How Will Barton went from being a trade afterthought to one of the NBA’s most terrifying threats off the bench

The first ten picks of the 2012 NBA Draft produced some of the games brightest young players: Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal and Harrison Barnes. But the second round of that same draft also produced some pretty good players in Draymond Green, Jae Crowder, Kris Middleton and Will Barton. How could so many teams pass up such good players?

“I don’t know, you know what I try to stay away from that so I wouldn’t say the wrong thing,” Barton told me. “So I just say that people that actually play the game and played it at a high level, those are the opinions that I respect about my game. People, who never played at a high level or maybe not played at all, just sit behind a desk and try to make decisions, I don’t really even pay attention to it. And unfortunately for the game today those are the guys that are making the decisions nowadays, computers and stuff. They are going off who jumps the highest, who looks good in a uniform and things of that nature. So its beyond my hands, man.”

Once seen as a first round talent, Barton slipped into the second round because of concerns surrounding his decision-making and ability to be a perimeter threat at the next level. The Blazers took a chance on the 6-foot-6 string bean guard with the 40th pick and few could have predicted how big of an impact Barton would make when the Nuggets acquired him as a throw-in.

During his two-plus years with Portland, Barton averaged a measly 3.8 points and 1.8 rebounds in 11.0 minutes per game. On a veteran team with title aspirations, minutes were scarce for Barton and he understood that while being stuck behind established veterans Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum on the depth chart.
“It was challenging, those guys were great players, they did a lot of good things while they were in Portland, won a lot of games for us, and at the same time I wanted to play,” said Barton, who kept engaged thanks to a series of encouraging text messages from Lillard. “You want to get out there and do your thing. But like I said, it helped me get to this point though, it showed me how hard I had to work, it gave me good winning habits and made me mature as a man and player.”

Last February, Barton was traded to the Nuggets along with Victor Claver, Thomas Robinson and a lottery protected first-round pick in exchange for veterans Alonzo Gee and Arron Afflalo. Denver’s primary interest was the Blazers’ first-round pick, but the Nuggets had interest in Barton when he was in the draft, and general manager Tim Connelly has connections with Barton through the Baltimore area.
Barton, who has gone by “The Thrill” since a youth coach gifted him the nickname at the age of 6, played in Denver’s final 28 games last season and exploded onto the scene as he averaged 11.0 points and 4.6 rebounds in 24.4 minutes. The Nuggets rewarded Barton with a three-year, $10.6 million contract, which will easily make him one of the best bargains in the league with the cap exploding.

Barton’s play late last season wasn’t a fluke and he has become one of the NBA’s most entertaining and effective players off the bench. He scores inside and out, rebounds, passes and his fearless forays to the rim have made him a YouTube favorite. He’s also putting up career-best numbers per game in points (14.7), rebounds (6.0) and assists (2.4) while playing a career-high 28.6 minutes per game.

Instead of forcing contested shots off the dribble, Barton has improved his decision-making and is taking better shots that are more in the flow of the offense. While part of his success can be attributed to finally getting significant playing time, he’s also made significant strides in his shooting motion to help improve his accuracy. Heading into this season, he made 42 threes. This season, he’s at 98 and counting, shooting at a respectable 35.5 percent clip from deep. Perhaps his grueling summer workouts can help explain the dramatic improvements.

“Well the workouts, man, they entailed a lot,” said Barton, who grew up playing basketball in Baltimore, where you had to be tough tot make it in the sport. “A lot of jump-shots, a lot of ball-handling, going over a lot of film, just working on my whole game, trying to become a better complete player, I take pride on that because I do a lot of things well. And definitely attacked my workouts with that mindset that I’m trying to show people that I belong, I’m here to stay and that I’m going to be something to wrecking with in the future.”

The deceivingly strong Barton has the ability to run the offense as a point guard or play off the ball in a more traditional shooting guard role. Despite his skinny frame, he welcomes physical play in the lane and can convert through contact. But where he really shines is in transition. “Will Barton doesn’t thrive in transition. He creates transition out of thin air,” ESPN writer Zach Lowe quipped in a recent column.

The Nuggets have never had an NBA sixth man of the year winner, but Barton is Denver’s best chance since J.R. Smith finished second in the 2009 vote. Unfortunately, for the lanky swingman, it is rare for the award to be given to a player that isn’t on a playoff team. You have to go back over twenty years to when Charlotte’s Dell Curry took home the award during the 1993-94 campaign while his team failed to make the playoffs despite finishing at .500.

While Baton is a viable candidate for the award, guys like Jamal Crawford, Ryan Anderson, Enes Kanter, Jeremy Lin, Tristan Thompson and Victor Oladipo figure to be in the mix. But Barton will certainly get consideration for the NBA’s most improved player award, too. Even though former teammate C.J. McCollum seems like all but a lock for that distinction.

“I’m not going to lie, winning any award in the NBA would be special, would definitely be a huge accomplishment,” Barton admitted. “But I’m a guy not really out for the awards of things of that nature. I’m really out here for the respect. When I’m going against an opponent and they know coming into the game, Will’s going to bring it tonight so I got to be on my A-game, or hear my peers say that he can play, I respect his game, that means more to me than winning awards. Or kids that where I’m from looking up to me, saying I’m one of the top players to come from where I come from. That means more to me than winning awards, so that’s my perspective on it.”

The 25-year-old swingman is putting up career-high numbers basically across the board for a rebuilding Nuggets team that is once again heading to the lottery, but at the very least has a promising future ahead of them thanks to a stockpile of intriguing young talent.

“It feels good because I’m still a young guy to,” Barton said. “To have Gary Harris, who’s what, 22? [Nikola] Jokic, 20, [Emmanuel] Mudiay, 19, [Jusuf] Nurk, young 20’s. To be a part of this youth movement is fun and I feel like if we stay together and we keep growing and learning we can be real good. So it’s definitely fun to be a part of.”

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