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Will Barton's breakout season not surprising to those who know the Nuggets swingman best

Harrison Wind Avatar
December 24, 2015

 

Picking a storyline that stands out from the bucket of fascinating undertones from this Nuggets season isn’t easy.

Nikola Jokic, who General Manager Tim Connelly and Head Coach Michael Malone didn’t think would play much coming into the season has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game. Gary Harris has taken the leap from fringe NBA player to starter this season, and looks like he’ll have a career that spans longer than most. And the injuries this team has faced has been its own hot button topic of conversation.

Yet, if you have to point to one narrative that defines the Nuggets season though the one third mark, it has to be Will Barton; Denver’s most consistent player — and best player this season, depending on what your definition of that title is. He may seem like he came out of thin air to keep the Nuggets afloat through strenuous times, yet to the people that have been around Barton throughout his life, it’s no stunning development at all.

Summertime grind 

Will Barton (5) flying high against Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas (20). Credit: Chris Humphreys, USA TODAY Sports.
Will Barton (5) flying high against Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas (20). Credit: Chris Humphreys, USA TODAY Sports.

“No, I’m not surprised at what he’s been doing on the court,” Dan Connelly, the brother of Tim Connelly and Barton’s de-facto trainer back in Baltimore told BSN Denver in response to if Barton’s play had shocked even him.

Dan helps train Barton every summer and detailed to me their strenuous offseason routine. The two worked out together 5-6 days a week, usually once per day inside Lake Clifton High School’s gym, Barton’s alma mater where temperatures soared near 100 degrees.

That work Barton’s put in this offseason with Dan is showing in a big way.

The 6-foot-6 wing is shooting a carer best 45.8 percent from the field, and an eye-opening 40.8 percent from 3-point range. Barton was a career 23.1 percent shooter from deep before this year, but re-dedicated himself to his shot this summer. The hard work, and consistent minutes, has paid off as the 26-year-old is shooting 43.7 percent on catch and shoot threes, his main point of concentration this offseason. That number is sure to regress a bit, but it proves time in the gym pays off in the long run.

“Working on his jumper in catch-and-shoot was our top priority this summer,” Dan Connelly said. “[Specifically] to improve his shot preparations and finish of his shot.”

Below on the left is Barton’s shot chart from last season which he split between Portland and Denver. On the right is his shot chart from this season — quite the difference as red means below league average, yellow is league average and green is above league average. Through 29 games Barton has already attempted 120 threes, way up from the 85 he attempted all of last year, and he’s closing in on his three year total of 183 he attempted before this season.

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 12.14.16 AMBarton's 2015-16 shot chart with Nuggets.

 

An ironman-like presence

For a Nuggets team marred by injuries to projected starters and big time rotation pieces, Barton has been a figure of consistency in the Nuggets lineup this season.

He’s been an ironman, a warrior and statuesque, playing in all 29 games and averaging a career high 28.9 minutes per contest. That number’s  jumped to 32.1 over Denver’s last 14 games, 11 of which he’s played over 30 minutes.

It may seem like Barton’s been picking up steam as the NBA audience becomes more award-centric with about a third of the season gone, but in reality he’s been doing this all year. He scored in double figures in each of the Nuggets first seven games and had 26 points off the bench in Denver’s second of three wins over Houston this year. He followed that up with a 19 point and 12 rebound line in the Nuggets loss at Phoenix the following night, tops on the team in both categories and one of only two Nuggets in double figures.

With the recent wave of injuries to infect this roster, Barton has stepped up once again. He’s averaging 24.7 points over the last three games, two of which starting small forward Danilo Gallinari has missed because of a sprained ankle.

“He’s been playing exceptional all year,” point guard Jameer Nelson said after the Nuggets recent loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “Will’s not hot. Will’s playing well, especially offensively. He’s a great scorer and a guy we need on this team to score. He’s going to continue to do that.  It’s not like he’s done it for one day or two days, he’s done it for however many games we’ve played so far. Will has been pretty consistent and probably our most consistent offensive player.”

Thriving in chaos 

Barton is a tough player to characterize. He may never thrive in a half court offense, but he’s still someone who actually can create his own shot and get a good look off in that setting. Where Barton is at his best is when coach Malone’s half court attack breaks down and Denver is left to improvise. More often than not Barton finds himself in situations like this one.

It’s a skill that suites his role as a sixth man and someone who can inject life into a team who needs it more often than most.

When Denver dug themselves into an 11-4 hole just one minute and thirty seconds into Tuesday night’s (Dec. 22nd) Lakers loss, Barton checked in and the Nuggets subsequently went on a 30-15 run, and led 34-26 lead after the first quarter. Barton had 18 points in just over eight minutes and was a +15 during that span.

Barton and Harris share a smile on the court. Credit: Chris Humphreys, USA TODAY Sports.
Barton and Harris have bonded off the court and meshed well on the court. Credit: Chris Humphreys, USA TODAY Sports.

Barton’s done that more than once this year and it’s the main reason Malone refuses to insert him into the starting lineup — even with Harris missing time earlier this year, Gallinari’s recent ankle issues and Wilson Chandler‘s season ending hip surgery. His energy and ability to carry the offense, at times, against team’s second units is too valuable.

Characteristics like those are exactly why NBA personnel and media have warmed to the idea of Barton contending for both the Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player awards.

He’s a two way player as well, although his defense has slipped at times in half court settings — possibly because of the offensive load he’s inherited. But his metrics are still good. The Nuggets are allowing opponents to score 102.1 points per 100 possessions when Barton is on the floor, but when he’s off that number rockets up to 110.3.

Barton’s been a revelation this season, but his rise isn’t something that happened by chance. His offseason regimen is paying off and thankfully Tim Connelly locked him up to a 3-year, $12 million deal that looks like one of the better bargains in the league.

Back-to-backs and playing four games in five nights don’t allow players don’t have the hours in the day to focus on their individual craft like they would want. The offseason is that time where players can hone their skills and transform their game as Barton did. The work Barton put in should be a model all Nuggets players should follow, especially if they want to build on their game and grow as a player like Barton did.

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