Will Barton was largely an afterthought in Portland.
After two-plus seasons in the City of Roses, Barton looked like just another second-round pick who wouldn’t pan out. He played just 11 minutes per game for the Blazers, shooting 39.1 percent overall and a woeful 19.8 percent from long range.
However, there were flashes of potential that helped make him a fan favorite. The 20-point, 11-rebound performance against the Brooklyn Nets in February 2014 that spawned the nickname, “The People’s Champ.” The 17-point outburst against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 postseason. His ability to throw down thunderous dunks.
The Denver Nuggets saw that potential (there was also a prior relationship with general manager Tim Connelly), but even they couldn’t have imagined just how big of an impact Barton would make when they acquired him as a throw-in to the Arron Afflalo trade last February that also gave the Nuggets a lottery protected first-round pick, Thomas Robinson (gone) and Victor Claver (gone).
After finally getting a chance to play consistent minutes down the stretch last season, Barton has enjoyed a breakout 2015-16 campaign that has him as one of the front-runners for Sixth Man of the Year. Not bad for a guy who looked like he could potentially be out of the league if he continued down his initial NBA path.
The 25-year-old swingman is putting up career-high numbers basically across the board for a rebuilding Nuggets team that may not be good, but at the very least has a promising future ahead of them thanks to a cache of young talent. Not to mention Denver is one of just four teams to beat the 48-4 Golden State Warriors this year, albeit with the caveat that Draymond Green didn’t play for rest purposes.
Barton played a big role in that thrilling victory, scoring 21 points and hitting a clutch three-pointer in the final two minutes while the Warriors were surging. This came less than two weeks after Barton forced overtime at Oracle Arena thanks to solid defense and a last-second basket that featured him schooling Andre Iguodala, one of the better wing defenders in the league:
Barton is never afraid to take shots when the game matters most, as he leads the entire NBA in fourth-quarter attempts with 243 and is second to James Harden in fourth-quarter points with 340.
And it’s not like he’s just chucking a bunch of shots in garbage time, either. Barton is third in the NBA in fourth-quarter shot attempts when the score margin is five points or less, and he’s tied with Harden for first in makes in those situations, according to Basketball-Reference’s Play Index+ data. Barton is shooting 45.4 percent overall and 42.1 percent from three on those shots.
For the year, Barton is averaging 15.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 45.5 percent overall and 38 percent from long range in 28.5 minutes per game. Again, keep in mind that he shot under 20 percent from distance with Portland and was just over 28 percent after the trade last season.
While the Blazers are doing much better than expected this season and have their own blossoming young wing in Allen Crabbe, they still have to be kicking themselves a bit for how things turned out with Barton. He made sure to remind Portland of it when he torched them for 31 points earlier this season.
A young, productive player on the cheap would fit in perfectly with what the Blazers are doing right now as they rebuild, but alas. Portland was a fringe contender in the Western Conference these past few years and didn’t have the luxury of giving a ton of developmental minutes to Barton, especially given his struggles, and general manager Neil Olshey took the chance on a proven veteran in Afflalo instead.
So one team’s trash has become another team’s treasure, and now the Nuggets are enjoying Sixth Man of the Year-type production from a player who’s making just $3.53 million this year. Barton will earn that salary the next two years as well, which will make him one of the best bargains in the league with the cap exploding.
Many casual fans may not be aware of Barton’s exploits in the Rocky Mountains, but they’ll become a bit more familiar with him on Saturday when he participates in the Slam Dunk Contest alongside reigning champion Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon and Andre Drummond.
Barton will be an underdog in the event, but perhaps he’ll surprise us just like he’s surprised the Nuggets, and the rest of the league, with his standout play in the games that count.
Jason Patt | todaysfastbreak.com | February 13, 2016