One year ago to this day, Will Barton was averaging 1.7 points in the month of February with the Blazers. On the veteran playoff-bound team, minutes were sparse for the third-year player at the time.
Then on Feb. 19, Barton was traded to the Nuggets, and Will The Thrill was unleashed—the streetball efficient, defensive-rebound-and-push and deceivingly strong 6’6″, 175-pound on-the-fly playmaker. Just four days after his move to Denver, he scored 15 points, then 22 in back-to-back games. Later in the offseason, the team rewarded his breakout campaign with a three-year, $10.6 million contract.
“As soon I got traded, the GM [Tim Connelly] called me and just told me that he wanted me to be myself, go out there and play hard, show my personality and just be Will Barton,” he told the NBPA. “I knew I had the talent, I knew I could play, but it was just about getting more playing time so I could show it.”
Fast forward to now. Barton, 25, is a favorite for the Sixth Man award (along with Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson who’s at 16.9 points per game), Most Improved Player award and pushing the Nuggets ahead to a projected higher-win season than last. He has become one of the NBA’s most entertaining and effective players in 28.5 minutes per game, averaging 15.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and nearly one steal, while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.
“Will Barton competes,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “He has such a passion for the game of basketball, a true love for the game. He has had a special season for us being our spark plug off the bench the entire year. The way he has worked and the season he has had for us it’s not a surprise that his name has been mentioned for both the Most Improved Player award as well as the Sixth Man of the Year award.”
Barton is uniquely unpredictable, too. Malone rarely calls a play for him, except for a few “Iverson cuts”—named after the Sixers legend—which has Barton run off two of his big men setting screens at both elbows to get an isolation scoring opportunity.
“[Malone] doesn’t have to worry about me because I can go and get it on my own, so that’s one less problem he has to worry about,” Barton said. “I can get it off defensive rebounds and push it and get out in transition. I’m so creative that most of the time I don’t even know what I’m going to do. I’m an old-school player. I’m not the fastest, so you’ve just got to find different ways to be successful. I just kind of let my mind take over and my instincts, and at the last minute, boom. You never know what you’re going to get from me, and that’s why I think I’m so hard to guard.”
And with that creative spark in mind, Barton could pose a challenge to defending champion Zach LaVine in the All-Star dunk contest on Saturday night.
“Any ideas I come up with are going to be well-thought-out and the fans will love it,” said Barton, one of four participants along with Aaron Gordon and Andre Drummond. “Dunking is second nature to me, so I’ll have to sit down and think about it long and hard. Being on this big stage means everything to me. There are only four people from the entire NBA that get to showcase their athleticism at this one event. Some people never get to participate in any All-Star events. I don’t take it granted and it’s truly a blessing.”
Will Goes to Work
Last August in his native Baltimore, Barton hosted his third-annual one-day elite basketball camp for the top 30 youth players at St. Frances Academy. And as his longtime trainer, Dan Connelly, vividly remembers, Barton competed with the campers like he was trying to get the attention of college scouts.
“He was probably the hardest-working player in the camp this summer and we had some of the top kids in Baltimore,” said Connelly, who was a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis when Barton was there. “Will was out there like he was the ninth-ranked 10th grader in the city. But that’s why he’s good. If you spent a few days with Will, you’d be, like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ He doesn’t sleep, he’s just non-stop energy. If we’re at another high school or college, if a kid asks to play one-on-one after he’s working on something, he would never stop. There’s been days where Will is just dead tired, and he would still be out there just working on stuff on his own or playing one-on-one with a 10-year-old.”
Barton, whom coach Malone has called the best-conditioned athlete on his team, had the kind of the summer that will make you sweat just reading about it. But it fueled his emergence this season.
For starters, Connelly, Barton and his younger brother of 11 months, Antonio, who was on the Nuggets’ summer league team in Las Vegas in July and is now a free agent, trained in a gym with no air conditioning, with temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees. The location was Lake Clifton Eastern High School, where Barton attended as a junior.
“It was the hottest gym I’ve ever been in in my life,” Connelly said.
Even though Barton only spent one year at Lake Clifton, he enjoyed being around his former coach Herman “Tree” Harried, who was one of the biggest influences in his life. Harried humbled Barton, never treating him as the high school star that he was. In fact, the team would do nothing but run until Barton finished in the top three of every sprint.
Barton never complained once about the scorching heat, according to Connelly. Antonio would push his brother in every drill, but everything Antonio did, the Nuggets guard would do a little bit more or increase the challenge.
“The gym was great for conditioning,” Barton said. “It actually sharpened my mental game, too. It made me tougher because you know you want to cut the workouts shorter because it’s so hot. You’ve got to push through some of those dog days where you’re so tired and it’s not getting any cooler. It was a benefit for me in a multitude of ways.”
The brothers were at Lake Clifton every weekday morning at 6 a.m. to lift weights, and then engaged in court work with Connelly until 1 p.m. Barton would go back later to shoot on his own.
“The great thing about Will is I would take Saturday and Sunday off and there’s certain days, I’m, like, ‘Did you get any rest this weekend?'” Connelly said. “He’s, like, ‘Nah, I played pickup both days with my friends.’ I’m, like, ‘Will, what are you doing? I told you to get rest.’ It’s just who he is.”
The focus of Barton’s offseason training tied to Malone’s 0.5 rule: pass, shoot or attack in less than a second after catching the ball. So Barton and Connelly worked on limiting his dribbles from the perimeter through pick-and-rolls and finishing at the rim. “He gets himself in trouble over dribbling sometimes,” Connelly said.
But the biggest emphasis was making some small tweaks to Barton’s shooting.
“I always could shoot, but I was having trouble in my first couple years in the league,” he said.
When he returned to Baltimore at the end of April last summer, Connelly, who runs the Be More Basketball training company and specializes in video analysis, sat down with him to watch every single possession from the previous season. What they consistently observed was Barton had a tendency to stand straight up upon receiving the ball, and he would fade away and start walking backwards with his hands down quickly after his release—the streetball flair in him of acting like his shot was always good and already thinking about backpedaling back on defense.
The two worked together on keeping his knees bent and butt down on every single catch, and on the finish of his catch making sure his chest was at the rim and then keeping his follow through up. They started with form shooting, went into base shooting and then ended with spot shooting, before working on shots on the move. Every day they had different challenges for consecutive makes, but the overall goal was 500 makes.
“When he got to Denver, his career high happened pretty quickly and he just noticed, like, ‘Hey, I can be really special,'” Connelly said. “And people have been telling him the whole time, like, ‘Hey, get your jumper right, get your jumper right.’ And I think it kind of clicked, like, ‘Hey, if my jumper is right, I can do everything.’ And I told him this summer, ‘I want you to get psychotic about your shooting form.’ I said, ‘Every time you finish a shot, I want you to make sure it’s the same way every single time.'”
After shooting 13.8 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie and 27.1 percent in 2014-15, Barton is now up to 38 percent. That was a key factor behind his big December, when he averaged 2.3 makes per game from downtown (39.3 percent) en route to averages of 20.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists. That included a 31-point performance on Dec. 30 against his former team.
“I started off the season playing well already, and then I just kept saying, ‘I want more, I want more,'” Barton said. “And I started working even harder, started getting even more aggressive with things. And the more aggressive I became, things started looking up. I definitely feel like I’m in control. I’m way more comfortable. I have a good feel for the game now. Nothing really surprises me.”
Will The Thrill Takes Flight
After being considered “poor,” “good” and “average” by Synergy Sports for his spot-up, transition and pick-and-roll scoring as a ball-handler in 2014-15, respectively, Barton is now “very good” for his spot-up and transition play, and “excellent” as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. He scores around one point per play in each of those categories. In fact, his 0.911 points per play as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, with a minimum of 150 plays, ranks No. 14 in the league and he’s higher on the list than LeBron James, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook.
A big reason why Barton has improved with his point-guard instincts, and why Malone trusts him without calling many plays for him, is because of how much film he’s watched and learned from this season breaking down his playmaking abilities. It has enabled the streetball-like player that Barton is be more productive with his freelance game.
“I’m more of an observer; I’m not into analytics,” Barton said. “Stats don’t lie, but they’re not the whole truth the whole time, so I try not to get into them all the time. I’ve always loved to watch film on myself to get better; also, to learn my opponents’ tricks and figure out what they’re doing, so I can try to be a step ahead and make my job easier. I’m always looking for ways to improve, things I did wrong that I can fix. I’m also looking at things I’ve been successful at, so I can keep doing them. You’ve got to know why you’re good and you’ve got to know why you’re bad.”
For the first time in his career, Barton wanted the most comprehensive film assessment of his play this season. So after each game, Connelly texts him a Vimeo password-protected link that loads a video of every single one of his possessions, offensive and defensive. He cuts the video on iMovie, and each clip includes text at the bottom of his coaching tips (see the video below as an example from one game).
“He wants to see where the defense is coming from, he wants to see the rotations and what he missed,” Connelly said. “I think it’s really helped him with his vision and his shot selection. It’s so hard in the NBA because everybody is so long, they’re so athletic, they’re so quick. If you don’t make the right pass out right away, you’re going to be stuck in the paint without a shot. His playmaking has come a long way because he can get into the paint whenever he wants to.”
Barton, whom Malone calls “a jack of all trades,” is in a league of his own when it comes to how he initiates his offense: defensive rebounding. Only Westbrook (5.8 defensive boards per game) and James Harden (5.5) average more than Barton (5.2), among guards. For starters, the Nuggets’ bigs do a nice job of boxing out their men, clearing space for the team’s most athletic perimeter player to snatch up the miss. Barton rarely needs to box out. He has a fast first jump, quick hands and great instincts for the ball, always appearing to be in the right area for where it’s going to bounce off the rim.
The Nuggets also look to sink back to prepare for offense while Barton waits back to grab the rebound to become the team’s go-to playmaker. That’s even when starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay is on the court.
“[Defensive rebounding] is just something I’ve been good at all my life,” Barton said. “I always wanted to own it and try to make it a part of my game because it’s hard to guard. When you grab a rebound and go, the defense isn’t set. So you’ve got them on your heels.”
Often times, Barton will push the ball up the court and go right into attack mode, utilizing his slithery array of fakes, floaters, contortions, reverse layups and high-arching finishes. His average of 1.4 field goals made per game (56.1 percent) with 22-18 seconds left on the shock ranks No. 13 in the league, according to NBA.com/Stats. In addition, he’s in the upper echelon of accuracy among guards in the restricted area (59.1 percent; his highest percentage by far on any part of the court), above point guards like Westbrook (57.2 percent) and Kyrie Irving (58.5 percent).
Don’t be fooled by the thin frame, which was flagged when Barton entered the 2012 draft. Inevitably, he was picked 40th by the Blazers.
“I’m wiry strong,” Barton said. “I work on my body; I lift and stuff. I’m just not going to be a bodybuilder, so I’ve adapted to hitting people first instead of waiting to get hit. I jump into people’s bodies and I like contact. So it’s not that hard for me to finish.”
That’s not to say there’s never any nervousness watching the somewhat helter-skelter Barton with the ball on the move.
“Myself and I’m sure coach Malone are just watching the games sometimes, like, ‘Oh god, oh god, oh … good, oh good play, Will,'” Connelly said. “I would say [his game is] a combination of fun and scary, and it’s 95 percent a very good outcome. There’s just a lot of times you’d watch him and you’re, like, ‘Pass the ball, give it up,’ and then he does something else. He makes a crossover or goes through a double team. He just creates something out of nothing.”
And that’s why the excitement of Will The Trill—represented in Barton’s social media accounts and even tattooed on his right leg—continues to expand around the league, topped off with his inclusion in the All-Star dunk contest.
“It’s definitely exciting. It’s a blessing,” said Barton, commenting on his increased popularity. “It’s something that I always wanted, and to see it manifest right in front of my eyes, it’s exciting. It makes me want more, so I just can’t be satisfied. I’ve got to stay focused and humble and keep working hard and keep producing, and more things will come.”
Those things include wanting to turn the ball over less, understand defensive schemes better and overall stay on the floor longer. Barton knows he’s in the running for the Sixth Man Award, but it currently remains a distant thought.
“If you talked to him, he’d just say, ‘I’m trying to make the playoffs,'” Connelly said. “That’s literally the only thing he’ll tell you right now.”
“I’ve been thinking about [the award] recently, but I try not to think about it too much,” said Barton, who wanted to start when he signed with the Nuggets last summer, but accepted being the second unit’s leader when the team wanted to go younger with Mudiay and Gary Harris in the starting backcourt. “I don’t want to put all the pressure on myself. I just want to go out there and play my game and get wins. It’s not always just about getting rewards and attention and things of that nature. It’s just about respect for me when I’m going into a game, and my opponent realizes that they’re going to have a long night and they’re realizing that I can play. So those things mean the most to me.”
What also means a lot to Barton is giving back to his hometown Baltimore. In addition to hosting basketball camps, he organized a hoops and picnic day for hundreds of kids and adults at Druid Hill Park last April. The purpose was to keep the peace after the death of Freddie Gray, which led to civil unrest in the community.
Two weeks ago, Barton, along with his childhood friend Xavier Harper, opened his first clothing store for his “Protect The Family” brand—a slogan he adopted from his mother, Karen—and a portion of the sales will support mentoring programs and underprivileged children in the city. Barton, who’s launching his foundation soon, designs some of the shop’s hats, jerseys, sweaters, sweatsuits and more. That’s not all. Later this summer, he’ll continue to manage his Team Thrill AAU team.
“I’ve got to look out for the community,” Barton said. “Where I came from means everything to me, so I just try to do the best I can—not just money, but just time, just being there, letting them know you’re real, letting them see you, hanging out with them, having conversation with them, letting them know you’re here and you’re just like them. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
From picking up the Nuggets off the bench to helping out his native Baltimore, Barton knows how to step in and seal the deal.
Stay tuned, Toronto.
Jared Zwerling is the Senior Multimedia Writer for the NBA Players Association, bringing an extensive basketball background from his time at the NBA, ESPN, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and most recently Bleacher Report. Follow Jared on Twitter and Instagram.