Friday, March 6, 2009

Fear The French On The Fastbreak

There might not be anything more demoralizing than giving up a fastbreak dunk. The shift in momentum that corresponds with watching the backside of your opponent as he streaks down the floor for an uncontested throwdown can change the entire dynamic of a close game. Depending on the timing, it can be the ultimate buzz kill, the basketball equivalent of a punch to the gut.

Which is why Nicolas Batum’s ability to track down and block breakaway attempts has proven so important this season for the Trail Blazers. It’s a tough stat to track, as there isn’t a column on the official scorers report for blocks tallied during fast breaks, but if they did keep such a stat, it’s a safe assumption that Batum’s would be right up there at the top of the list.

Looking at Batum, it’s easy to see why he’s been able to nearly master the art of the fastbreak block in just his rookie season. He’s got incredibly long legs, which are beneficial when trying to cover a lot of ground in a hurry, a must when getting back in transition.

But it’s Batum’s abnormally long and sinewy arms that allow him to erase what might otherwise end up as easy fastbreak buckets. Having a world-class reach is practically a necessity when it comes to the transition block, as it allows the defender to reach over the head of the would-be fastbreaker without fouling. Making any contact from behind on the fastbreak is all but guaranteed to get called as a foul, so for that reason, it makes having less muscle mass in the bicep region beneficial, leaving more clearance between the arm of the blocker and the head or shoulder of the blockee. While Batum certainly has muscle definition, he doesn’t have much mass hanging off his limbs, and when it comes to sending back fastbreak attempts, that’s a net positive.

But being tall and spindly is hardly enough. It’s an important component, but there has to be a desire coupled with instincts in order to utilize those physical attributes. Luckily for the Trail Blazers, Batum possesses both characteristics.

“I’ve blocked shots like that since I was five or six years old,” said Batum. “I could always just do it. I love to block like that, on the fastbreak or weakside.”

And then there’s timing, possibly the most important trait any premier shot blocker can possess. Knowing when to go for the block and having the ability to instinctually gauge the precise moment in which to initiate your block attempt can be the difference between drawing a foul and drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd after spiking an attempt into the stands. And on the fastbreak, that ability to almost instantaneously assess the probability of a successful block is vital. After all, knowing when to not go for the block can be important too.

“I can see very quick when I’m going to be able to get back in time to get a block on the fastbreak,” said Batum. “If it’s a very fast guy like D-Wade or Tony Parker, if they get the ball on the fastbreak, I know I can’t get them. Or if it’s someone like LeBron or Josh Smith, I don’t go. You can’t do nothing against those guys.”

But that’s a very small cross section of the league. For the most part, if Batum is in the game when an opponent is taking it to the rack in transition, he better come quick and strong, or else there’s a good chance he’ll be staring back up at the basket in disbelief as his shot is sent back from whence it came, courtesy of a 20 year-old Frenchman named Nic.


Rick_Dawg said...

Good article Casey. Hey, you're around the players a lot, what does Batum like to be called? Nicolas? Nic? Nico? Batum? Batman? Just wondering. Thanks.

Mary Jo said...

Nicolas Batum is AMAZING!

Baddaboom said...

Yeah, this was a great piece. Nice job.

I have to admit, I was incredibly frustrated and disappointed by Batum's performance in Summer League. He was barely noticeable on the court back then. But I think he shines in situations where he is part of a cohesive team defense. And I don't think much of any kind of team defense is played in Summer League.

Nowadays, it is exactly the opposite. He is really having an effect on the game at both ends of the court. The thing that gets me giddy is his best is still yet to come. This guy is definitely a keeper.

Tom L said...

I noticed Batum's English is much better. Then I wondered if the real reason he did so poorly in summer league was he couldn't understand hardly a word of English?! It certainly would confuse a young guy and make him timid. I'm sure they had translators but it would seem almost impossible in the middle of a game on every play. I mean the difference from summer league to the regular season was huge! He is definitely fun to watch now, I love his defense already and appreciate his hustle (almost reminds me of Jerome Kersey... I said almost!) I thought he did really well against Kobe in the last game when we annihilated the Lakers. I can't wait for next year when he gets even more used to the players and his English is much more improved!