Will Barton approached this past offseason as he had when entering the NBA as Portland’s second-round pick in 2012.
He had a new coach and possibly a new opportunity.
Barton’s made the most of increased minutes, emerging as a candidate for Most Improved Player with the Denver Nuggets.
The 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 15.2 points, nearly double his career average of 7.7 points. Barton knew he had the potential to contribute if given the chance by coach Michael Malone.
“No, I’m not surprised. I’m just humbled and thankful and blessed,” he said. “I know the work I put in, so it’s expected. It’s just whether I get the opportunity to play or not.”
When he was hired by Denver, Malone knew little about Barton, who was traded to the Nuggets during the 2014-15 season after being buried on Portland’s bench.
Barton has earned Malone’s trust, becoming a top reserve and a reliable fourth-quarter option.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I expected him to play as well as he has this year,” Malone said. “He’s a hard worker. He committed himself to getting better, coming back as an improved player and, like all players, I feel he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity given him. We play him 25, 30 minutes a night, put the ball in his hands and allow him to make plays and he’s done a great job of doing that, especially in the open court.”
Barton said Malone told him he had a “clean slate” with his coaching staff.
“As the season started off I was playing well, and then we had some injuries, and I really picked it up, and that’s when it really took off for me as far as (Malone) trusting me,” Barton said. “And now he’s just letting me play ball.”
Unlike on Portland’s deep playoff team last season, Barton has found his opportunity amid Denver’s rebuilding process. Malone’s backing gives him confidence.
“It made me not have to be always looking over my shoulder, seeing when I was going to be subbed out or if I make a bad play or things of that nature,” Barton said. “I can just go out there and be myself and play free.”
Barton has emerged from relative obscurity, but he said he’s not focused on becoming the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
“I try not to,” Barton said of thinking about awards. “I just try to stay humble and keep thinking about the team.”
Jason Jones | sacbee.com | March 5, 2016