Player Resource: The Fundamentals – Will Barton

Rob Mahoney, Sports Illustrated (

Every NBA season brings with it some precedent-shattering revelation. A team might put familiar talent to use in a different way. A player could make the best of a new role. A coach might finally find the roster that fits their style perfectly. Nothing is static in a league this large and this intricate, as the shifting dynamics within every team constantly generate the potential to surprise.

And no one this season has been more genuinely surprising than Denver’s Will Barton. As of last year, Barton was a wild-card reserve in Portland deemed too wild for regular play. He was kept deep on the bench save for when the veteran Blazers needed his energy, and even then he was asked to play within Portland’s refined system. It never suited him. Eventually the Blazers parted ways with Barton in their deal to acquire Arron Afflalo, sending the live-wire forward to the Nuggets along with Victor Claver and a lottery-protected first-round pick. For as well as Barton played down the stretch in Denver, his production this season is something else entirely.

“If you would have told me that after 39 games, Will would be scoring 16 points a night on 45% from the field and 39% from three, I probably would not have believed you,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said last week.

And why would he? Barton, while still in the thick of his prime, came to Denver a flawed, 24-year-old castoff. Three seasons of evidence suggested that his jumper might never be reliable. His most promising stretch of basketball came on a team that had struggled with its internal order and fired its head coach. There are only 19 other players in the NBA this season who have scored as often and as efficiently from the field as Barton. Projecting him into that group would have taken an extraordinary leap of faith or, in the case of Barton himself, a belief that he had been miscast all along.

“I always saw myself as a star, superstar-type player,” Barton said. “I just knew that I had to put the work in and not pay attention to what anybody else said.”

Barton, armed with that unwavering confidence, saw an opening in Denver last season that energized his summer work. The developmental context is entirely different when real opportunity is in sight. Young role players are encouraged to keep their heads down and plug away in their skill work, staying ready for a chance that might someday come. Barton had that chance in hand and believed in his ability to make the most of it. So far he’s been right, no matter how crazy his newfound trajectory might seem.

The most improbable element in Barton’s rise is easily his course correction from long range. Prior to this season, Barton had made just 23% of his three-point attempts for his career—trouble enough that defenses could ignore him on the perimeter without penalty.

After watching himself on film and consulting with coaches, Barton came to the conclusion that his shooting form was too upright with not enough lower body support. He spent the summer working to get his legs under him, bend deeper into his shot, and fire from a place of greater power. Those tweaks brought immediate change: Barton averaged 44% shooting from deep in November and 38.9% in December. Shooting that hot is bound to regress to the mean over time, though even league-average shooting from long range would be a significant transformation for a player making his way up from the low-20s.

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