James Harden. Manu Ginobili. Lamar Odom. Jamal Crawford. Will Barton?
The 2015-16 season isn't even halfway finished, but there is a clear leader in the Sixth Man of the Year race, and it's a player that was an afterthought in a trade between the Nuggets and Trail Blazers last season. The Nuggets traded their starting shooting guard, Arron Afflalo, and Alonzo Gee to the Trailblazers, receiving Barton, Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver and a 2016 first round pick in exchange.
The Nuggets had interest in Barton when he was in the draft, and Tim Connelly has connections with Barton through the Baltimore area. Over the summer the Nuggets signed Barton to a 3-year/$10 million contract that is looking like a superb deal after just a handful of games.
Barton, the fourth-year swingman from the University of Memphis, has exploded onto the NBA scene in a role off the bench for Michael Malone's team. He's putting up career-best numbers per game in points (15.3), rebounds (5.9), assists (2.3), and steals (1.2) while playing a career-high 28.5 minutes per game. He is one of the best players in the league in scoring in transition, and he's shooting over 40 percent on 3-point attempts. His energy off the bench is infectious, and he routinely provides a spark for the team as soon as he checks into the game.
The Nuggets record and lack of star players may mean they avoid the national spotlight, but Barton has had his fair share of highlight plays that have thrust him into the limelight.
Whether it's setting a new career-high while making seven 3-point shots, or driving baseline for one of the best dunks of the season, or chucking a shoe to help improve the pace of play.
Highlight plays aren't the only thing voters are looking for when selecting the Sixth Man of the Year award. Unfortunately for Barton, it is uncommon for the award to be given to a player that isn't on a playoff team. The Nuggets are in contention for the No. 8 seed, but face a difficult path there as they deal with injuries and inexperienced players receiving playing time.
But Barton may play so well that voter's won't be able to ignore his strong candidacy. (Feel the Barton, baby.)
Thankfully Coach Malone has ignored the cries for Barton to be included in the starting lineup, as his role off bench is vital for the Nuggets long-term plans for success. The Nuggets will make changes to their lineup between now and the 2016-17 season, either through trades, free agency, or the draft, but it's not hard to see Barton continuing to thrive as a key member of the second unit. It'll be great to see the Ill Thrill (Wilson Chandler and Will Barton) team up to power what could be one of the best benches in the league next season.
It's incredible to see a player that was a throw-in to a trade when Portland traded for Arron Afflalo to help spur a playoff run perform so well - all Barton needed was the opportunity. In a season where national awards may be hard to come by, Barton is doing his part to make sure the league doesn't forget about the team out west in Denver.
Daniel C. Lewis | denverstiffs.com | December 21, 2015