“The bond never changes even though we’re on opposite sides now. He’s still a big brother to me.”
Bones Hyland and Will Barton have built a bond that will last forever, and even though they are on opposite sides of the court now, last week at the Under Armour Elite 24 tournament they got to share the same bench one more time, this time as coaches.
The Under Armour Elite 24 hosts the top 24 high school basketball players at an event in Chicago allowing them to showcase their skills in front of talent evaluators and even NBA players like Hyland and Barton. In an exclusive interview with Denver Stiffs, Barton and Hyland both mentioned how much it meant to them to be part of such a prestigious event.
“For myself, I’m very excited for this event. For the high schoolers up and coming. You’re seeing some of the talent and just the next generation of basketball keep evolving.” Hyland said. “It’s exciting for me, I can’t wait to see them go out there and play in a beautiful setting and put on a show. So, this is big.”
Barton echoed the same thing, saying how excited he is to “see the next generation go out and get better” and “just to see them blossom and to be able to do it with Bones, talk to those guys and coach with him kind of just comes full circle for us.”
This is the first time the event had taken place since 2016, and was the first time Hyland had participated in the event. For Barton, he played in the event when he was in high school and had attended throughout the years. When asked who the head coach was going to be, Hyland pointed to Barton, saying “I ain’t the head coach.”
Barton then described his coaching style.
“I like to let them play. I tell them I roll the ball out and tell them to get up and down. As long as we’re playing defense [and] hustling I’m cool with it. The most talking I will do is to try and gas them up, get them excited to play, but I’m a laid-back type of coach. Like Phil Jackson, I just sit back.”
Both are first-time coaches, and you could hear the excitement in their voice to get back on the floor not only together, but to help these up-and-coming players.
It all started back in 2014, when Hyland and Barton actually met at another Under Armour event.
“I had seen Will on the sideline of an Under Armour game. I was playing for We are One and Will had his team called Team Thrill and I was playing against his team. I didn’t know Will and he didn’t know me at the time. I was playing against him and I was going off a little bit.” Hyland said.
“I heard him asking on the sideline, [saying] ‘who was that kid?’” Hyland continued. “Them words stuck in my mind, because I knew that had to be somebody on the sideline that’s like big or in the league or something... It was big just to hear those words from him, because I worked so hard for my game to be recognized at an early age.”
The two remained in contact ever since that day, as Hyland and Barton’s relationship got stronger and stronger. Then came last offseason at the draft, when the Nuggets selected Hyland with the 26th pick of the first round. Barton was a free agent at the time, but Hyland still reached out to him the day after being drafted:
“It was fun being drafted by the Nuggets, but at the time Will was a free agent, so I didn’t know I had teamed up with Will. But, I called him the next day and I’m like Will, I know you’re a free agent and I’m not the type of guy that’s going to interfere with what you’ve got going on, you know if there’s a bigger deal out there take that, but I was like you’ve got little brother over here that just got drafted to the Nuggets. It would mean the world to me if you come play on the Nuggets and just show me the ropes, whether that’s for two years or a year.”
When asked whether drafting Hyland swayed his decision to re-sign with the Nuggets, Barton said it definitely played a role.
“Definitely, once he was coming out and it got closer and closer to the draft – watching the process – I knew for sure he would be a first round pick. Didn’t know exactly when he would go. I remember talking to our president of basketball operations (Tim Connelly) and he was asking me about him, and I was like ‘he got real game and he love it,’ so I knew there was interest,” Barton said.
“Obviously, I’m not in the front office, but once they drafted him and we FaceTimed, he understood I had to do what I got to do and it’s a business, but if I came back he’d love it,” Barton continued. “That played a part in my mind. Being in Denver for so long and the business was just right, so it all kind of came full circle and a lot of moving parts came together.”
The two are on different sides now following the Nuggets trade with the Washington Wizards earlier this offseason that netted them Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but Barton certainly left his mark during his time in Denver. Barton is the Nuggets' all-time leader in threes made with 804, and played an incredibly important role in re-shaping the team’s culture in recent years.
Denver went from being a rebuilding team to a title contender during Barton’s eight years, and he deserves a lot of credit for that. With the roster shape up and change the Nuggets constantly went through, one thing remained the same, and that was how you could always count on Will “The Thrill” showing up and balling out.
“I’m real big on being an underdog. That’s who I’ve been my whole career, and when I first got to Denver we weren’t good, people weren’t coming to the games, so to see it from that and to be a main part of getting the team to where it is now — a playoff team every year, a contender, a team that’s been to the Western Conference Finals — to be a part of that run, it was special,” Barton said.
“Now the arena is so loud we’re getting TNT games. I remember my first full year there we had an ESPN game, they took us off. To go from that to where it is now to be one of the main parts of it and be the longest-tenured guy there, the 3-point record, things like that, and to leave my mark in that way is definitely special. If you’re going to leave somewhere, at least you left it and you made some history and you made your mark. So I can’t really complain.”
Barton leaves as the longest-tenured Nugget, but the mark he left on Denver will certainly be felt for years to come. On the flip side of that, when one chapter ends another one begins and for Barton, it honestly could not have worked out better with him being traded to the Wizards.
“To be honest, it was real special to me. Growing up as a kid, the Wizards were one of the teams I said if I ever made it to the NBA I would love to play for just because it’s the closest thing to Baltimore. I know my family, my mom, my brothers, my sisters, my nieces, my nephews, they can all come see me play,” Barton said. “The whole city really embraced me. Everybody’s going to come up there to watch me play and just give me added action to go out there and just go hard and leave it all out on the court when you know you got so many people behind you, looking up to you, wanting to just see you perform at a high level.”
“So, I was excited about it. Obviously, I’ve been in Denver a long time and to have a lot of special moments it was tough, but if I was going to go somewhere that was one of the teams (Wizards) on the short list.”
Hyland is now tasked with carrying the torch that Barton left behind, but after what we saw during his rookie season, it feels like Bones is more than ready to take that leap.
“I’ve just been getting around showing people what you seen my rookie year, that ain’t nothing.” Hyland said on what he’s been working on for next season. “I got so much stuff to tap into that I’m going to show this upcoming season. That’s really something I’ve been doing, just getting around city to city playing games and just showing people.”
It really makes last week's event at the Under Armour All 24 even more special. A bond that grew in 2014 at an Under Armour event came full circle eight years later. Even though they are no longer teammates, the fact that Hyland and Barton got to share the same bench for one more week gave their time together a true fairytale ending.