By Sam Perley
It’s the early afternoon on Sunday, Oct. 1 and the Charlotte Hornets have just wrapped up practice prior to leaving for Boston for their first preseason game of the campaign. After electing not to play for his native France at this summer’s European Championships, Nic Batum took a few minutes to reflect on the longest stretch of his career without playing a competitive game.
“I was a little bit anxious when I started training camp,” said Batum at the time. “I didn’t know where I was because I hadn’t played for so long. Yeah, I’m not anxious, but excited to get back on the court. It’s been so long, so I can’t wait.”
Batum took the summer off from National Team duty with the goal of being more physically and mentally recharged heading into his third NBA season with the Hornets. Three days later, his plan was temporarily derailed after he suffered a torn UCL in his left elbow within the first minute of an exhibition game in Detroit.
“I knew it was something,” recalled Batum on Nov. 12. “The first question the trainer asks is ‘Did you feel something crack?’ and I did. I knew it was pretty bad. I knew I wasn’t going to be out for a couple days. I knew it was going to be a couple weeks.”
This particular injury happens to be extremely uncommon in the sport, appearing much more often amongst baseball players. With Batum’s arm not needing to use nearly as much torque as a pitcher’s would, he was able to opt for rehabilitation instead of a potentially season-ending ligament replacement operation (more commonly known as “Tommy John surgery”).
“The next couple days after [the injury] when [the doctor] said 6-8 weeks and no surgery, I was pretty happy,” said Batum.
Thankfully, the injury also occurred to Batum’s non-shooting elbow. Within days, he was already back on the Hornets practice court putting up shots, an activity that required hardly any significant utilization of his left arm.
Over the past couple of weeks, Batum has continued to gradually increase his workload and is now officially set to start for the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I just tried to take my time, do a good job with my rehab, try and stay in shape and do my cardio every day,” said Batum. “By Wednesday, it’s going to be six weeks. So, I’m on time.”
Without one of their leading playmakers this season, the Hornets offense has stalled at times. The team is currently tied for the fourth-fewest assists per game (19.5) and producing the fourth-worst assist percentage (52.2 percent). Charlotte also ranks 21st in the league in offensive efficiency as well (102.6 points per 100 possessions)
Amongst players with at least 60 games played last season, Batum finished eighth in the league in assist-to-pass ratio (13.1 percent). He led the Hornets in assists (career-high 5.9), despite ranking third on the team in passes per game (45.1) behind Kemba Walker (61.6) and Marvin Williams (50.2). No other NBA player averaged as many assists on as few passes per game as Batum did.
Charlotte also managed an offensive rating of 107.4 points per 100 possessions with Batum on the court last season compared to a mark of 104.5 when he was off the court at any point. The year before that, the Hornets had a net rating (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of +4.8 with Batum on the court, which dropped to 0.7 when he wasn’t playing.
“[We miss Nic’s] ability to keep us all together on the offensive end, keep us organized, his play-making ability for everyone,” said Marvin Williams. “Nic knows where everyone likes the basketball and obviously he can score it when he wants to do that as well.”
Williams also confirmed that Batum’s on-court contributions aren’t just limited to the offensive end either.
“Defensively, he gives you a lot of versatility. He’s got the ability to guard 1 through 4 and just his leadership out there. Obviously, like his offensive organization, he’s got the ability to take a lot of pressure off a lot of people. He makes the game so easy for you. Just not having that out there is difficult at times.
The Frenchman’s absence led to a huge opportunity for Jeremy Lamb to move into the starting lineup and he took full advantage of it. In 12 games this season, Lamb is putting up career-high marks in scoring (16.7 points), rebounding (5.1; T-4th amongst NBA SG), assists (3.2), field-goal percentage (46.8 percent), three-point percentage (45.7 percent), and three-point field goals (1.8).
“[Jeremy was] great. I’m really happy about it,” said Batum. “We need a lot of weapons if we want to be successful. We lost Marco [Belinelli], so we needed another [bench] guy to really be the scorer like a secret weapon. I can say we have three now with Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk and Jeremy.”
Batum also added, “By me being on the sidelines for six weeks now, I’ve learned a lot during that period. I’ve tried to look at Dwight’s games with us, where he wants the ball, the way Frank’s playing right now, the way J-Lamb’s playing right now, I can get Malik open. I tried to look at the positive side about everything. We have so many options, so many weapons.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy part of this setback though seems to be the overall prospective and attitude Batum’s displayed while handling this unforeseen adversity.
“What do you want me to do? That’s life. That’s basketball,” said Batum two days after the injury. “I tore my UCL [and] that’s tough because I want to play. If you look around, worse stuff is happening to people all around the world. [My injury] is nothing compared to that.”
Nic Batum’s presence on the Charlotte Hornets as a basketball player is certainly substantial in terms of points, rebounds and assists. As a veteran leader with irreplaceable intangibles though, it’s clear his worth is so much more.