Denver Nuggets Season Preview: How Will Barton can bounce back to his previous form
Injuries derailed Will Barton’s 2018-19 season. After signing a four-year contract extension during the 2018 offseason, Barton entered the season as the starting small forward, a role he had been looking forward to occupying for years.
There was good reason to believe Barton could be the answer at small forward after his impressive 2017-18 campaign. The then-27-year-old forward averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game, while he connected on 37 percent of his 3-point attempts. As a result, Barton finished the 2017-18 season first on the team in minutes played (2,683) and second in Win Shares at 6.2.
Barton’s unique blend of shooting and playmaking make him a versatile offensive player, especially when he is able to attack mismatches or defenders closing out to him on the perimeter. With Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokić leading the offense, Barton is able to pick his spots, cut to the rim and receive open looks from beyond the arc.
To start the 2018-19 season, that is exactly what Barton did in Denver’s opening two games before he suffered an injury that would eventually keep him out of action until January. In the Nuggets’ first two victories of the season, Barton averaged 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Furthermore, he connected on 57.1 percent of his shots, including 55.6 percent on 3-pointers.
Now, that was just a two-game sample, but the numbers suggest Barton can and does fit in extremely well with the starting group. The overall numbers also support this idea, as the starting lineup with Barton at small forward posted a +7.8-net rating last season in the 430 minutes of action it saw. That net rating was second-best among lineups that played at least 100 minutes last season.
Now, it is not a given that Barton opens the season as the starting small forward. Head Coach Michael Malone said during Media Day that the position is going through an open competition throughout training camp and the preseason. Although Barton suffered a minor, lower body Injury (according to Michael Malone) in recent weeks, Barton played throughout Denver’s preseason games and is ready to contribute from day one of the regular season.
“Definitely a little deflating, especially coming off of an injury-plagued season last year,” Barton explained after a Training Camp practice. “The good thing is I feel good. I'm not really holding back, I feel athletic. Doing the things I like to do. I've got a good rhythm.”
Barton’s ability to play and defend both guard positions as well as the small forward spot makes him a versatile piece to Denver’s puzzle. If Barton doesn’t start at small forward, he instantly becomes one of the deadliest offensive players off the bench in the league.
Barton has experience playing the role of a sixth man, providing offensive spark off the bench. Across his 294 games with the Nuggets, the former second-round pick has only started 98 of those contests. During the 2015-16 campaign, Barton came off the bench for 81 games and averaged 28.7 minutes per game. He posted averages of 14.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game that season.
“I know when I’m 100 percent healthy, I’m one of the best players around so it’s all about really being healthy,” Barton said at Media Day. A healthy Will Barton provides a nice blend of scoring prowess, 3-point shooting and playmaking that fits into any offense.
On the defensive end, Barton can capably hang with guards and smaller wing players. With Jerami Grant joining the group and teammates such as Harris, Torrey Craig and Paul Millsap all back for another season, it’s unlikely that Barton will ever be tasked with guarding an opponent’s best offensive player. As a result, the veteran can focus on providing quality help defense and being active in the passing lanes.
Barton’s crafty offensive game provides significant value as a starter or off the bench. If his 3-point shooting can bounce back to previous levels (i.e. 37 percent), his ball-handling abilities will allow him to thrive in Denver in the upcoming season. Of course, this is all dependent on stay healthy in the 2019-20 season, but if he does, look for Barton to re-establish himself as one of Denver’s go-to players.