Will Barton now recognizes how his mentality could shift when he entered a game last season.
If he knew his minutes would be limited, his primary goal was to “come in and get hot” from the field.
He thought that was the way he could keep himself off the bench, resulting in self-inflicted pressure. So Barton has focused on playing with a freer mind-set entering the 2017-18 season, letting his versatility on the perimeter shine as a reserve who can score and distribute.
“I’m trying to play that role and pick my spots — when to shoot, when to pass,” Barton said. “I know I can get my shot off every time, so right now I’ve just been focusing on getting others involved and just trying to play at my pace.”
With a long 6-foot-6, 175-pound frame, Barton will be the Nuggets’ primary backup at shooting guard and can also play small forward. And so far during the preseason, he’s been given a greater ball-handling responsibility, getting the green light to instigate the offense while playing alongside Jamal Murray.
Barton’s scoring production increased each game through the Nuggets’ first four preseason contests, culminating with a team-high 26 points to go along with five rebounds, three assists and three steals in the Nuggets’ 96-86 loss in their preseason finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has recorded 22 assists against six turnovers and had also corralled eight steals.
Those outings come following a mixed 2016-17 season in which he averaged 13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 60 contests with 19 starts. He played sparingly early because of an ankle injury, which flared up again in February. Then when Denver’s roster was at full strength, Barton’s game-by-game minutes became inconsistent.
“That kind of got me into a funk sometimes,” Barton said. “Each year is a different challenge, and I grew from it and learned.”
Denver coach Michael Malone also noticed how Barton’s on-court approach would change depending on how many minutes he received. To combat that undue stress this preseason, Barton has made an effort to smile more during practice and games, to make it all fun again.
Malone has been pleased with Barton’s increased discipline in 1-on-1 defense, which he attributes to being more “locked in” on that end of the floor. The coach emphasizes Barton must still improve on cutting and spacing the floor, allowing him to become a recipient in the Nuggets’ flowing offense rather than constantly needing the ball in his hands to make a play.
With about a week to go until the Nuggets’ preseason opener at Utah, Malone plans to give Barton about 25 minutes per game. He exploded for 22 second-half points Tuesday, including a 3-pointer from the right wing about midway through the fourth quarter to cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 76-75 before the Thunder pulled away in the final minutes. After the game, Malone called Barton’s performance a “great spark” and a “luxury,” and also praised the way he played defense on Thunder All-Star Paul George.
And now, Barton recognizes he doesn’t need to force his shot to stay on the floor.
“When he knew he was gonna play extended minutes, Will Barton was a complete basketball player,” Malone said. “(He was a) facilitator, made the right play and let the game come to him. That’s what I want to see this year. I want to allow Will to play with freedom.”