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A tale of two Wills: The Denver Nuggets’ Will Barton

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The high risks and high rewards of the Nuggets super Sixth Man

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers
The People’s Champ can surely be a thrill
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the last few minutes of Will Barton’s first half against the Lakers.

As the Denver Nuggets were closing a first half gap against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night, Barton had a frenzied and bipolar close to his second quarter, with a couple of impressive drives to the hoop paired with a couple of inane three-point fouls given to the Lakers Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson. Both fouls nearly identical, with Barton bodying up far too close to a player then smart enough to throw up a prayer of a trey. Literally trading the low percentage pseudo-shot for a trio of free throws. The Clarkson free throws were particularly irksome as they happened with three seconds left in the half, and the Nuggets having finally closed the Laker lead to one. Barton calmly settled the score back in his favor by blowing up the court and making an and-one slicing drive to the hoop as time expired, and then calmly scoring the free throw to walk off the court. The Nuggets left the half as they had found it, in a tie game.

That was the story of Barton’s night, for the most part. One moment, he was the best player on the court, outhustling every guy on the floor with a motor and skillset to match. The next moment he was shaking his head at himself. The few of us in the arena who were for the gents in blue were shaking right along. His plus/minus of zero for the evening was perfect in its assessment.

Barton’s self-awareness about when things have gone awry might be the most hopeful part of watching him play. He knows when he’s playing minus basketball, sometimes turning and pleading his case to Michael Malone before a play had fully completed. In the aforementioned three-point fouls from neverland, Barton’s intention to not give up the easy three was honorable. The distance and angle at which the fouls were committed sadly showed that Will is still learning how to stay with his man at that rate of speed. The pendulum swung too far as Barton tried to not commit those fouls in the second half, with the same two guys knocking down several treys off a sagging Barton defense. Will could not win for losing in this one. You could see it was a frustrating night for Barton in his body language. The upside of it all is that it’s visibly plain that he’s very actively trying to improve.

Adding to the positive curve is Barton’s most-recent season, when his winshares rocketed from a career-best 1.3 to a 4.3 in 2015-2016, making him a part of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation. If there’s still a negative, it is in that Barton still has a teensy bit of the spectre of J.R. Smith in the wrappings of his high-risk, high-reward style of play. While that disruptive style of play can be a difference-maker off of the bench, Barton may have to be discerning in his chaos while spelling Gary Harris through his current injury.

In Malone’s defense-first mindset, the news is also trending well. Barton’s defensive winshares have always been to the positive over his career, though rarely more than a point above flat. Will’s DWS shot up to 1.9 last season as well.

Barton is only entering his fifth year in the league, and the curve of his offensive and defensive winshares both improved last season. Even better, he easily recognizes when things have gone off track. But with a playing style that takes its share of risks, does Will the Thrill have it in him shake a few of those lack-of-attention minuses out of his game? What do you predict for “The People’s Champ” this season, Nuggets Nation? Will Will have a spring of hope with no winter of despair? Remember nights like this from last December?