Charlotte Hornets guard Nic Batum, he of the five-year, $120 million contract, would be the first to say his season has fallen short of his and everyone else’s expectations.
He also knows the past nine games have represented a turnaround for him, and the underlying reason is obvious to him: Since returning from six weeks of medical leave, Hornets coach Steve Clifford has made it a priority to get the ball into Batum’s hands early in games.
“I don’t want just plays to score. When you get me involved early in a game, I can do this ball-movement stuff,” Batum said following practice Saturday at Talking Stick Resort Arena. “Like (Friday’s victory over the Indiana Pacers): I scored, yes (31 points), but we were moving. There wasn’t a lot of one-on-one play. I don’t know how many assists we had in the first quarter, but it had to be a lot.”
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The Hornets scored a franchise-record 49 points in that first quarter, with 12 of the 19 baskets assisted. Batum had a particularly spectacular pass in that quarter, throwing the ball behind his defender to find point guard Kemba Walker for a wide-open 3-pointer. Associate head coach Stephen Silas mentioned to Clifford Saturday there are few NBA players who would both see that passing opportunity and have the skill to deliver it to best set up Walker for the open jump shot.
Clifford began coaching again, following a leave to address to severe headaches, with the Jan. 17 home victory over the Washington Wizards. The Hornets have a 5-4 record since then, and Batum – who signed the largest contract in Charlotte sports history in July of 2016 – has thrived in that span.
In those nine games, Batum has shot 46 percent from the field (50-of-108), 43 percent from 3-point range (21-of-49), and averaged 16.6 points and 4.8 assists.
Compare that to the 28 games Batum played this season prior to Clifford’s return: 40 percent from the field, 28 percent from 3-point range, 4.7 assists and 10.4 points per game.
“Cliff is back. I have been saying that for a while, you know,” Batum said of the cause of his upswing in performance. “It has been tough for me the first two months, with the injury (a torn ligament in his left elbow in the preseason).
“(Now) Cliff is back. He knows me and I know him, so I have been playing way better the last two or three weeks.”
Clifford said part of what he’s done is try to take some pressure off Batum to play perfectly all the time.
“There are guys who are hard on themselves, and others who remember more the good things they do. I definitely think he’s one of the ones who are hard on themselves,” Clifford said.
One of the problems with Batum’s injury was its timing. Happening in the first preseason exhibition, it robbed him of an opportunity to adjust to playing with center Dwight Howard. With Howard getting so many touches in the low post, the offense evolved in Batum’s absence, and it’s been a challenging adjustment for him.
“Early in the game, it’s important that everybody touches the ball. By the very nature of how he plays, he’s good to play through early: He’s going to make the right play,” Clifford said. “When he has the ball, everybody touches it.”