MANILA – Tournament favorites France got a huge boost ahead of their semifinal game against Turkey in the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers in Manila as swingman Nicolas Batum was cleared to play by the NBA.
Batum, fresh off signing a contract extension with the Charlotte Hornets, was hoping to suit up in their final group game on Thursday night against a tough New Zealand squad, but did not receive clearance until after the contest.
"I wanted to be on the court yesterday," Batum told reporters Friday at Sofitel. "I was waiting for a call from the NBA to say 'it's okay, let him play,' but the call came like an hour after the game, so it was too late."
France still won the game, 66-59, but got a tough challenge from New Zealand as they trailed by 12 points in the fourth quarter before a bench-fueled run gave them control of the game.
"I'm just relieved," said Batum. "I want to be on the court. I can't wait for tomorrow to be on the court, to finally play basketball, because I've been practicing on the side for the last two to three weeks."
"It's cool to run on the side, but I'm not a tracker – I'm a basketball player. I want to be on the court," he added.
READ: Batum all set to bolster France in Manila OQT semis
Batum, whose contract extension with the Hornets was reportedly worth $120 million over five years, gives France another versatile weapon, and his teammates are delighted that he can play especially in such a vital math.
"Nico is an important player for us, of course," said Nando de Colo, who played a huge role in France's 94-83 win over Gilas Pilipinas in the first day of the tournament. "The good thing is he knows the team very well."
"We know he's a great offensive player and in defense, he's got the athleticism and the long arms to deflect the ball, so this will be important for us to play great defense together," he added.
"It's definitely good that he's able to play now," said Boris Diaw. "He's gonna bring a lot of things to the team. We know what Nicolas can bring offensively and defensively He's gonna bring some size and athleticism, so we're very happy to have him."
Batum has played for France for 12 years, and played a huge role in their run to the championship of the 2013 EuroBasket as well as to a bronze medal in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
The winner of the France-Turkey match-up will advance to the finals where they will play the winner of the other semifinal between New Zealand and Canada. The winner of the tournament will earn a berth in the Rio Olympics.
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