How hip-hop and leadership brought Will Barton’s Thrill back

It’s an abnormally scorching, 106-degree early July day in Las Vegas. In a small, mildly-air-conditioned practice basketball court at UNLV, Will Barton and Torrey Craig are intensely going at each other in a voluntary workout session. The two men are working on three-point defense with five attempts per player. Barton eases through the first session, containing Craig and hitting four threes on the other end. Then Craig proceeds to go on a roll, dominating the next three sessions. They stop. Barton looks at those in attendance with a grin.  “Run that back!” he yells.  The Denver Nuggets teammates do battle for another 60 minutes. Throughout the entire practice, Barton is trash-talking, but he’s also giving Craig pointers on how to defend or execute in certain situations. This isn’t insignificant. After all, Craig emerged as the player to replace Barton in the starting lineup during Denver’s run to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. But Barton is all smiles. A former second-round draft pick entering his ninth season, the 28-year-old is still grateful to be an impact player in the NBA and he sees his greatest qualities as being a driven competitor and a locker room leader. It is those traits that he believes will help him get back to his best after an injury-plagued 2018-19 season.  “I'm just showing guys that I'm still in it with them,” Barton explained to Nuggets.com in mid October. “Just for myself, get back into the swing of things. That was the first time I've been injured in my life and [it showed] with career lows across the board since I've been playing major minutes.”  Barton is well-aware of the criticism of his last campaign.  He heard the boos from fans during games where he struggled. Coming off a contract extension during the summer of 2018, he was hoping to build off of a strong 2017-18 season where he had a career-year across the board – going for 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 45.2 percent shooting. Barton started the 2018-19 season brightly, dropping 19 points, five boards and two assists in the season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers. Then, in the following game against the Suns, he went in for a layup and landed awkwardly before exiting the court. Barton would find out he had a significant hip injury that would require surgery and rob him of 39 games. So, when the 2018-19 season came to a close, he insisted to reporters he wouldn’t let the negatives of his experience carry over to the next season.

He looked inward to make progress.  On the court, Barton can make plays out of nothing, dribbling out of double-teams to find teammates or create scoring chances for himself. Off the court, he can be just as creative. He loves taking risks with his wardrobes as seen here. Growing up, he always wanted to record a rap album. So, with several situations on his mind, he decided to express it in a five-song EP titled “Unexpected.”  “It was just a little therapy for myself, get some things I wanted to get off my chest in the setting I wanted to say it,” Barton said.    Barton isn’t sure if he’ll drop another record, but his intent was clear.    “Just keep being myself, if I ever do it again,” he said. “Don't let anyone change me. Whatever I want to do, just do it. Whatever I want to say, just say it. I know what comes with that and I'm strong enough to handle it.”    It was a relief for Barton and after releasing the project, he got back to handing business on the court. He was a consistent member of the Nuggets’ offseason workout meetings. He took an active role in being a mentor to the team’s highly-touted rookie, Michael Porter Jr. – another competitor at Barton’s small forward position.    “That's my guy,” Porter Jr. said after a recent practice. “He’s helped me out a lot, especially with learning the plays and everything. He's been a good leader for sure.”   Barton believes it’s vital to provide different methods of encouragement to various players in the locker room. For guys such as Porter Jr. or Jarred Vanderbilt, he’s more vocal and instructive. With a more established player such as Jamal Murray, Barton looks for ways to “keep [Murray’s} spirit up” when the 22-year-old guard goes through a rough patch. 

“You're going to see [a bad man] throughout the whole season”- Will Barton

  Barton remembers his own journey into the league as a 21-year-old who starred at the University of Memphis but had to prove himself after slipping out of the first round. He credits veterans such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Jared Jeffries, Mo Williams and Earl Watson among others for inspiring him to keep going early in his career.    “When I wasn't playing, they would tell me I was good,” Barton said. “That I'm a good basketball player. You just got to wait your turn. Keep working, keep being a great person.”    He added, “I think that was the greatest advice I got because I could've easily folded and easily quit because I wasn't playing, but I had great guys like that around me to keep my spirits up. That's stuck with me the whole way.” Those experiences caused Barton to be a consistent presence throughout this past offseason. “It was just something for me to get into the zone,” Barton said. “It's kind of a relentless thing for me again this season. I'm just trying to get my head back into that space.” His teammates have certainly noticed.  “Right now, Will is just trying to hoop.” Murray said after the Nuggets’ fourth preseason game, where Barton finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes. “He’s been injured…For him to go out there and show what he can do [is important]. It’s so easy for him too. He’s just trying to play, and everyone knows he can play.”  Barton is looking forward to showing it from the first tipoff of the season.  “You're going to see [a bad man] throughout the whole season,” he said. “I can't guarantee games [played], but through the season, consistently, you'll see it.”