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2018 Player Reviews: After a career year, Will Barton's future with Nuggets remains in limbo

Harrison Wind Avatar
April 20, 2018

Needing someone to step into the starting lineup with Gary Harris nursing a shoulder injury, Nuggets coach Michael Malone turned to trusted sixth man Will Barton on Nov. 11 against the Magic.

Why? Because Barton doesn’t get tired. That’s at least what Malone said prior to his team’s 125-107 win that night.

Barton responded with 26 points on 9-12 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists. When asked about his coach’s pregame declaration regarding his stamina, Barton made it clear that tired legs were the last thing on his mind.

“I wasn’t tired at all,” Barton said. “My mindset right now is on a whole ‘nother level, man. I’m so excited to play basketball, and I’m so excited about this team. I just really think we can be good, and I’m just focused on winning, winning, winning. I don’t get tired.”

When pressed on his answer, Barton said he realized months earlier at training camp that this Nuggets team had the potential to be great. But Denver’s season was derailed by a left wrist injury to Paul Millsap in November that caused the Nuggets’ starting power forward to miss 44 games, leaving Barton and the rest of the organization to wonder what could have been.

Facing unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, Barton has the choice of pursuing a bigger-money contract elsewhere or staying in Denver, likely for a smaller dollar amount but with the chance to make a playoff run with much of the same roster.

He also has gone on record on multiple occasions that he wants to start full-time. Because of injuries to the Nuggets’ rotation, Barton started 40 games this season. The one potential vacancy in Denver’s starting lineup next season is at small forward. Starter Wilson Chandler has a $12.8 million player option for the 2018-19 season that he has to decide on by June 24.

“If given the opportunity, I could be the starter somewhere where I would play a big role. That would mean (something) because I always want to challenge myself every offseason,” Barton said. “I feel like that’s what’s made me better because I give myself a challenge to look forward to. If I would know I would be a starter coming into next season that would push me in the offseason. … That’s what makes me who I am and what makes me better every year. That will definitely be a goal of mine.”

Barton played 84 percent of his minutes at shooting guard, 13 percent at point guard and 3 percent at small forward, according to Basketball Reference’s position estimator.

In his sixth NBA season and third full year in Denver, Barton played the best basketball of his career. Across 81 games Barton, who’s eligible and should be a contender for Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He played 33.1 minutes per game and shot a career-high 45.2 percent from the field and 37.0 percent from three.

“We’re hopeful we can get something done,” Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said regarding Barton’s free agency. “He’s our guy. We love him, and I think if he’s back in a Denver jersey it’s good for both him and the team.”

Barton proved how versatile he is this year. When backup point guard Emmanuel Mudiay struggled over the first half of the season before he was dealt to the Knicks at February’s trade deadline, Barton filled in admirably at backup point guard.

When Devin Harris, who the Nuggets acquired from Dallas as a part of the three-way deal that sent Mudiay to New York, was still learning Denver’s playbook, Barton was again tasked with running the Nuggets’ second unit. When Gary Harris missed 11 games at the end of the season with a knee injury and the came off the bench in the Nuggets’ final two regular-season matchups, Barton again filled in as a starter.

“He wore so many hats this year. Starter, off the bench, backup point guard, two guard, small forward. It doesn’t matter with Will. He’s just a basketball player,” Malone said. “To see him step up in the manner in which he did when Gary Harris was out late, that allowed us to go 8-3 in our last 11 games. That allowed us to go 6-1 to close out of the season. I thought Will was fantastic. I really did.”

The Nuggets want Barton back. He was Denver’s fourth-most valuable player behind Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap according to ESPN’s RPM and BSN Denver’s Dynamic Player Rater.

Barton has been playing on a below-market three-year, $10.6 million contract that he signed with Denver in 2015 and is well past due for a raise, which he’ll get whether he re-signs with the Nuggets or takes his talents elsewhere. But Barton is also loyal to Denver and cognizant that the Nuggets are the franchise that gave him the platform to launch his career after he rode the bench for 2 1/2 seasons in Portland.

With Denver likely to decline Nikola Jokic’s team option for next season and hand the 23-year-old a well-deserved max contract this summer, the Nuggets’ books are tight. But Denver can still pay Barton and would be more than happy to.

The swingman has to decide if he prioritizes a bit more money, the opportunity to start full-time or the chance to help the Nuggets reach the potential he recognized earlier this season.

FINAL LINE: 15.7 PTS, 48.2 FG%, 37.0 3P%, 5.0 REBS, 4.1 ASTS, 0.6 BLKS, 1.0 STLS, 1.8 TOVS


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