The Denver Nuggets are in a key moment of their rebuilding process, the time in which franchises need to find out who’s a keeper and who is not on their long-term plans. Minutes and opportunities are available to players who might not be getting them otherwise and it’s on them to make the most of their chance. One player who has done so is the electrifying Will Barton.
Barton arrived at Denver last trade deadline from Portland in the transaction that landed the Trail Blazers Arron Afflalo. He immediately showed his worth during his short stint as a Nugget, stuffing the stat sheet thanks to his athleticism and motor. That performance earned him a three-year, $10 million contract that was based mostly on upside, as he had been buried in the bench his first two seasons in the league.
That deal is now looking like an absolute steal.
Barton has broken out in a major way. He’s posting career highs in every positive statistical category and career lows in turnover percentage and fouls per minute. He’s averaging 17 points, six rebounds, two assists and one steal while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 39 percent from beyond the arc. He’s gone from bit player to rotation stalwart while skipping the growing pains that plague players who get their first shot at big minutes.
The first 29 games of the season were proof enough that his performance wasn’t a fluke but a five-game stretch to end 2015 and start 2016 that featured matchups against the Spurs, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Cavaliers and Warriors only cemented his status as both Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player candidate. Not only can Barton play but he can do it against quality competition, despite still having some flaws.
As a shooter, Barton excels on catch and shoot opportunities (42 percent) but struggles on pull ups (31 percent), which makes his driving game easy to defend on isolations. He is, however, deadly in transition and has enough tools at his disposal to get to the rim in the half court, especially after ball screens. He changes speeds on his drives and shows patience, but he’s also not afraid to just throw his body around.
What makes Barton stand out in a sea of decent scorers is his ability to contribute in other areas. He’s a terrific rebounder, boasting a defensive rebound percentage fitting for a power forward, despite weighing in at a slender 175 lbs. He’s also a decent playmaker, able to find the open man on pick and rolls and read the floor for the occasional high degree of difficulty assist.
As a defender, Barton is a mixed bag. He still has work to do to become an asset on that end, but he doesn’t really hurt the Nuggets when he’s on the court, either. He’s quick, long and tries hard, so he can’t be exploited in isolations unless the opponent is much bigger. On the ball, he’s generally good, although, navigating ball screens is a problem because of his lack of strength. Off the ball, he can fall asleep at times and sometimes gambles for steals, though, occasionally those gambles pay off.
Barton has made a huge, unexpected leap this season, so it’s understandable to wonder if it’s sustainable. Fortunately, for the Nuggets, it seems like it might be. His three-point shooting percentage — the biggest outlier — has come in increased attempts, as he’s already fired as many outside shots as on the last two seasons combined. The rest of his game was solid when he finally got playing time after the trade last year and is looking even better now that he has a defined role and the confidence boost that comes with it.
Barton is on the books for two more seasons, which means Denver has locked up a 24-year-old up-and-coming wing on the cheap for their transitional period. The Nuggets have made small moves using their cap space — extending Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, bringing over Nikola Jokic — that won’t swing their 2015/16 season but puts them in a better position to face the next step of their rebuild. Signing Barton has been, unexpectedly, the best of the bunch, as his contract makes him one of the best values in the league.
Denver is four games away from the No. 8 seed but making the playoffs seems like a longshot. That’s fine for a franchise that could benefit greatly from another high pick. This season will continue to be all about internal development under coach Michael Malone. For Barton, that means finding consistency, as he followed up those good five games with a stinker on Sunday. If he can do that, he will establish himself as one of the best reserves in the league and a potential part of the foundation in Denver.
Jesus Gomez | todaysfastbreak.com | January 4, 2016