Despite Denver’s early-season struggles, Will Barton III is playing great basketball

Nov 3, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) handles the ball against Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane (22) during the second half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

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.

“I just told (Malone) that my effort was terrible and I told him that I cannot do that,” Barton explained. “I was just bad on both ends and I told him I would fix that.”
This single moment from Barton encapsulates the season he has had thus far. Despite the treacherous beginning to the season for the Nuggets, Barton’s resolve had not wavered in any way. No matter how perilous the season has been so far, Barton has been the shining light to help provide guidance for the Nuggets – Denver’s version of a lighthouse during a storm.
That is why – when Denver suddenly found themselves down by a whopping 20 points in the first quarter on Thursday night – Barton went to Malone to re-emphasize his willingness to fight and scrap to get the Nuggets back into the game.
“I took out the starting group – four of the five – early in that first quarter and Will came up to me and said ‘Coach, I want to play; I cant speak for anyone else, but I want to play so get me back in that game’,” Malone explained after Denver’s narrow loss to the Grizzlies on Thursday night. “To his credit, he had 26 points, seven assists, made some big plays down the stretch and knocked down four threes. That has to be Will Barton every night and I look forward to seeing that as we move forward.”
“After having a bad showing in the last game when we lost and then we came out in the first quarter that bad, I just wanted to let him know I was still in the fight and I always feel like we can win,” Barton explained after Thursday’s loss to Memphis.
The Nuggets desperately need Barton to be a jack of all trades with Jamal Murray indefinitely sidelined as he recovers from his ACL tear. There is no one on Denver’s roster who can remotely imitate Murray’s contributions outside of Barton. That is why, after Denver’s first loss to the Grizzlies, Malone made sure to check in with his starting shooting guard and reiterate just how important he is to the Nuggets success.
“I just really reinforced with Will (Barton) his impact and importance from a leadership standpoint – he is the longest tenured Denver Nugget player – to defense, rebounding, playmaking, scoring, energy, and all of those things,” Malone said.
So far this season, Barton has performed admirably. Outside of the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, no one has been more steady and impactful than Barton, who finally had a full offseason to work on his game instead of rehabbing through an injury.
So just how has he helped the Nuggets thus far?

Offense

Barton has always had a well-rounded offensive game. Not only is he a threatening slasher, but his 3-point shot has become a consistent and effective weapon.
Additionally, the Nuggets have been putting the ball in his hands late in games and having him work in the two-man game with Jokic. But his offensive game becomes considerably more predictable if he is unable to finish at the rim with regularity. Thankfully for the Nuggets, Barton has had no issue converting at the rim this season.
Attacking the basket
As Barton continued to battle lower body injuries the past few seasons, the biggest loss in his game was his ability to attack and finish at the rim, but so far this season his comfort getting into the paint and finishing around or above the rim has been on full display.
Over the past couple seasons, Barton would not have been able to convert the look in the clip below into a bucket. Because of the core injuries he sustained, Barton did not have the quickness or explosion in his first step to blow by defenders without a screen. When Barton was battling lower body injuries, he was unable to play at or above the rim when slashing from the perimeter. So far this season, Barton has already laid those concerns to rest.

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.

3-point shooting

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.

Passing

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.

Defensive playmaker

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.

 

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