Ask around about Will Barton, and you will get more player comparisons than LeBron James draws double-teams. Everybody wants to peg Barton as somebody else.
"He reminded me a little bit of Gilbert Arenas when he was in college," said interim Golden State Warriors coach Luke Walton.
"He's our Vinnie Johnson-type player," said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
Might as well throw in a Bob McAdoo analogy or a John Havlicek comparison while you're at it.
"I've heard all kinds of comparisons," Barton said. "We won't even get into them. There's been so many. But I'm not going to let anybody put me in a box. I'm going to be me. That's the only player I want to be.
"No disrespect, but I don't want to be like anybody else."
Barton, seemingly out of nowhere, is having a breakout season for the Nuggets. He is averaging 15.8 points per game, trailing only Danilo Gallinari among the Nuggets, and 6.3 rebounds, behind only Kenneth Faried.
Barton isn't even a starter. The 6-foot-6 string bean has become the Nuggets' best bench player since Corey Brewer — whoa, there's another comparison — and he is an early leading candidate for the NBA's sixth man of the year award.
Barton's rise — in his fourth NBA season and less than a year after Denver acquired him from the Portland Trail Blazers in the Arron Afflalo trade — has helped the Nuggets tread water in the Western Conference.
And he is Denver's strongest link to a run-and-gun, high-tempo past. Malone, in his first season here, would like to get his team to play at a higher tempo. Barton, more than any other, revs up the Nuggets.
"We don't run a ton of plays for Will Barton, which speaks to his ability and effectiveness that much more," Malone said. "He's at his best when the game is up-tempo, when it's open court, because in transition he's a load to handle. He can get to the rim, he can finish, he can make plays for others."
Wednesday, in one of the Nuggets' best regular-season victories since they took down Michael Jordan's 72-win Bulls in 1996, Barton went shot for shot in the fourth quarter with Stephen Curry, the league's reigning MVP. After Curry drained a 3-pointer with less than two minutes remaining to draw the Warriors within four, Barton immediately countered with a 3.
And on Golden State's final possession, Barton drew the defensive assignment on Curry. Malone wanted Barton's length to get in Curry's way. Curry never got the ball. The Nuggets went on to hand Golden State only its third loss in 39 games.
Last season, with Portland, Barton wouldn't get that shot.
"Who knows if I'm even on the floor," he said. "But I'm a guy who wants the ball in his hands, especially in the clutch, in the closing minutes. I pride myself on making the right play and making big shots. Any time I'm on the floor."
Barton's PIE number, the NBA statistic that measures the percentage impact a player has on a game, is 14.5, best among the Nuggets. The league average is 10. In other words, Barton gets the Nuggets cranking. It's why, even as a bench player, his 29.5 minutes per game are third-most among Nuggets.
"If we can defend and run with Will in the game, whether he handles it or runs the floor, he'll make stuff happen," Malone said. "He can create something when you may not think something is there. He has an ability to break down a defense."
Before he scored 21 points against Golden State, Barton was in a four-game slump, averaging just 7.0 points. But with his shot not falling, he hit the boards, averaging 6.3 rebounds per game. He is grabbing more rebounds this season than each of Denver's 7-foot centers.
Barton's breakout season was years in the making. A second-round pick of the Trail Blazers in the 2012 draft after playing two seasons at the University of Memphis, Barton rarely had an opportunity to shine until this season, because he usually was deep on the bench.
"He's figuring out how to play at the next level now," said Walton, who was an assistant coach at Memphis when Barton was there. "It's hard when you're not a top draft pick, because you don't get the same opportunities. You're constantly pressing to prove you can play. And when that happens, you normally make mistakes.
"If you're not mentally strong and you don't figure it out, you'll find yourself out of the league before you even realize what happened."
Barton survived long enough to get his chance, even if he had to push the door open. When the Nuggets sent Afflalo to Portland, their primary interest was the Blazers' first-round pick in the 2016 draft. They took on Barton as part of the package.
And now he is among Denver's most valuable players.
"I knew I'd have a big opportunity to play, so I wanted to make sure I was ready and prepared. I knew it could happen as long as I kept faith and stayed humble," Barton said.
"I'm in a good space. I'm in a great city. I feel like I'm going to be here for a long time."
Nick Groke | denverpost.com | January 17, 2016