Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate Denver nuggets Community!

Will Barton is back and reminding the Nuggets of what they missed

Harrison Wind Avatar
December 17, 2020

Will Barton rose through the air off of a PJ Dozier no-look feed early in the second quarter of the Nuggets and Blazers preseason matchup Wednesday. Then, he dunked the ball.

It’s something he couldn’t do four months ago.

Barton couldn’t execute something as rudimentary as a dunk when he made the decision to leave the NBA bubble back in August due to ongoing discomfort in his knee that grew worse during the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Barton couldn’t perform a four-foot box jump either without his knee hurting. That’s how bad it got for the 29-year-old before he relocated to Miami.

Over the next 3 1/2 months, Barton rehabbed at Miami’s DBC Fitness under the guidance of renowned Biomechanist Donnie Raimon, per a source, an ex-Navy SEAL who’s worked with LeBron James and other NBA All-Stars. It was a slow and steady process to get Barton back into playing condition.

“It was a tough road for me,” Barton said after the Nuggets’ preseason 126-95 win. “It was some hard and tough days, but I had to challenge myself. We just stuck with it.”

The result of his tiresome rehab was on display during Barton’s first live game since the NBA season was put on hold back on March 11. Barton finished with nine points and three assists to zero turnovers in 18 minutes and flashed the dynamic playmaking skill-set that he showed last year. Barton turned in a career-year during the 2019-20 season, averaging 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.

“I was excited. I just wanted to come with a lot of energy,” Barton said. “Test myself. Test my conditioning. Try to get some rhythm back some timing back. It felt good just to play basketball.”

I’d say he passed that test. Barton quickly offered Denver a reminder of what it was missing in the Western Conference Finals. It’s not crazy to speculate that if he was healthy, Barton could have provided the consistent third scoring option against the Lakers that the Nuggets lacked. Who knows how a healthy Barton may have been able to alter that series. On Wednesday night, his offensive repertoire immediately jumped off the screen.

It’s also easy to forget the stabilizing force that Barton was for the Nuggets last regular season. Barton helped shoulder Denver’s scoring load over a 10-game stretch that Jamal Murray missed last January and averaged 16.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game with Murray out of the lineup. The Nuggets managed to go 6-4 without their starting point guard largely due to Barton’s efforts.

But that was last year.

When Barton returned the floor against the Blazers, Denver got back more than just his scoring, playmaking and defense (Barton had the best defensive season of his career last year.) The Nuggets got back the heart and pulse of their locker room too. Barton’s one of Denver’s leaders and arguably its most highly-regarded voice. He’s someone who has the respect of the entire roster and is a trusted veteran for the Nuggets’ younger players, which there are a lot of in Denver this season. The Nuggets are currently carrying six rookies on their roster.

Barton has put his blood sweat and tears into Denver’s rebuild since he arrived in 2015, helping the Nuggets reestablish themselves as a respected NBA franchise. It’s why missing last year’s playoff run was so gutting. The 2020 postseason were supposed to be about Barton getting a shot at redemption after his disappointing 2018-19 playoffs that came on the heels of a lost regular season due to injury. Instead, he watched Denver’s Western Conference Finals run from a South Florida residence 3 1/2 hours south of the NBA bubble.

Now, Barton gets to try and finish what he helped start. A healthy Barton dramatically changes the Nuggets’ dynamic and raises their ceiling this season. Michael Malone rattled off everything Barton brought to floor Wednesday in his postgame press conference — scoring, creation ability, playmaking, rebounding and defensive toughness — and you could sense the delight in Malone’s voice that Barton was finally back on the floor and contributing.

“I was so happy for Will,” Malone said. “This has not been an easy road for him. I know being in the bubble, trying to get back to being able to play was really tough for him, mentally challenging, frustrating.”

Where exactly Barton factors into Malone’s rotation isn’t totally clear. The Nuggets have started Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic in both preseason games, and Barton came off the bench Wednesday in his preseason debut. But as Barton has stated before and again reaffirmed postgame when asked, he sees himself as a starter.

“I’m a starter. I looked comfortable out there because I’m just that good of a basketball player,” Barton said regarding his fit with the second unit and if he’d be comfortable coming off the bench if that’s what the coaching staff asked of him. “I’m comfortable with playing with anybody on the planet. It doesn’t really matter.”

“I have no plans of being the sixth man. I have no desire to be that at all.”

At the onset of training camp, Malone said his starting shooting guard, small forward and power forward positions were still TBD. Michael Porter Jr. and Paul Millsap seem to have locked down the small forward and power forward spots. At shooting guard, who Denver starts between Gary Harris and Will Barton in its third preseason game Friday could offer some insight into what five the Nuggets will start on opening night Dec. 22 against the Kings. Barton outplayed Harris on Wednesday.

Barton has proved over the last two and even parts of the last three seasons that when healthy he’s a starting-level player. It’s clearly an important role for him to have and one he takes pride in. Malone is left with a difficult decision to make.

“My job isn’t to keep anybody happy,” Malone said. “If I wanted to keep people happy I’d sell ice cream for a living.”

Regardless of who starts, the Nuggets showed Wednesday that depth will be one of their biggest strengths this year. There’s an uncomfortable level of uncertainty around how COVID could impact the season, from players missing games to potential postponements. Injuries could play a substantial factor this season too with the shortened offseason.

The Nuggets’ depth, bolstered by a healthy Barton, will play in their favor.


Share your thoughts

Join the conversation

The Comment section is only for diehard members

Open comments +

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?