After the Denver Nuggets lost on the road to the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday night, Denver head coach Michael Malone’s frustration reached a boiling point as he called out his team for the lack of effort they played with and how ill-prepared they entered the game.
It was a low point in a season full of lows for the Nuggets.
Will Barton III – in addition to most of the roster – was one of the culprits and he was willing to openly admit his mistakes.
Look at the power in Barton’s first step. Once he plants his left foot and decides to go, Jaren Jackson Jr. suddenly found himself a step behind Barton, but this is not the impressive aspect of the possession. Where Barton really shines is when he gets to the rim. Instead of trying to beat Jackson to the rim, Barton goes to the opposite side of the rim and slams it home to guarantee the bucket.
Due to the injuries and/or fatigue Barton has dealt with over the past few seasons, he has been unable to play above the rim in this way giving him much more credence as a slasher.
Barton’s health does not only manifest in explosive first-step speed and the ability to rise up above the rim. Now, Barton is also able to finish through contact and score through or over stronger defenders.
Barton, instead of pulling up for a floater or picking up his dribble too early, now has the confidence in his body to attack rim protectors at the rim as he does above. So far, this has not translated into free throw attempts, but if Barton continues to attack the lane with this type of aggression, the shots from the charity stripe will come.
Once all of these skills are put to use at once, it becomes clear just how much more imposing of a scoring threat Barton can be at the rim now that he is healthy; especially when he gets out in transition.
Not only did it take Barton just a single dribble from half court to get to the rim, but he took off from one step inside the free-throw line and managed to finish through the contact and contest of rookie sensation Evan Mobley. That is an incredibly tough bucket.
So far this season Barton is shooting 26-of-42 at the rim which is 61.9 percent so not only does he look much more athletic than in years past, but he is converting at a much higher rate as well – 13.7 percent better to be exact.
When Barton is able to put pressure on the rim, his 3-point shot becomes a much more deadly weapon because opposing defenses tend to sag off of him or go under screens in an attempt to protect the paint.
The problem with going under screens on Barton is that he has become a strong enough shooter from deep to punish defenses for going under the screen like he does below.
This is the most basic read for shooters handling in the pick and roll. If the defender goes under the screen, step back and shoot the 3-pointer. All that is required is the confidence to fire away which Barton has in spades.
If another example of Barton’s confidence in his outside shot is needed, here is Barton going to work after getting Donovan Mitchell on an island, thanks a bad pass from Porter, with just five seconds left on the shot clock. All it takes for Barton to create enough room is a simple jab step before stepping back behind the three-point line for the shot-clock-beating triple.
The Nuggets struggle to generate three-point looks, but Barton – who is second on the Nuggets in 3-point attempts to Michael Porter Jr. – is always hunting for an open shot from deep because he knows how desperately needed it is for Denver’s offense to get back on track. So far this season, Barton is shooting 36.6 percent on shots from beyond the three-point arc, which is second on the team, and he is currently tied with Jokic for the most three-point makes with 15 triples finding the bottom of the net.
Still, Barton’s offensive contributions have not just come as a finisher this year. He has also shined with the ball in his hands.
What makes Barton such a creative and instinctual passer is how he leverages his scoring ability to create passing lanes.
Look at how closely Ja Morant stays to Barton as the possession unfolds. Morant has no interest in giving Barton a sliver of room to fire away from beyond the three-point arc. So Barton spins off Gordon’s screen to get Morant — who just fought over the Gordon screen – trailing, but this is where Barton’s creativity shines.
After Barton collects the tough pass from Jokic and realizes he is unable to finish the play, his eyes begin scanning for cutters. As soon as he spots Porter flashing to the front of the rim, Barton’s instincts kick in and he drops a wicked over-the-shoulder dime to Porter for the uncontested dunk.
In just six seconds, Barton used the threat of his outside shot to create a driving lane, the threat of his finishing ability around the rim to occupy defenders, and his creativity to get the pass to the cutting Porter for the easy bucket.
One of the most overlooked skills Barton possesses is the ability to make reads late in the pick and roll. Barton does not get tunnel vision as he gets closer to the rim as so many volume scorers do. Instead, his head stays on a swivel and he looks to turn a good shot into a great shot.
Barton knows the Grizzlies are in a drop defense here so instead of slow-playing his drive, he attacks the inside foot of Steven Adams forcing Adams to turn his hips towards Barton to contest the shot. Once Barton forces Adams to commit, all it takes is a wrap-around pass to Jokic for the easiest layup of the night.
While Barton’s half-court creation is good, where he really shines is when he is pushing the pace in transition.
Playing in transition is a faster pace than operating in the half court, but Barton rarely gets sped up when getting out and running. That allows him to set up the defense and occupy multiple defenders at once providing cutting lanes for his teammates as he does below.
Barton could have attempted to go coast to coast because there is a lane to do so, but once he forced Kyle Anderson to step up to him in order slow his drive, Barton knew he had the defense on their heels. As soon as Anderson focused most of his attention on Barton, Gordon cut quickly to the rim to give Barton a target to pass to for a ferocious dunk from Gordon.
If Barton did not attack the defense in transition, there would not have been a cutting lane opened up. Barton was assertive and he was rewarded for it.
The final example of Barton’s impact as a passer this season is the way he operates in the two-man game with Jokic. Just look at the pressure the two of them put on opposing defenses when working together.
Because Barton is such a well-rounded offensive player, he gets the majority of the defense’s attention as soon as he comes off the screen from Jokic so Barton correctly gets the ball back to the league’s MVP. Once Jokic gets the ball and Hassan Whiteside closes out to him, Jokic attacks the contest to get into the paint collapsing the defense further. At that point, Jokic has three great options: kick to Facu Campazzo who is wide open in the corner, kick out to Barton who is wide open on the wing, or just attack the rim after getting Whiteside to bite on his pump fake. Jokic chose the latter and easily scored at the rim.
So far this season, Barton has been able to produce as a scorer from all three levels while having an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 2 to 1. Barton is also second on the team in assists after eight games with 4.1 assists per night. It is safe to say that Denver would be in a much worse position if not for the offensive contributions from Barton, but what makes the start of his season truly exciting is that it is not just offensive impact he is bringing to the table.
Barton has been a defensive presence this season.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Barton already has 11 steals and six blocks which has come hand-in-hand with some of the best one-on-one defense he has ever played. Simply stated, Barton is looking for every chance he can get to make a momentum swinging play one defense.
Look at how Barton is waiting on this pass like a free safety waiting to jump the route and grab an interception.
Barton’s attentiveness on defense is at an all-time high so far this season which has helped him force a plethora of turnovers. Barton’s contributions and efforts have helped the Nuggets ascend all the way fourth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 100.6. Additionally, the Nuggets defensive rating is 7.8 points better when Barton is on the floor.
It is not surprising how much better Barton makes the Nuggets’ defense when he keeps making plays like this.
The effort to get the chase down block in transition is a big-time hustle play, but for Barton to then get down the court, receive the pass and attack the rim with success makes this one of his best sequences of the season. Malone is always begging his team to turn defense into offense and Barton has been able to do that this season.
If Barton can keep adding more and more defensive plays to the Nuggets bottom line – like the game-saving block he had against the Minnesota Timberwolves shown above – then the Nuggets are going to be even more dangerous than previously expected once Murray returns.