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A closer look at Nicolas Batum’s season debut

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Batum returned to the court in last night’s loss to the Cavaliers, providing a (mostly) positive impact.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst the ever increasing hole that is the Charlotte Hornets record, forward Nicolas Batum made his season debut last night, reminding us of his importance to Charlotte’s success.

Playing 32 minutes (12 more than what was planned), Batum finished with 16 points, six assists, and five rebounds in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He also finished +4 on the night, the highest of any Hornets player. For a guy nicknamed the Swiss Army Knife, it was picturesque night for the most part. Batum’s return was meant to stabilize a rotation that has looked lost at times during the four (now five) game losing streak. He achieved that to an extent. Here’s what I liked and didn’t like about his debut.

What I liked

Off ball movement and court awareness

Batum opened the game aggressively, scoring his team’s first six points. These came largely from cutting off the ball and getting open under the hoop.

Batum’s off ball movement continued throughout the game, and he provided an outlet for Kemba Walker to break the trap.

When the offense stagnates, as it has in recent games, Batum’s awareness of knowing where to be, or where the ball should be, could make a difference moving forward. Case-in-point, this pass to Malik Monk.

There are few, if anyone, on the roster making this pass, and it provided Monk a catch-and-shoot opportunity he converted. Again, this speaks to Batum’s overall awareness and playmaking ability. The Hornets have guys who can do it to an extent, but Batum makes it a priority.

Stabilizing the second unit

At the 9:47 mark of the second quarter, the Hornets found themselves down 43-36. Outside of Jeremy Lamb, the second unit was struggling to find offense, and were breaking down defensively as well. Batum checked in, and not even a minute later the lead had been cut to one. Batum didn’t score during this stretch, but his presence offered needed stability to the lineup. After Lamb converted two free throws, Monk went on his five point scoring stretch, capped off by the 3-pointer that was set up by Batum (see the above clip).

While Lamb’s scoring should help the second unit, the bench continues lacks a distributor. Maybe Michael Carter-Williams can be that guy if/when he cracks the rotation, but beyond him the bench consists of solid offensive players who are better at creating their own shots rather than for others. Batum can be the guy to help the offense move a bit more. Looking ahead, I’d love to see whether he can get the likes of Monk or Frank Kaminsky higher percentage shots. Both have capabilities on that end, but they’ve forced a lot of their shots lately.

What I didn’t like

Turnovers

Batum has a reputation for making careless turnovers. He knows where his teammates are, or should be at any given moment, but that sometimes backfires when he doesn’t account for the defense. It’s as if he’s woke, but too woke. Like Kyrie Irving, the Earth is flat woke. Having good awareness and understanding of the offense means little if you don’t take account for the defense. (Facts are important, people.)

Last night, that lack of awareness led to four turnovers. A couple came late in the game, when Charlotte was hanging around but needing a near-perfect finish to come back. Down seven with three minutes to go, Batum gathers a defensive round and decides to make a cross court pass to Marvin Williams, which Lebron James anticipates and turns into a highlight dunk.

This would’ve mattered less had it come with under a minute remaining, but there’s plenty of time to come back at this point. Any bucket makes it a two-possession game, and there was no reason to rush it or go for the heroic play. To play devils advocate, Batum recognizes that Cleveland isn’t getting back on defense (hence the line of three Cavs players at mid-court). If James misjudges the pass, Williams has a clear lane to the hoop. But Batum is baited into this pass by James, who is likely out of his eye-sight. You can understand the intent, but that doesn’t make it worth attempting.

Two minutes later, Batum turns it over again to J.R. Smith. The Hornets are down eight at this point, and while James misses the ensuing shot attempt, it takes 22 seconds before Charlotte gets the ball back, and the game is out of reach at this point.

Batum should cut down on the turnovers as he gets more game time and more comfortable with Dwight Howard (those two were largely not in sync last night). But more than anything, Batum needs to recognize when and when not to make the highlight reel pass.

Perimeter shooting

Batum shot 6-for-9 on 2-point shots, which is great, but he shot just 1-for-6 from the 3-point line. Rust and fatigue likely played a factor, but a few shots were forced and not exactly high percentage shots. I won’t knock the open ones he missed; particularly the miss with 25 seconds remaining. (Can’t knock the guy for taking but missing an open shot.)

We all want Batum to be more aggressive on offense, but that doesn’t excuse taking ill-advised shots. Six 3-point attempts is justifiable if most of them are good, but I’d argue just two or three were. I acknowledge I’m nit-picking here, but given his struggles from the perimeter last season, it’s worth pointing out tonight and moving forward.

Bad passing and shots aside, it’s nice to have Batum back. Things aren’t clicking for the Hornets just yet, but hopefully his return can kick start them back towards .500 starting on Friday. Beating Cleveland was going to be tough regardless, so the loss isn’t quite panic-inducing. A loss Friday to the Bulls, however, is a different story. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.