Over the next few weeks, the BSN Nuggets staff will review the Nuggets season, player-by-player. We’ll look at their performance from 2015-16 and forecast what type of impact they’ll make next season.
Reflecting on 2015-16
After playing 28 games with Denver in 2014-15, Nuggets fans were treated to a full course of Will Barton this season, as the 25-year-old averaged a career-high 28.7 minutes per game while taking advantage of a green light that stayed that color throughout the season.
Barton inked a three-year, $11 million contract last offseason and spent the entire summer repaying the front office’s faith with sweat equity. He worked tirelessly in the gym with long-time trainer Dan Connelly, the brother of general manager Tim Connelly, almost to the point of overworking himself.
“The great thing about Will is I would take Saturday and Sunday off and there were certain days, I’m, like, ‘Did you get any rest this weekend?’” Connelly said. “He’s, like, ‘Nah, I played pickup both days with my friends.’ I’m, like, ‘Will, what are you doing? I told you to get rest.’ It’s just who he is.”
The main benefactor of the endless hours spent in the gym was Barton’s shooting efficiency from 3-point range, which jumped from a liable 27.1 percent to a healthy 34.5 percent. Don’t think that’s just a case of small sample size syndrome either, as Barton more than doubled his attempts from three, going from 1.5 last season to four threes per game this year. Considering how vital the 3-pointer is to team success, it’s no surprise that both Connelly and Barton knew that his shooting would be the key to unlocking the rest of his game.
“People have been telling him the whole time, like, ‘Hey, get your jumper right, get your jumper right.’” Connelly said. “And I think it kind of clicked, like, ‘Hey, if my jumper is right, I can do everything.’ And I told him this summer, ‘I want you to get psychotic about your shooting form.’ I said, ‘Every time you finish a shot, I want you to make sure it’s the same way every single time.’”
In addition to his shooting, Barton also tightened up his handle, specifically as the playmaker in the pick-and-roll. Barton became an expert at manipulating defenses and finding the perfect passing angles required to hit his open bigs.
Barton showed this season that he has legitimate playmaking skills, begging the question of why his ceiling was ever limited to Corey Brewer. Besides his vision, Barton’s ability to stop on a dime and finish anywhere inside the arc makes him a legitimate threat in the pick-and-roll. When he can snake his way into the paint and finish at a moment’s notice, he’s tough to contain.
Per NBA.com, Barton scored .89 points per possession in the pick-in-roll as the ball handler last season, ranking 15th in the league out of players with more than 200 attempts. That ranks him higher than some of the league’s most notable ball handlers including LeBron James, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook.
While there certainly was a ton of good to take from Barton’s year, it would be irresponsible to sidestep his shortcomings. There were games where Barton came in and willed the team towards victory, like his phenomenal performance against the Pelicans where he scored a career-high 32 points on 12-25 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and six assists. But unfortunately, there were also times where his reckless style backfired and ended up burning the Nuggets.
His frenetic play is both his weakness and his strength, so it’s a truly complicated matter to address, almost to the point where you absorb some mistakes just because he can be so effective on the offensive end. Control him too much and you risk losing exactly what makes him such a special player and the ideal spark plug on the second unit. Let him run rampant, and you take the 20-point outings in stride with the occasional turnovers and mistakes. Malone will have the summer to master his use of this double-edged sword, as Barton is an absolutely lethal weapon when wielded properly.
Final report card grade: B
Looking ahead to 2016-17
Locked up for the next two seasons at under $4 million per year, Barton has become one of the best bargains in the entire league. He’s the epitome of a spark plug and can relieve the team of both scoring and ball-handling pressure. If Barton heads into this summer with the same mentality, it’s easy to imagine him elevating his game to an even higher level. With electric athleticism, an improved shooting stroke, and natural playmaking abilities, Barton still hasn’t reached his ceiling.
Given that there’s no worry of the lucrative free agent market luring him away, the only avenue that could send Barton out of Denver would be through a trade. It seems as though Barton will be with the Nuggets for next couple years, considering the strides he made this season along with the relationship he has with the front office and fellow Baltimore native, Tim Connelly.
Barton will once again be a key catalyst off the Denver bench next year as it gets revamped through health, the draft and free agency. Wilson Chandler will be back, a top-10 pick could provide depth in the backcourt, and a free-agent could plug Denver’s holes on the wing and in the frontcourt.
“The Thrill” has always stayed true to his name, keeping both opponents and observers on their toes, waiting and watching closely to see what’s about to rise out of the surrounding chaos.
An Nguyen | bsndenver.com | April 25, 2016