- Associated Press - Monday, September 25, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - When Nic Batum woke up in France the morning of June 21, he was stunned to find his phone inundated with voice and text messages from various members of the Hornets organization on the other side of the world.

“I was like, what’s going on? … Did I get traded?” Batum said with a wide smile.

The Hornets had made a trade, but it didn’t involve Batum. Instead, it was one designed to help Batum and the Charlotte get back to the postseason after an underwhelming 36-46 season a year ago.

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Batum quickly learned Charlotte had acquired eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard from the Atlanta Hawks, giving them a rim protector on defense, a valuable pick-and-roll player and a reason to believe the tide will turn for an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series in 15 season.

Batum was overjoyed at the move.

“You don’t play with a guy like that very often in your career,” Batum said. “You can say what you want about the guy, but 14 (points), 13 (rebounds) and three (blocked shots) per game - how many guys can you say that about?”

The move could also pay dividends for Batum, who became the highest-paid Hornets player ever when he received a five-year, $120 million contract in 2016.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Batum “was made to play with Dwight.”

He believes the Batum-Howard pick-and-roll combination can be similar to what the Orlando Magic once had with Howard and Hedo Turkoglu when they reached the NBA Finals in 2009.

Dwight plays a very similar game to Cody (Zeller) in that he helps pick and roll plays get separation that go at people,” Clifford said.

Clifford, who coached Howard in Orlando, said the big man is good at sealing off a defender down low after setting a screen and that Batum is an exceptional passer who can get him the ball in great position to score. The hope is that the Batum-Howard combination takes some of the scoring burden off point guard Kemba Walker, who is coming off his first All-Star game appearance after averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game last season.

The 6-foot-11, 265-pound Howard also gives owner Michael Jordan’s team some star power they haven’t had since the days of Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.

When asked if this is Charlotte’s version of the “big three,” Howard paused and let out a laugh.

“We’re the big 13,” Howard said. “Me, Kemba and Nic is a good lineup but everybody on our team is important. I can’t stress enough it’s going to take each and every one of us to win.”

Clifford agrees.

He said the team’s bench play will be one of the keys to the season. Howard’s addition means Zeller, a two-year starter, moves back to the second team and will see action along with Frank Kaminsky, Michael Carter-Williams, rookie Malik Monk and Jeremy Lamb, who Clifford said has improved immensely in the offseason and could be on the verge of a big season.

Walker said the Hornets’ short-term goal is to earn home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Howard took it several steps further, saying he’s convinced the Hornets have the talent to win it all.

“We do,” Howard said. “… Are we the most talented team in the NBA? People would probably say no, we’re not. But we have a lot of guys who work and a championship attitude. That’s really where it starts.”

Howard didn’t discuss his personal goals this season, but Batum said he’s confident the 13-year NBA veteran will be an All-Star again after reporting to training camp in outstanding physical shape.

For Clifford, Howard is a rim protector he hasn’t had at center before in Charlotte

“I know he’s still an elite basket protector and an elite shot blocker,” Clifford said. “And people forget he is one of the more efficient players in the league offensively. And he puts Cody into a (backup) role that he can excel in.”

NOTES: Clifford said backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams is still battling back from a knee procedure and won’t be ready for the start of training camp. It’s unclear if he’ll be ready for the regular season. … Monk missed all of summer league play with an ankle injury, but is on his way back and could be ready for the opener. … Walker has been completely cleared to practice after an offseason knee procedure and is 100 percent healthy, per Clifford.


For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

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