pointers per game helped him reach his first-ever All-Star berth last winter and he’s shown no signs of slowing down now.
It’s worth noting that since Batum signed with the Hornets in 2015, Walker saw major statistical improvements in both seasons thus far. Together, the pair has become a formidable 1-2 punch in the Eastern Conference, but Batum made sure to note how fun it’s been watching Walker develop and expand his game.
“It’s really cool to play with a point guard like Kemba — I played with Damian Lillard before I got here,” Batum said before laughing. “I like playing with All-Star point guards, they make my whole job a lot easier. My job is just to take some pressure off of them.”
Undoubtedly, Batum’s return to the court has been long awaited and tonight is an opportunity to finally unleash this new-look Charlotte squad. Whether they’re young (Monk and Bacon), old (Howard) or an All-Star point guard (Walker), Batum is just eager to set up his teammates once again and work toward getting this season back on track.
At the end of the day, although Batum would never mention it himself, the Hornets have sorely missed his on-court leadership and unselfish play. Zeller, for example, can’t wait to be back on the floor with Batum.
“More than anything, [we missed] the ball movement, the offensive organization that [Batum] brings our team,” Zeller told Basketball Insiders. “He’s definitely a team-first guy, he’d rather get the assist than the points.”
So, even with a number of breakout performances and big-time offseason acquisitions, it’s the recovery of Batum that may just end up saving the Hornets’ season, one game at a time.
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