For Clippers’ Nicolas Batum, the work keeps paying off

On most game nights at home, Nicolas Batum sits in front of his locker before a game, earbuds in ears and phone in hand. With many players, the appearance of headphones is a clear signal that they don’t want to be bothered.

Approach Batum, however, and the buds slip off as quickly as the ball comes off his hands while shooting one of his emerging trademark corner 3-pointers. The easygoing Clippers forward smiles and seemingly always says “yes” when asked if he has a few moments to chat.

That’s probably because Batum is comfortable where he is in his career as the Clippers get ready for a home game vs. the Miami Heat Monday. He is happy with his bench role on the star-studded Clippers, happy to be in Los Angeles, happy to still be contributing to a playoff contender at age 34.

“I have played 15 years in the league. I am 34 years old, and I got a family with two kids,” Batum said. “I’m playing 15-20 minutes for contenders … so I’m doing good. I’m happy where I am. I’m in a happy place.”

Batum’s NBA journey hasn’t always been blissful. There were the learning years in Portland, where he landed after a draft day trade with Houston, which made him the 25th overall pick in the 2008 draft. After coming off the bench in his first three games, he moved into the starting lineup and a star was in the making.

Phoenix coach Monty Williams was an assistant in Portland when Batum arrived. He remembers him as a young French player who was eager to earn his place in the NBA.

“He had this drive about him that I didn’t know until I saw him play against guys he had grown up with, especially Pau Gasol,” Williams said. “He wanted to dunk on Pau every chance he got, and I was just like, ‘What is up with that?’ It was a national team thing and that’s how I kind of learned he had a streak.”

Then there were the rocky years in Charlotte, where he was traded in 2015 after seven seasons in Portland. After posting career seasons in points, injuries and a dwindling role in the Hornets’ youth movement eventually led the team to waive him in 2020. He learned of his release via Twitter.

Steve Clifford coached Batum during his first three seasons in Charlotte. He said there are few players of Batum’s size who are adept at both scoring and defending. “He lends versatility to your team,” Clifford said.

Batum said he was lost after being waived and figured his career might have come to an end.

That was until the Clippers called and offered him a spot alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. He quickly fit in, averaging 8.2 points, 40.2 % from beyond the arc and 4.6 rebounds in his first two seasons.

This season, Batum is averaging 6.3 points, 41.8% shooting from long range and 4.4 rebounds in the team’s first 37 games.

“I’ve been in this league now for 15 years which is something,” Batum said, “especially after what happened to me. After my last 18 months in Charlotte, though, I never thought I would bounce back on the team like this. We’re playing for something. And I’m still like contributing and still making threes. It’s big. I’m really proud.”

Batum is particularly proud of his work ethic and was looking to play in all 82 games this season. However, he missed his first game of the season Saturday because of a sprained ankle, sitting while the Clippers lost to Indiana in the finale of a five-game trip.

His lack of DNPs is a testament to his workout routine. Daily sessions of weightlifting, gym workouts and practices keep him in “good shape,” he said.

“If I got some injury stuff, I take care of it,” Batum said earlier this season. “I don’t want to miss practice. I haven’t missed practice or shootaround yet this year, so I try to be there as much as possible every time. It’s just the routine I have just to take care of my body to be there for my team.”

Part of his workout is practicing those deep corner 3-pointers, those plays where he catches the ball and barely takes a breath before releasing it. He said he began working on that shot two summers ago, shortly after arriving in L.A. and taking account of the Clippers’ talent.

He said he realized quickly he needed a different way to contribute to the team if he wanted to stay relevant.

“When you play with a team with so many weapons, you have to create stuff,” Batum said. “So, like OK, I have to open, catch and shoot the ball. I got a quick release, so I have to work on that.

“It’s still tough for me. I’m still working on it every morning. I’m just trying to perfect it.”

The work has paid off. Batum is 42nd on the NBA’s all-time career 3-point list with 1,524 and one of only seven active players with 1,500-plus career 3-pointers.

He also ranks third on the list of top all-time European long-range shooters behind Dirk Nowitzki (1,982) and Peja Stojakovic (1,760). Mention that fact and he smiles broadly.

“I wasn’t always known for being a great shooter, but to have your name next to those two guys,” he said, shaking his head. “Unbelievable.”