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How Nicolas Batum Continues Evolution Of His Game, Mindset

Sometimes, Nicolas Batum senses irritation within people expecting more than his passive offensive game, his penchant to involve teammates and orchestrate scores with vision and rebounding. He never grew up taught to score in the volume of the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants, instead idolizing Scottie Pippen and becoming inspired by a statistical line: 17 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists. This was the drive, Batum’s idea of a most balanced basketball player.

Every summer, his old French buddies return to their native country for the national team’s training camp and words of the practices in San Antonio, of the culture and free-flowing system, fascinate Batum. Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and San Antonio gave Batum and the Portland Trail Blazers a clinic in the Western Conference semifinal playoff series last season, and Batum pondered how he could play for those Spurs amid all the connected passes for wide-open shots, all the cuts and drives born of the sport’s fundamentals.

As Batum thought aloud, “Yeah, maybe I could. Maybe.”

Batum wasn’t looking outside Portland, but rather gauged his fit on a champion, any title winner, really. The Spurs showed the Blazers how basketball should be played, Batum says, and now Portland has started the season more cohesive, more potent. Away from Parker, away from co-stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Batum learned the responsibilities of a leading scorer with the French team over the summer, a task Diaw bestowed upon him. Your team, your time.

And so Batum went for 35 and 27 points in the final two games of the World Cup to give France the bronze medal, and he noticed his Portland teammates urging him in training camp: Shoot, Nic. Shoot.

“I try to do everything on the court, but I know I got to be more aggressive,” Batum told RealGM. “The team needs it. Everybody’s pushing me here. When Tony Parker didn’t play with us this summer, Boris Diaw and I had to step up our games. That was a cool learning experience for me. Here, we’re all young and I would like to be the guy for LaMarcus and Damian. I would like that a lot. But I know I need to be aggressive, and it is coming.”

The Blazers believe their internal improvements along with the offseason’s bench additions will bring an elevated level of play in the postseason, but Batum has the ability to expedite the process, skills to alleviate droughts that their offense suffers at times. In his mind, Batum knows he must shoot more than eight-to-nine attempts a game, triggering significant drops in his shooting percentages and scoring outputs this season.

Even so, Batum still hasn’t fully recovered from a right knee injury troubling him from the outset of the season. He won’t blame his play with France for the wear and tear over the summer, a run further cementing his determination for the game, but regaining full strength in the knee is an ongoing process.

“I’m working on the knee, working to get it back to 100 percent,” Batum said. “It isn’t yet and it has bothered me a little bit, but it is coming along. I’ll get it right. But this is my game. I’ve always tried to do it all on the court. I never really was a scorer when I was young. Never had 25 points, 30 points per game. Growing up, I was always around 17, 10 and seven.

“That’s what I love to do, play both sides. Scottie Pippen was my favorite player, and I grew up watching him and always wanting to follow him.”

He has elevated the facilitating, the wing defense for the Blazers for seven seasons now, and scouts around the NBA agree: Batum has a mentality playing to score, not scoring to play. There’s no ideology of: let me score and then start to function other facets of the game. From Terry Stotts and his coaching staff to the veterans, Batum has been implored to score, to shoot, but he’ll forever defend and play for the best shots even when they aren’t coming his way.

Batum looks around the league, hears everyone already discussing the free agency of Kevin Durant. They’ll both fall in 2016, yet Batum believes he and Durant are made of the same disposition with different external temperaments. Durant’s been swarmed with questions about his future with the Oklahoma City Thunder. For Batum, the case is simple: Why leave Portland?

“I still have time and I like low key so there’s no reason to think yet, but why not stay in Portland?” Batum told RealGM. “I’ve been here for seven years now, so why not?”

His longtime friends came into a second-round series a season ago and showed the sport at its peak, and Batum left the matchup believing he could fit on a champion one day. In so many ways, he is a classic Spur: Passing, cutting, playing for the optimal score. Still, Portland needs to reach another level to supplant the West’s top contenders, relying upon Batum to tap into the next tier in his skill.

All around the Blazers, they’re pushing Nicolas Batum to be more assertive, to find the next echelon, and he promises one thing on his health and his game. “It’s coming.”

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

When Kyrie Irving started to heat up halfway through the first quarter, he removed any intrigue from the championship game of the World Cup. Team USA was up 35-21 after ten minutes and never looked back from there, which was really the story of the tournament. The Americans dominated with absolute ease, going 9-0 and winning by an average of 33 points a game, their highest margin of victory since the 1994 world championships.

They trailed only once at halftime - a group play game against Turkey which they ended up winning by 19 points - and they were never tested in the second half of a game. None of the teams they faced could stop them from scoring and none could consistently execute against their defense. Order has been restored to the basketball universe, as Team USA has won the last four major international tournaments and hasn’t lost a game since 2006.

The scariest part about their performance is that this wasn’t even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain. At the start of the summer, the three players expected to lead Team USA were Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George. Coach K was able to reshuffle the roster on the fly, with waves of shooters and defenders on the perimeter and three man rotation upfront of Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins.

Without Durant, Team USA opted to spread responsibility around and not run their offense through any one player. Six different guys - James Harden, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Irving, Davis and Faried - averaged in double figures in the tournament. The days of international teams wanting to zone the Americans and daring them to shoot from the perimeter have come and gone - Team USA shot 52% from the field, 57% from 2 and 40% from 3. 

While there were moments where the offense stagnated and individual players held the ball, for the most part, the Americans did a good job of spreading the floor, moving the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man. With Cousins coming off the bench and dominating second unit big men, averaging 9.6 points a game on 70% shooting, they even had the option of running offense through the post when the pace of the game slowed down.

That didn’t happen too often, though, as the US had only one game where they scored less than 95 points. When you consider that international games are only 40 minutes long, it shows you how effortlessly Team USA was able to put up points against the best teams in the world. At a certain point in each game, they started going from defense to offense and getting out in the open floor, essentially running every team they faced out of the gym. 

Defense was their calling card in this tournament, an impressive feat when you consider the NBA reputations of many of their best players. Four of their five starters - Irving, Curry, Harden and Faried - are guys viewed as weaker players on that end of the floor. Fewer minutes and smaller offensive roles allowed them to increase their effort level while a great defensive scheme by Team USA’s coaching staff put them in a position to succeed.

Given their overwhelming edge in talent and athleticism, you would expect the Americans to be a dominant defensively, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even when the US was finishing out of the top two in major international tournaments from 2002-2006, the problem was never a lack of athletic talent. Under the direction of Colangelo and Coach K, the American players buy into a team concept and execute at a high level on both sides of the ball. 

In 2014, the end result was a juggernaut that ran rings around the rest of the world. If you break down the roster individually, no one would take this version of Team USA over either of the teams that won gold medals in the last two Olympics, yet both groups had to pull out several games in the fourth quarter. A lot of that is because Spain won silver in 2008 and 2012 and lost in the quarterfinals in 2014, but you can only face the teams in front of you.

When Spain was knocked out of the tournament, they took almost any chance of drama with them. Before their upset loss to France, the Spaniards were playing about as well as Team USA, going 6-0 and winning by an average of over 20 points a game. On paper, the Spanish frontline of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka could have given the Americans some match-up problems upfront, but the way they lost to France throws cold water on that scenario. 

If Spain was going to be physically manhandled in their own gym and outrebounded 50-28 by a frontline of Boris Diaw, Joffrey Lauvergne and Boris Diaw, they were going to have a hard time keeping Davis, Cousins and Faried off the glass. The French didn’t even play that well in the upset - they shot 39% from the field and 25% from 3. If the US had used a similar defensive game-plan and shot well from the perimeter, they would have blown Spain out.

With their gold medal in the World Cup, the US automatically clinches a spot in the 2016 Olympics, which means they won’t have to play any qualifying games in 2015. That’s good news for international basketball, since Team USA’s presence tends to remove most of the drama from the proceedings, the ultimate tribute to how dominant they’ve been under Coach K. They are winning so easily these days the whole thing is becoming kind of boring.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

In one of the biggest upsets in recent international basketball history, France knocked off Spain 65-52 in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. A week after getting blown out by the Spaniards in group play, the French turned the tables in the knockout round. France got standout performances from a number of players, most notably Boris Diaw, who outplayed the Gasol brothers on both sides of the ball, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists. 

With national team mainstays Joakim Noah and Tony Parker sitting this tournament out, the French team became Diaw’s, almost by default. Diaw had not put up big scoring numbers before the game against of Spain, but he still impacted the game in a number of ways, serving as France’s primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA. 

Spain came into the quarterfinals on a tear, blowing out every team they faced en route to a 6-0 record. After losing to the US in the gold medal games in the last two Olympics, this was supposed to be their year. Not only were they hosting the World Cup, there wasn’t a team in the field with the size to match up with the Gasol brothers. It was pick your poison - either you lived up with Marc and Pau dominating in the post or you gave up open 3’s.

Against France, though, the tables were turned. The French big men, despite giving up a ton of size, played the Gasols and Serge Ibaka very physically, not giving up any space in the post, crowding them on the perimeter and attacking them on the glass. The mismatch ended up working the other way - Diaw was able to drag the Spanish big men away from the paint, where he used his superior quickness to blow by them and collapse the defense. 

Diaw’s fingerprints were all over the win. At 6’8 250 and with a wingspan north of 7’0, he is built more like an NFL LT than an NBA big man. He no longer has the great vertical leap of his youth, but he still has a very strong base and remarkably quick feet, which allows him to body up and stay in front of much bigger players while still contesting their shots. Matched up primarily against Marc Gasol, Diaw held him to three points and four rebounds on 1-7 shooting.

That was one of the biggest problems for Spain on Wednesday - while Marc could not take advantage of Diaw on one side of the ball, he had very little chance of guarding him on the other. France opened the game on an 11-2 run, thanks in large part to two three-pointers from Diaw. Once he established that he could make the perimeter shot, he put the Spanish defense in a difficult bind, since none of their big men could contain him off the dribble either.

For the most part, the other team comes into a game wanting Diaw to be a scorer. He is a naturally unselfish player who is at his best when he can distribute the ball and make plays for everyone else. You can count the number of players with his size, ball-handling and passing ability on one hand. In terms of being a point forward who can dissect a defense from anywhere on the floor, the only guys in the same league as Diaw are LeBron James and Blake Griffin. 

Diaw has a remarkable feel for the game, with an intuitive sense of where the other nine players on the floor are. He doesn’t just find the open man - he creates open shots by anticipating what the defense will do before he even makes his move. My favorite play in the World Cup came in their Round of 16 win over Croatia, when Diaw caught the ball in the post, split a double team in one motion, drew a third defender and then handed the ball off for an open dunk.

Even when he didn’t finish off a possession with a basket or an assist, Diaw was one of the main initiators of the French offense on Wednesday. When he was on the floor, Diaw was either the primary ball-handler or a screener on the pick-and-roll. Something good happened almost every time he touched the ball - he would hit cutters and find the open man out of the post or drive the ball into the defense and create ball movement that would end in an open shot.

Diaw has never been the most consistent player over the course of an 82-game season, but when the lights are brightest, he performs at his best. He gave Spain the complete package in the quarterfinals, beating them as a scorer, passer, shooter, rebounder and defender. Diaw is a 250-pound Swiss Army Knife who can do a little bit of everything over the course of a game, which gives his team a tremendous amount of versatility on both sides of the ball.

There’s no position where versatility is more important than power forward, where players have to match-up with a wide variety of opponents. Some teams like to pound the ball inside to two traditional big men while others like to spread the floor with four perimeter players - Diaw lets you do either. He can defend the post and the three-point line and he can play out of the post or on the perimeter on offense. There are not many PF’s who can do all four.

You are not going to find two basketball players more distinct than Marc Gasol and LeBron James and Diaw was able to hold his own against both at the highest levels of the game. Diaw’s insertion into the starting line-up in Game 3 of the NBA Finals changed the tenor of the series. With Diaw spreading the floor and playing as a point forward from the top of the key, the San Antonio Spurs blew the Miami Heat off the floor for three straight games.

Diaw was one of the main catalysts for one of the most dominant performances in Finals history. His stat-line for the series was vintage Diaw - six points, eight rebounds and six assists per game - but the most telling number was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.1:1. Diaw thinks the game at a really high level and he almost never makes the wrong play with the ball in his hands. He is the ultimate teammate who makes the game easy for everyone around him.

If Diaw had a different mentality, both in terms of hunting for his own shot and keeping himself in peak physical condition, there’s no telling how good a player he could have been. Diaw is the rare basketball player who never had to sacrifice his taste for the finer things in life to excel at the highest levels of the sport. For all he has accomplished, he is still only 31 years old, so basketball fans should be able to enjoy his unique game for many years to come.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Everyone in Spain’s rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

The Storylines Of The Basketball World Cup

Every national program involved enters this tournament with the goal of trying to make their country proud. For some countries, that means toppling the mighty U.S.A. For others, it’s one last shot at glory. And a few programs lurking in the shadows are hoping to use this platform to announce themselves as the world’s newest global power.

Behind Serbia's EuroBasket Run

Through the first two rounds of EuroBasket 2013, there’s been no country more impressive than Serbia. Despite having the youngest team in Slovenia, with an average age of 24, they are tied for the second-best record.

The AAU System And How The NBA Could Fix It

Because there is no professional structure to youth basketball in the United States, a poorly organized and often self-defeating culture has developed in its place. If AAU basketball is bad for business, the NBA has the power to fix it and instead look to the models of Europe.

Building USA's 2016 Olympic Team

Numerous international tournaments (FIBA U-19, adidas nations, etc) occurring during the summer between the 2012 Olympics and 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup triggered for me the thought of what the next USA Olympic basketball team can and should look like.

Team USA's Next Generation

Team USA changed the peer group of the NBA’s best young players. While their NBA teammates changed every year, their USA teammates stayed the same. It fostered the relationship between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that led to a dynasty with the Heat and it could do the same with Paul George, Kyrie Irving, etc.

Basketball's Ambassador-In-Chief

LeBron James is an ambassador for the game of basketball, a game that can and does change people's lives for the better. That's a tremendous responsibility, and asides from one foolish primetime TV special, he's handled the blinding media spotlight and the celebrity fishbowl that comes with it about as well as could possibly be expected.

2012 Olympics: Final Advanced Player Stats

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili and Andrei Kirilenko were the stars of the Olympics. Here is how their offensive ratings measure up.

One Last Chance For Argentina's Golden Generation

While Team USA was turning over its entire roster every two years, the same core of Argentine players have been getting older. Now, in Friday’s Olympic semifinal, the “Golden Generation” has one final chance to defeat the Americans. It will be a much harder task in 2012: Team USA has been built in their image -- except faster, stronger and more athletic.

Let The Valanciunas, Anthony Davis Comparisons Begin

Like almost all young centers, the development of Jonas Valanciunas and Anthony Davis will depend heavily on the environment their team puts them in. Davis has a higher ceiling than Valanciunas, but the difference between the two isn’t nearly as high as their pre-draft publicity would suggest.

Why The Owners Want Olympic Basketball Marginalized

After driving the NBA to the brink of a lost season in order to maximize their revenue streams, the owners are at it again with their World Cup of Basketball pursuit. If Mark Cuban wants another paycheck in the summer, he can earn it himself on the Shark Tank.

Kevin Seraphin's Roadblocks And Opportunities

Kevin Seraphin is the rare young big man comfortable scoring with his back to the basket, and his wide base and long arms allow him to establish deep post position. National team experience could allow a player like Seraphin to emerge in a new role when he returns to the Wizards.

2012 Summer Olympics Preview: Group B

While Spain should control Group B, Russia and Brazil each have an opportunity to medal.

2012 Summer Olympics Preview: Group A

Team USA will be the favorite throughout the tournament, but Lithuania, Argentina and France figure to make noise in Group A, while Nigeria and Tunisia look to play the role of spoilers.

Ben Gordon's Participation In Olympics Remains In Doubt

Entering an offseason free of drama, Ben Gordon has been adamant about following through on his commitment to represent Great Britain in this summer’s Olympics, but was a no-show as training camp began.

No Need For Hysteria, NBA Will Survive

The lockout will unquestionably damage the NBA, but not to the extent its fans fear or its detractors hope. There are several important reasons why it is so well-positioned in the long-term.

How Team USA Must Adjust To Match-Up Against Spain

To beat a Spanish team that dominated EuroBasket, Team USA will have to play two traditional big men most of the game instead of their standard small-ball attack. As a result, they will be required to make several intriguing roster decisions.

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