That’s how many games Will Barton was able to notch as an official starter for the Denver Nuggets. After Tim Connelly had rewarded Barton for his perseverance, for his ability to overcome the hurdles that had been placed in his path, he only had one full game to show what he could do before going down with a hip injury that limited him all season.
I don’t think there are many of us that can truly understand what it must have felt like for Barton last year. Think of all the things that make Will Barton who he is: the swag, the confidence, the smile, the joy that he has interacting with his teammates on and off the court. Barton is one of the voices that rises up in the locker room, an individual that creates his own gravity, and people love to be around him. There are several people responsible for helping improve the culture of the Nuggets, but I think there are a lot of people that would admit that Barton has played a huge role in establishing the culture that exists there today.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a young man from Serbia who was likely struggling to adjust to life in the United States has such a strong relationship with Barton. I think it’s fair to say that without Barton, Jokic isn’t the same Jokic that the Nuggets have today.
So to see him struggle on the court, to be robbed of the thing that has brought him so much happiness, helped craft him into the person that he is today, because of his body breaking and not recovering the way he wanted it to, was really disheartening.
But one of the amazing things about being human is that our spirits have the power to overcome. Our spirits can be beaten, submerged, buried in pits that feel inescapable, but they will never allow us to cease striving for more and more light.
Yes, Barton statistically had a down year. He looked unsure of himself after he returned to the court. He looked tentative on his drives to the rim. The Will Barton that Nuggets fans knew would have never been afraid to get to the rim, and we knew somehow he’d find a way to score. That didn’t happen last year.
The Barton that Nuggets fans knew never would have lacked confidence to take a shot when his teammates needed him. Barton had put in so much work to become a player that teams had to respect from the perimeter, and for a player that was so dangerous as a slasher, being able to knock down that 3-point shot helped expand his game to heights that not many thought he’d be able to reach. But last season, in the playoffs, when his teammates really needed him, when Nuggets fans wished with all the energy they had, the shots didn’t fall.
Barton accepted that in order to be a starter, especially as the starting small forward, he was going to have to be a better defender. He was saying all the right things and doing everything the coaches were asking of him. He worked on his agility, was studying film, and most importantly, accepted the challenge that was placed in front of him and set his mind on overcoming it. But after the injury, his body wasn’t able to perform as well as his mind and spirit wanted him to. Without the ability to contribute on the offensive and defensive ends of the court, the coaching staff had no choice but to cut back his minutes and decrease his role on the team.
Barton’s ability to get back on the trajectory his career was on before his injury last season is a huge question for the team, and for Barton as well. It’s not like the team doesn’t have options at the small forward position this season. Michael Porter Jr. has grabbed the reins as the exciting young player on the team, Torrey Craig stepped up in a huge way after Barton went down, Juancho Hernangomez is healthy and has a nice piece of gold after the summer, and (Zach Mikash made me write this) Vlatko Cancar has crossed the Atlantic Ocean. If Barton doesn’t earn minutes at small forward, the shooting guard position is chock full too. Gary Harris is back healthy after injuries hindered him last season, and Malik Beasley is ready to show every other team in the NBA what they could have on their roster if they decide to pay up for him as he is about to enter restricted free agency. There’s a universe where Barton isn’t able to get minutes this season.
Thankfully for the Nuggets, I don’t think we live in that universe.
Can Will Barton bounce back this season? I sure hope so. If you’re looking to get a logical explanation breaking down the odds of Barton being able to be Will Barton this season, you’re not going to get it today. I hope Barton bounces back this season. I hope that we get to see the guy that goes out on the court dapping up both fans and teammates, yammering away to anyone that will listen about what he’s about to do, and how much fun it is going to be to do so. I hope that Barton bounces back, because I want to believe in the power of a group of people collectively wishing for something to happen, and the universe responding by making it so. I want to see Barton back out there, throwing down dunks, posing after made 3-pointers, and starting fastbreaks with a big steal. I desperately want to see Barton encourage Michael Porter Jr. to make a free throw with the game on the line, and then threaten him to make the next one after the first one clangs off the back iron.
I want to see the kid from Baltimore that loved basketball as a kid, the young man that went to school in Memphis that loved basketball as a young man, and the man that found a home in Denver that loves basketball as a man.
I want to see Will Barton in Game One, lining up across from his former team on October 23, with the world watching on ESPN, and see the confidence spread slowly across his face as he realizes that yes, he can bounce back. I want to see Will Barton back.