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SAN DIEGO — As the clock ticked closer and closer to midnight on June 30, signaling the start of the NBA’s free agency period, Will Barton found himself in unfamiliar territory. Fresh off a career-year where the 27-year-old averaged 15.7 points per game while doubling as a starter and at times the Denver Nuggets’ sixth-man, Barton was a hot commodity being pursued by multiple teams on the open market for the first time in his professional career.
“I haven’t had options like that since college, with people recruiting me and offering me different deals. It makes you put a lot of things in perspective,” Barton told BSN Denver. “I didn’t think it would be like that because that was my first time. Your mind changes sometimes, you think, ‘What if I did this? If I do this, what am I going to miss out on?'”
Ultimately, Barton and the Nuggets agreed to a four-year deal worth over $50 million as free agency began on July 1. Barton left money on the table to return to the organization, Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly told BSN Denver.
“At the end of the day, we get money to play this game and to take care of our families,” said Barton said. “But at the same time, I play this game for the love of it and for the joy, to compete at a high level and to put myself in the best position to accomplish what I want to accomplish. The money is a big part but at the same time, my personal goals are too.”
Barton won’t speak to most of his individual goals for the upcoming season, but one desire he’s been public about throughout his career is to be a starter. It’s a classification that some players around the league are more set on than others. But for Barton, being a part of a starting five at the NBA level has always been a dream, one that, at one point, was far from a reality in Portland where he spent the first 2 1/2 years of his career.
Barton played sparingly for the Trail Blazers as a rookie, averaging 12.2 minutes across in 73 games in 2012-13. He fell out of coach Terry Stotts’ rotation entirely in each of the next two seasons. The fables about Barton dominating his competition at Trail Blazers’ practices are synonymous with his time with the franchise. However, he could never crack Portland’s lineup.
Barton’s NBA outlook changed when he arrived in Denver mid-way through the 2014-15 season. In his first full year with the Nuggets, he started 19 games. Last season, that number jumped to 41. He excelled in that role, too, averaging 17.7 points on 47.6 percent shooting from the field and 40.4 percent from three to go along with 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game as a starter.
“I’m not going to try and run from it or sugarcoat it for anybody,” Barton said of his well-known desire to be apart of the Nuggets’ starting lineup. “If they decided that and they wanted me to be the sixth man, I’m going to embrace it. If you’re asking me, to start is my goal and that’s my dream and I’m not going to run from that. I deserve it. I embrace it.
“For me, I’m always looking for new challenges. I feel like I pretty much conquered that sixth man role and now for me to take my game to another level, I need a new challenge and here it is. You look at my production and my play and the team success when I start it all adds up.”
The Nuggets went 25-16 in Barton’s 41 starts last season.
For Michael Malone, who was in Malaga, Spain visiting forward Juancho Hernangomez when the news broke that Barton had re-upped with Denver, relief set in. Barton had worn so many hats for the Nuggets last season. He had been so crucial to Denver’s success whether he was starting on the wing or playing back up point guard for the Nuggets like he did so many times last season. You can point to multiple games last season that Denver doesn’t win if it wasn’t for Barton.
“The best thing about Will is he doesn’t care about where he plays,” Malone said. “He just wants to play.”
Barton’s role will be more defined this season. The Nuggets brought in Isaiah Thomas to be their backup point guard and Denver is also comfortable with third-stringer Monte Morris running its bench unit. There could be times, especially at the onset of the season as the Nuggets bring Thomas along slowly, that Barton could be thrust into significant ball-handling duties. But with more clarity at the point guard position, Barton’s role is more set in stone than it was a year ago.
That also means Barton will have to remain disciplined and detailed when he’s playing with the starting lineup, according to his coach. Malone wants more Will and less ‘Thrill’ Barton this year, a notion that the Nuggets’ new starting small forward has already embraced in practices.
“When you’re out there with Jamal and Gary and Paul and Nikola we don’t need the five, six, seven, eight dribble possessions,” Malone said, divulging into the differences between Barton’s two personas. “We don’t need the—we get the defensive rebound, outlet and just wait for the ball… And Will Barton in two practices has been phenomenal, in terms of playing the game in the right way, getting off of it. There haven’t been those heavy dribble possessions. He’s running the floor and getting to the corner. He’s not shortcutting it. To me, he’s shown maturity. He’s shown commitment. He’s shown discipline.”
Barton also wants to take on more of a leadership role this year.
“You’ll see. I’m evolving into more of a leader. It’s something that I’m embracing and looking forward to,” Barton said. “I know a lot of the young guys look up to me.”
The final notch on Barton’s list of goals for this season: Helping to bring the organization that plucked him from the end of the bench in Portland their first playoff appearance since 2013. After the addition of Paul Millsap last summer and at training camp prior to last season, Barton began to see the makings of an extremely talented team that could make noise in the playoffs.
Those plans were derailed by an early-season injury to Millsap. Despite that, what Barton described as the “toughest loss of his career” in game No. 82 last season in Minnesota, on top of the talent that the Nuggets are bringing back this season, kept pushing him this summer.
Barton was ready to leave the organization for the next chapter of his career and more money, but the significance of what’s achievable this season helped pull him back to Denver.
“We’ve been knocking on the door these last couple of years,” Barton said. “Last year we got very close, lost in the play-in game. Now, we come back, we’re at full-strength. You add a piece like (Isaiah Thomas). Everyone’s grown and matured. It’s only right to go in that direction. Got to get in the playoffs. That’s just the bottom line.”