You still want Will Barton taking the last shot

Jan 30, 2018; San Antonio, TX, USA; Denver Nuggets shooting guard Will Barton (5) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

When Gary Harris nailed the 3-pointer late Thursday night to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, it changed the narrative of the week. The Denver Nuggets finally hit a buzzer-beater to win the game.

In the excitement, I couldn’t help but think of those back-to-back losses earlier in the week and how this time Will Barton didn’t take the final shot.

On back-to-back nights Barton had the chance to make the last shot of the game. They would have been huge wins — knocking off the Eastern Conference’s best, Boston, and ending a road losing streak against the San Antonio Spurs. Instead, Denver lost both games. Will Barton missed both shots.

The disappointing narrative is that Will Barton missed the final shot on back-to-back nights.

On Monday night it was at home against the Boston Celtics. Barton raced up the court after a rebound and threw up a wild shot from behind the arc. The attempt missed, and the buzzer sounded before a put-back attempt by Tory Craig.

Then on Tuesday night it was another Barton miss as time expired — this time a 3-point attempt against the San Antonio Spurs. Multiple Nuggets passed up shots from the interior and/or open looks, including the hero on Thursday, Harris, to give Barton the final shot.

Disappointing as these losses were, there is another narrative.

Barton still had the confidence to take that last shot, and that he wants the opportunity again.

As Barton told the Denver Post after the Spurs game, “It’s just building me up. Moments like this, you’ve got to go through them to grow up. I’m happy I can even be in the NBA going through these types of things — things I dreamed of. I love it. I’ll be back.”

Barton is, figuratively speaking, the youngest 27-year-old in basketball. While most players would be in their prime at his age, Will Barton seems to still be defining himself as a player.

The development may have been delayed by how he was used in the past. When Barton came over from the Portland Trail Blazers three years ago, it felt like he had untapped potential.

We see how dominant he can be at times. He single-handedly beat the New Orleans Pelicans in overtime in December. Other nights, he has missed many shots down the stretch and contributed significantly to losses. Still, for a team that loses a lot of close games, I’d rather have a player who wants the ball at the end.

Consider that Will Barton isn’t the team’s star. That’s Nikola Jokic. He’s not the future heir, Jamal Murray. He’s not the perennial veteran, Paul Millsap. He’s not the smooth Harris, but maybe he’s the real finisher in the Nuggets’ rotation?

When you look at that final shot from the Spurs game, others had the opportunity to take the ball into their own hands but Barton took the shot. Jokic rebounded; he passed it to Murray who passed it along to Harris and then Lyles. With time running out, the ball came back to Barton. Barton was willing to take the shot. Isn’t that the kind of guy you need on a team?

The best players in basketball history, the Michael Jordans, talk about being able to have a short-term memory on those big shots. You miss more than you make, after all. Barton seems to have that ability to a fault. He always shoots first, no matter how many he’s missed previously.

To manage a player like Barton, a coach has to be aware of his strengths and weaknesses. Some of the responsibility to control these situations relies on coach Michael Malone understanding Barton’s flow. He’s a very streaky player, but it’s something that can be contained by the coach. Former coach George Karl had to monitor J.R. Smith very closely depending on if his shots were going in. Luckily for the Nuggets, Barton is more in control than Smith.

Barton needs those reins pulled in some nights. The other part of the loss to the Celtics was that Malone chose not to call a timeout even as the ball fell into Barton’s hands. From far away down the court, he made a run for it. There was no chance anyone else was going to take that shot. It missed badly.

In the right situation though, that confidence could be a huge asset. As Will Barton finally nears his potential, perhaps part of his role is as the finisher. If he’d found the ball in his hands in the final seconds against the Thunder on Thursday, I’m sure Barton takes the shot. Maybe that one falls in and he’s the hero instead of Harris.

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