Willpower fu­els Bar­ton

Ask around about Will Bar­ton, and you will get more player com­par­isons than LeBron James draws dou­ble teams. Ev­ery­body wants to peg Bar­ton as some­body else.

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Groke

“He re­minded me a lit­tle bit of Gil­bert Are­nas when he was in col­lege,” said in­terim Golden State War­riors coach Luke Wal­ton.

“He’s our Vin­nie John­son-type player,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

Might as well throw in a Bob McA­doo anal­ogy or a John Havlicek com­par­i­son while you’re at it.

“I’ve heard all kinds of com­par­isons,” Bar­ton said. “We won’t even get into them. There’s been so many. But I’m not go­ing to let any­body put me in a box. I’m go­ing to be me. That’s the only player I want to be.

“No dis­re­spect, but I don’t want to be like any­body else.”

Bar­ton, seem­ingly out of nowhere, is hav­ing a break­out sea­son for the Nuggets. He is av­er­ag­ing 15.8 points per game, trail­ing only Danilo Gal­li­nari among the Nuggets, and 6.3 re­bounds, be­hind only Ken­neth Faried.

Bar­ton isn’t even a starter. The 6foot-6 string bean has be­come the Nuggets’ best bench player since Corey Brewer — whoa, there’s an­other com­par­i­son — and he is an early lead­ing can­di­date for the NBA’s sixth-man-of-the-year award.

Bar­ton’s rise — in his fourth NBA sea­son and less than a year af­ter Den­ver ac­quired him from the Port­land Trail Blaz­ers in the Ar­ron Af­flalo trade — has helped the Nuggets tread wa­ter in the Western Con­fer­ence.

And he is Den­ver’s strong­est link to a run-and-gun, high-tempo past. Malone, in his first sea­son here, would like to get his team to play at a higher tempo. Bar­ton, more than any other, revs up the Nuggets.

“We don’t run a ton of plays for

Will Bar­ton, which speaks to his abil­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness that much more,” Malone said. “He’s at his best when the game is up­tempo, when it’s open court, be­cause in tran­si­tion he’s a load to han­dle. He can get to the rim, he can fin­ish, he can make plays for oth­ers.”

Wed­nes­day, in one of the Nuggets’ best reg­u­lar-sea­son vic­to­ries since they took down Michael Jor­dan’s 72-win Bulls in 1996, Bar­ton went shot for shot in the fourth quar­ter with Stephen Curry, the league’s reign­ing MVP. Af­ter Curry drained a 3-poin­ter with less than two min­utes re­main­ing to draw the War­riors within four, Bar­ton im­me­di­ately coun­tered with a 3.

And on Golden State’s fi­nal pos­ses­sion, Bar­ton drew the de­fen­sive as­sign­ment on Curry. Malone wanted Bar­ton’s length to get in Curry’s way. Curry never got the ball. The Nuggets went on to hand Golden State only its third loss in 39 games.

Last sea­son, with Port­land, Bar­ton wouldn’t get that shot.

“Who knows if I’m even on the floor,” he said. “But I’m a guy who wants the ball in his hands, es­pe­cially in the clutch, in the clos­ing min­utes. I pride my­self on mak­ing the right play and mak­ing big shots. Any time I’m on the floor.”

Bar­ton’s PIE num­ber, the NBA statis­tic that mea­sures the per­cent­age im­pact a player has on a game, is 14.5, best among the Nuggets. The league av­er­age is 10. In other words, Bar­ton gets the Nuggets crank­ing. It’s why, even as a bench player, his 29.5 min­utes per game are third­most among Nuggets.

“If we can de­fend and run with Will in the game, whether he han­dles it or runs the floor, he’ll make stuff hap­pen,” Malone said. “He can cre­ate some­thing when you may not think some­thing is there. He has an abil­ity to break down a de­fense.”

Be­fore he scored 21 points against Golden State, Bar­ton was in a four-game slump, av­er­ag­ing just 7.0 points. But with his shot not fall­ing, he hit the boards, av­er­ag­ing 6.3 re­bounds per game. He is grab­bing more re­bounds this sea­son than each of Den­ver’s 7-foot cen­ters.

Bar­ton’s break­out sea­son was years in the mak­ing. A sec­on­dround pick of the Trail Blaz­ers in the 2012 draft af­ter play­ing two sea­sons at the Univer­sity of Mem­phis, Bar­ton rarely had an op­por­tu­nity to shine un­til this sea­son, be­cause he usu­ally was deep on the bench.

“He’s fig­ur­ing out how to play at the next level now,” said Wal­ton, who was an as­sis­tant coach at Mem­phis when Bar­ton was there. “It’s hard when you’re not a top draft pick, be­cause you don’t get the same op­por­tu­ni­ties. You’re con­stantly press­ing to prove you can play. And when that hap­pens, you nor­mally make mis­takes.

“If you’re not men­tally strong and you don’t fig­ure it out, you’ll find your­self out of the league be­fore you even re­al­ize what hap­pened.”

Bar­ton sur­vived long enough to get his chance, even if he had to push the door open. When the Nuggets sent Af­flalo to Port­land, their pri­mary in­ter­est was the Blaz­ers’ first-round pick in the 2016 draft. They took on Bar­ton as part of the pack­age.

And now he is among Den­ver’s most valu­able play­ers.

“I knew I’d have a big op­por­tu­nity to play, so I wanted to make sure I was ready and pre­pared. I knew it could hap­pen as long as I kept faith and stayed hum­ble,” Bar­ton said.

“I’m in a good space. I’m in a great city. I feel like I’m go­ing to be here for a long time.”

Brent Lewis, The Den­ver Post

Will Bar­ton, who give the Nuggets in­stant of­fense, says, “I’m a guy who wants the ball in his hands, es­pe­cially in the clutch.”

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