There was an exhibition game held in Baltimore in 2012 that featured Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, Derrick Williams and DeAndre Jordan. On the other end, a team made up of some of Baltimore’s brightest ballers — then Portland Trail Blazers rookie and current Denver Nuggets prospect Will Barton, former NBA player Josh Selby, Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (not actually from Baltimore) and two local high school stars — took the court to defend their turf.
If I asked you who the best player in that game was, you’d likely assume it was streetballer extraordinaire Jennings or the dynamic scoring-minded Walker, but it wasn’t either. It wasn’t even the freakishly gifted Cousins or the max-contract landing Jordan. Nope.
That day, the best player on that court was Will “The Thrill” Barton, and to the tune of a 72-point performance:
I know it’s only streetball, but there’s one thing you can clearly glean from watching that video — Barton has an insane amount of athleticism and natural ability. He’s an obvious standout among some of the NBA’s most gifted athletes on that court with him.
Last season, Barton got his first real shot with an NBA team after he was traded to the Nuggets in a trade deadline-day deal that sent Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee to Portland for Barton, Victor Claver, Thomas Robinson and a lottery-protected first-round pick for 2016 in return.
Up until that point, Barton had received sparingly few minutes on a Blazers team that was built to win now, and had often been re-assigned to the D-League for extended stretches.
Almost from the moment he landed with the Nuggets, Barton made his presence felt on the court. In his third game with the team, he scored 15 points, behind only Danilo Gallinari’s team-leading 22. In his fourth game, he logged a team-high 22 points, a career-high at the time. Ditto for the fifth game.
He quickly entrenched himself as a fan-favorite due to the obvious energy and enthusiasm he demonstrated on the court. It was a welcome sight for Nuggets fans who were in the thick of the controversy surrounding the team purportedly giving up on Brian Shaw.
And Barton seemed to be relishing the opportunity. The fans weren’t used to a player actually wanting to be in their city. It finally made some fans feel they had an ally among a team of players they weren’t sure were on their side.
The Nuggets’ front office noticed the same thing and decided to extend Barton for three years and a cool $10.5 million over the summer. Now, the stage appears to be set for Barton to really establish himself as a mainstay on this young Nuggets team searching for players they can build around.
What is he good at?
As you saw, Barton is a superb athlete with great positional length, but who appears to challenged in the strength department. That’s just a worse way of saying he’s really, really skinny.
He stands 6’6″ with a 6’10” wingspan, but weighs a mere 174 pounds. Let’s just say he’s not going to bully anybody around.
But that’s not to say his length can’t be an attribute. Many have already pointed out the obvious comparison to Corey Brewer, which is actually an outstanding one due to their physical similarities and like-minded playing styles.
Barton can play and guard three different positions, and has incredible value for small-ball lineups because of this.
He’s not a great shooter, but did show some some bursts of efficiency throughout the latter half of the season. He also showed a high level of inconsistency, so this could be a point of concern for a team that actually has some pretty good depth at their wing positions. One night, he’d explode for 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor and from three-point range, but on the next he’d put up a four-point dud.
Developing greater consistency, combined with adding strength, are the two things he needs to focus on most earnestly. He needs to become a guy the Nuggets can depend on for a consistent 30-35 percent shooting from deep. Emmanuel Mudiay will find you if you’re open, so the Nuggets need people who can knock down shots.
He’s a good ball handler, as you probably noticed from the above video, so he can handle ball handling duties in a pinch, but really needs to focus on getting better at coming off screens, and making a quick decision to shoot or drive to the rim.
How good can he be?
As I mentioned earlier, Barton often gets compared to Brewer, and I agree this could end up being an apt and welcomed comparison. Brewer has developed into a really solid NBA role player, and an important part of several teams along the way.
Take a look at Barton’s and Brewer’s per-36 minute numbers compared side-by-side for their third NBA season.
Note: For the purposes of this comparison I only included Barton’s time with Denver.
A couple of things stand out immediately. One, they’re remarkably similar across the board. Barton has proven to be a better rebounder and surprisingly averaged more steals per 36 minutes. Barton has a higher two-point field goal percentage, a respectable 50 percent, but Brewer shot better from behind the arc. Everything else is virtually identical.
Another player Barton compares favorably with is Nicolas Batum. Batum is slightly taller and has an advantage in overall length with a seven-foot wingspan, but Barton will primarily be responsible for guarding 1s or 2s, which minimizes his slight disadvantage in size.
Again, in their third seasons, you can see that Batum was already a better shooter, but Barton has the advantage in rebounds, assists and steals. Once again, the theme here is Barton needing to significantly improve himself as a dependable shooter.
The final group of guys I’d compare Barton to is Iman Shumpert, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Courtney Lee. All three compare favorably in size and length with Barton, though all of them have bigger frames. Barton once again is the worst three-point shooter of the group, but is the best rebounder and ball-hawk.
Overall, I believe if Barton can produce as much as any one of the players in that group, once again the Nuggets will have found themselves a steal. Remember, they only gave up on an already disgruntled Afflalo, who was sure to leave in free agency over the summer to nab Barton.
This will undoubtedly be an important year in Barton’s growth. His fourth season will go a long way to tell us whether he can eventually establish himself as a potential starter, or if he’ll become relegated to a role of filler on deeper teams throughout his career.
All that said, I’m incredibly excited to see what Barton can become this season. He’ll get plenty of opportunities on a Nuggets team that appears to be intent on allowing their youngest players significant minutes. He’ll be vying for playing time with Wilson Chandler and Randy Foye, but his energy and nose for creating turnovers alone should garner him plenty of minutes in an offense that’ll be heavily focused on creating turnovers and finishing in transition.
If you aren’t sold, I can’t blame you. He has a long way to go to still, but if you haven’t had a chance to see him, I suggest you make it a point this season. After all, he once did this: