January 20, 2019
Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
(Photo: Russell Isabella – USA TODAY Sports)

Will Barton could never break into the Portland Trail Blazers rotation in his first two and a half seasons in the league. With Wes Matthews locked in as the starter and Barton unable to beat out C.J. McCollum for the reserve role, minutes were hard to come by. He finally got a break when he was traded to a rebuilding Denver Nuggets team where he could finally find regular rotation time. Few could have predicted this meteoric rise after his change of scenery. 

When the Nuggets traded Arron Afflalo to the Blazers, they were applauded for their trade haul. However, the praise centered around the lottery-protected first round pick received in return and the salary relief that shedding Afflalo’s contract provided. The players involved in the deal were seen as add-ins, and if the Nuggets hit on one, the front office would be pleased with the unexpected asset. Barton is making the case that they hit big when they took the low-risk flyer on him, and his newly signed three-year contract could turn into one of the biggest value deals in the league in the upcoming years. This isn’t just a case of Barton getting significant run and finally being able to show his skills. He’s also developed as a prospect and has come a long way since being drafted 40th overall in 2012. Once seen as a first round talent, he slipped to the second round amidst concerns surrounding his decision making and ability to be a perimeter threat at the next level.

The biggest skill Barton has unlocked in his time in Denver is his outside shooting. A 19.8 percent three-point shooter during his Portland tenure, he has taken an immediate leap to 35. percent in Denver, including 40 percent so far this season. The shot charts from last season compared to this season from our Buckets App shows the dramatic shift in both mid-range and three-point efficiency.

2015 Barton Barton 2016

While part of his success can be attributed to the higher level of comfort he has shooting with NBA defenders running at him, he’s made significant strides in his shooting motion to help improve his accuracy. He’s shooting with a higher release point and more arc on the shot to give himself a better chance of converting. These shooting tweaks manifest themselves at the free throw line as well, where he has improved from a 76 percent shooter to 85 percent this season.

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Barton has the ability to run the offense as a point guard or play off the ball in a more traditional shooting guard role. The Nuggets have moved him off the ball more which turns many of the tough pull-up jump shots he was forced into in Portland into more efficient catch and shoot opportunities. After attempting just 1.1 catch and shoot shot per game last season, he has seen that rise to 3.5 per game, a more significant percentage of his overall shot attempts. Instead of forcing contested shots off the dribble, Barton has improved his decision making and is taking better shots that are more in the flow of the offense.

This improvement in perimeter shooting has opened the door for his penetration skills and ability to finish around the rim, a skill he was known for coming into the league. He loves to get out in transition, knifing his way into the paint to create a look for himself, where he finishes at 61 percent according to Basketball-Reference. He’s improved his handle and his quick first step and ball skills allows him to assess the defense and find the best way to the rim. Despite his skinny frame, he welcomes physical play in the lane and can convert through contact, as evident by his 13 And-1 opportunities, according to Basketball-Reference.

Where he can continue to improve is in his shot creation for his teammates, as he hasn’t always displayed the vision to find open teammates, or the willingness to pass when he has the ball. His assist rate has hovered from 13.0 percent to 14 percent over the past three seasons, which is low for a guard who has played on the ball so much recently. An interesting way that the Nuggets could use him going forward is to turn over the second unit to him and give him free reign offensively. When he plays as the de-facto point guard with Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson on the bench (although the argument could be made that Randy Foye takes over the point guard duties), Barton’s assist rate rises to 17.9 percent according to NBAWowy. This isn’t an impressive mark, but it shows that, if given the chance, Barton could play that role off the bench.

To do so, he’ll need to improve as a pick and roll player. He’s more comfortable creating in isolation and is still learning to navigate off a screen and make the right read. He’s scoring just 0.84 points per possession according to Synergy Sports as the ball handler while, at the same time, not putting his teammates in prime positions to score. This addition to his game would make him dangerous on the offensive end, allowing Mike Malone to seamlessly plug him into nearly any lineup and impact the game.

This offensive improvement looks to be sustainable and not just a prolonged hot streak. Barton can play multiple positions and has seen time at both the shooting guard and small forward positions according to Nylon Calculus, while he can also run an offense in short spurts. He looks to be the perfect scorer for the Nuggets to build a bench unit around as they round out their roster.

One concern teams had heading into the draft was Barton’s weight and his ability to handle the physicality of the NBA. In an interview with DraftExpress in June 2012, and in response to a question about his weight, Barton responded that “it’s going to be important for me to just keep gaining strength as I’ve been doing in all of the stages in my career. I’ve always been skinny, but I’ve just added strength.” This still rings true as Barton continues to hover around the 175 pound mark, but he has shown an ability to compete on a nightly basis that has put most of those concerns to bed. 

While he can hold his own, this lack of strength does hurt his overall defensive effectiveness from time-to-time, as he can’t always match the strength of opposing wings. His combination of length (6-foot-10 wingspan) and quickness does allow him to contribute on defense by shooting the passing lanes for steals and contesting jump shots. He can be a pest on the ball when he is locked in defensively, but more often than not, he isn’t in proper defensive position and struggles to move his feet and stay in front of dribble penetration. With some of his strengths limitations, he needs to become more committed to perimeter on-ball defense to control drives by his opponent. He may never turn into a lockdown defender but he has some strides he can make to become a better team defender. 

Barton has been one of the lone bright spots for a Nuggets bench unit that has struggled to have a positive impact on the team. The bench unit struggling is not a surprise as they regularly trot out Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller, Randy Foye and others on a nightly basis so Barton’s emergence has been a beacon of hope. In the midst of a rebuilding year, the Nuggets front office should be ecstatic to have uncovered a valuable asset they now have under team control for two more seasons.

Lost in Portland, he’s been saved by Denver and his career has finally taken off in his fourth season. While his production level has benefited from the spike in minutes, Barton deserves get credit for the improvements to his game. This progression has kept him on the court and in line to be among the leading vote getters for both Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year. Quite the transformation from someone once thought to be an insignificant part of a trade for Arron Afflalo.

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Joshua Riddell

Josh is also a writer for DraftExpress and enjoys watching both college and professional basketball.

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