Thursday January 21st, 2016

Every NBA season brings with it some precedent-shattering revelation. A team might put familiar talent to use in a different way. A player could make the best of a new role. A coach might finally find the roster that fits their style perfectly. Nothing is static in a league this large and this intricate, as the shifting dynamics within every team constantly generate the potential to surprise.

And no one this season has been more genuinely surprising than Denver’s Will Barton. As of last year, Barton was a wild-card reserve in Portland deemed too wild for regular play. He was kept deep on the bench save for when the veteran Blazers needed his energy, and even then he was asked to play within Portland’s refined system. It never suited him. Eventually the Blazers parted ways with Barton in their deal to acquire Arron Afflalo, sending the live-wire forward to the Nuggets along with Victor Claver and a lottery-protected first-round pick. For as well as Barton played down the stretch in Denver, his production this season is something else entirely.

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“If you would have told me that after 39 games, Will would be scoring 16 points a night on 45% from the field and 39% from three, I probably would not have believed you,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said last week.

And why would he? Barton, while still in the thick of his prime, came to Denver a flawed, 24-year-old castoff. Three seasons of evidence suggested that his jumper might never be reliable. His most promising stretch of basketball came on a team that had struggled with its internal order and fired its head coach. There are only 19 other players in the NBA this season who have scored as often and as efficiently from the field as Barton. Projecting him into that group would have taken an extraordinary leap of faith or, in the case of Barton himself, a belief that he had been miscast all along.

“I always saw myself as a star, superstar-type player,” Barton said. “I just knew that I had to put the work in and not pay attention to what anybody else said.”

Barton, armed with that unwavering confidence, saw an opening in Denver last season that energized his summer work. The developmental context is entirely different when real opportunity is in sight. Young role players are encouraged to keep their heads down and plug away in their skill work, staying ready for a chance that might someday come. Barton had that chance in hand and believed in his ability to make the most of it. So far he’s been right, no matter how crazy his newfound trajectory might seem.

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The most improbable element in Barton’s rise is easily his course correction from long range. Prior to this season, Barton had made just 23% of his three-point attempts for his career—trouble enough that defenses could ignore him on the perimeter without penalty.

After watching himself on film and consulting with coaches, Barton came to the conclusion that his shooting form was too upright with not enough lower body support. He spent the summer working to get his legs under him, bend deeper into his shot, and fire from a place of greater power. Those tweaks brought immediate change: Barton averaged 44% shooting from deep in November and 38.9% in December. Shooting that hot is bound to regress to the mean over time, though even league-average shooting from long range would be a significant transformation for a player making his way up from the low-20s.

Even with that shooting improvement, it is impossible for a team to rely on Barton without accepting some degree of chaos. Nothing in the way he operates is standard. Barton works with a high dribble that always appears to be on the brink of a turnover. His driving game is loose and slithery, and his release points on layups always come through fakes and contortions. Any pick-and-roll he initiates could give a basketball traditionalist a heart attack. For a player as lean as Barton (who is listed at 6’6”, 175 pounds), these eccentricities were a matter of basketball survival.

“Being skinny, you've got to figure out ways to still finish around the rim through contact,” Barton said. “[When I was] young, I always attacked the rim and I figured out ways to get there whether it was jumping off the opposite foot, using a fake, all kinds of different floaters, and off-balance shots. I made it a part of my game by working on it every day.”

To trust Barton is to accept that he has to go his own way to be effective—something that Malone, to his credit, has done since his first day in Denver.

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“My hope is that when you put guys in that position and the more trust you show in your players, they are only going to gain more confidence,” Malone said. “They know that my coach really believes in me. He really trusts in me to make the right play. With that trust, obviously, comes responsibility.”

There are conditions to Barton’s usage, same with all Nuggets players. As Malone explains it, the freedom to create offense is a product of defensive investment. A rebound at the end of a defensive stand is an invitation for a player like Barton to push the ball. Fast breaks are the luxury of teams that get stops. Even if the defense does get back in time to halt the initial break, Barton and his teammates are then in a position to challenge opponents in scramble mode. 

The results speak for themselves. One would expect a lanky, explosive athlete of Barton’s caliber to be able to make the most out of transition situations. Navigating a set, halfcourt defense—particularly for a player whose handle had never been a strong suit—however, requires an entirely different set of skills. Barton, in his own way, has found them. His funky attacks off of a ball screen have yielded 44% shooting this season, according to Synergy Sports, putting Barton in fairly rare company as a shot creator. 

Very few of those opportunities come to Barton with the expressed intent that he manufacture offense. Malone, earlier this month, was talking aloud to himself on his drive home from the Pepsi Center in an attempt to understand why Barton’s performance had slipped in January. He ran through the variables, including himself and his playcalling, until it hit him: Malone hadn’t run any plays for Barton the entire season. Those career-high 16 points a game had largely been the result of Barton bailing out skidding possessions and finding openings as they came. This, in Malone’s mind, only makes him that much more difficult to cover.

“The best thing about Will is it's not like we were running these three plays to get him looks where you can take those plays away,” Malone said. “That's why it's tough to guard Will Barton. I don't know when he's gonna go, and if I don't know, that means the other team doesn't know. He's a guy that is able to get his off of broken plays, in transition, or within the set when he catches it off the move. Now he's able to play his game, get downhill, and attack.”

Opponents are certainly more aware of Barton’s presence now than they were at the start of the season, as tends to happen when a player runs amok to score 20.8 points (on strong percentages) and grab 6.8 rebounds per game for a month. That attention will test him. The fact that Barton subsists almost entirely on improvisation, too, illustrates how little experience he has as the endpoint in an ordered offense. It’s good to have a random scorer who can navigate possessions by feel. Such players, though, tend to make for more erratic go-to scoring options—a fact that has made Barton a bit less reliable in crunch-time situations and the like.

Those growing pains are expected of a player thrown into the first significant role of his NBA career. Malone points out another.

“He'd probably never admit this,” Malone said, “but I think he hit the wall a little bit.”

Malone notes that it took Barton, who he calls the best-conditioned athlete on the team, a mere 32 games to post the highest minutes total of his career. If he continues on his current pace, Barton will play more minutes this season than in his previous three seasons combined. Logging that many minutes of shot creation, effort rebounding, and hard runs in transition takes its toll. This is as sound an explanation as any as to why Barton has slowed his roll this month. While his skill set may have been ready to seize on this opportunity, he still may need some time to adjust physically to the demands of being a big-time player. 

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The next few months mark a cusp, of sorts, for the Barton phenomenon. It’s clear already that he can play. Just as important: It’s evident in his style that the weight of being on the fringes of an NBA rotation have been lifted. Barton’s role in Portland saddled him with a certain burden of proof, one which only fed into the more impulsive parts of his game.

“I would try to go out there and make 100 plays in one, just to try to show the organization that I can play,” Barton said. “Sometimes that can hurt you. You're already not out there for that many minutes. If you're trying to be Superman on every play, that's not gonna work.”

The Nuggets have allowed Barton to bring the heroics at his own pace. He’ll gamble defensively at times when Malone would rather he stay solid. He’ll get a little ahead of himself on a drive and wind up stuck in the air with no angle to the rim. Acceptance of those plays means that Denver reaps the benefits of all that Barton does so well without creating the kind of pressure that leads to more mistakes. That’s not a criticism of the Blazers so much as a clarification of the importance of time and place. Denver—as a team with developmental priorities and incentive to let players find their game—seems to be the perfect spot for Barton to breathe free.

That approach, so far, has brought out the best in Barton and afforded the Nuggets the chance to ask some bigger questions.

“Where does he go from here?” Malone said. “Does he continue to get better? Do these numbers improve?…It's going to be interesting to see. To be very honest, I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know what's next for Will Barton. All I know is that today, and the player he is, I'm thankful he's a Denver Nugget and I'm thankful that he's a guy that has bought into the culture and what we're trying to do here. He's a big part of our future moving forward.”

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