Will Barton and the Breakout Year

In his fourth NBA season, Will Barton has reached new levels of productivity.  Yes, he got the attention of casual spectators everywhere by participating in the Slam Dunk Contest in Toronto.  The bigger story is that Barton played sparingly in Portland before his trade to Denver last season.  In his first 28 games with the Nuggets, the forward saw his average playing time rise from 10 to 24 minutes.  In turn, Barton’s scoring average hit double digits: 11 points in a Denver uniform compared to 3 when he played for the Blazers.  Even at that point, it would have been hard to envision the breakout season to come in 2015-16.

In the summer, the Nuggets replaced interim coach Melvin Hunt with former Kings head coach Michael Malone.  Malone was initially unfamiliar with his team’s recent acquisition.  When recently asked about Barton, Malone admitted: “I’d be lying to you if I said I expected him to play as well as he has this year.”

During the month of December, Barton scored 20 or more points in 7 of his 15 games and double digits in every one for a monthly average of 20.8.  He has benefited from a regular sixth man role, but Barton is also taking more threes than ever.  At the same time, he is hitting 34.5% which is the best rate of his career.  Barton has scored 14.8 per game, which is his best full-season average since his final year at the University of Memphis.

So Not Last Year, Will Barton Minutes Points 3-Point % 20+ Point Games PER
2014-15 16.9 6.8 27.1% 3 13.6
2015-16 28.7 14.8 34.5% 15 16.7

Barton may have spent the better part of three seasons at the end of Portland’s bench, but he never lost his resourcefulness on offense.  On February 29 against the Grizzlies, he took advantage of his quickness by driving into the lane and avoiding the help defense of Zach Randolph before hitting a running hook shot.  He scored a career high 32 on December 20, victimizing the Pelicans with an arsenal of crossover dribbles, athletic dunks, and 360-degree spin moves.  Barton was also deadly from downtown, hitting 7-11 on three-point attempts.  Ten days later, the man known as The People’s Champ, scored 31 in his old stomping grounds of Portland.

Barton is outscoring even Kenneth Faried for second on the team behind Danilo Gallinari.  He’s also adding value in a variety of ways.  Barton’s Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of 1.1 dwarfs his second best season of 0.3 in 2014-15.  A limited perimeter defender, Barton nevertheless holds opponents to a 3.1% lower than average field goal percentage on two-pointers.  His six rebounds per game prove he is not afraid to crash the boards.  On occasion, he’ll take on the role of playmaker, turning a miss by the Lakers into a perfect transition lob to Faried for the dunk.  He also rarely goes into a slump: after a quiet game against New York on March 8, Barton recovered to score 17 with 8 rebounds in his next matchup against the Suns.

Interim Suns coach Earl Watson was Barton’s teammate in Portland for the 2013-14 season.  According to Watson, “It wasn’t that Will got better, it was that Will got an opportunity.  He was always good.”

His story is proof that there is true talent among the group of players often dismissed as bench warmers.  Barton isn’t surprised by his success, but he also feels fortunate to be able to display his skills.  In his words, “I’m just humbled and thankful and blessed.”

In the meantime, Denver has a bargain on its hands.  Barton is signed for the next two seasons at an annual cost of $3.5 million.  That will look like even better value once the salary cap rises.  Even with Gallinari out due to injury, the Nuggets have exploded offensively in March en route to 112 points per contest.  Emmanuel Mudiay has improved of late and Nikola Jokic has become a double-double machine.  In addition, Barton’s steady presence has given fans in Colorado hope that a postseason appearance is a possibility next year.

As for his plan the rest of the season: “I keep doing what I’m doing, focusing even a little more.”


photo via llananba