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Podium Guys: Could Will Barton Put the Nuggets Over the Top This Postseason?

The do-everything guard spent most of 2018-19 injured, but he’s been regaining his form over the season’s second half. Denver has lofty goals for these playoffs, and Barton could be key.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The podium is the NBA postseason’s version of a game ball. With more media packing the locker rooms in the playoffs, the league will often pull certain players out of the fray and up on stage in the interview room. Most of the time, it’s a spot reserved for a team’s star. But occasionally, an unsung hero will swing a game and get his moment in the spotlight. That is what J.A. Adande would call a Podium Game. Here are the under-the-radar players most likely to get one as we barrel toward the big stage of the postseason.

Player: Will Barton
Team: Denver Nuggets
Position: Shooting guard
Numbers: 11.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 47.9 eFG%, 0.6 net rating

How’d he get here?

Will would’ve never become the Thrill had he not been traded to Denver in 2015, halfway through the third season of his career. Portland selected Barton 40th overall in 2012, during a draft in which the Blazers owned three other picks. The influx of rookies—which included Damian Lillard—made it difficult for Barton to break through. To make matters worse for Barton, the Blazers drafted another shooting guard, CJ McCollum, the season after. And so Barton rarely played, averaging 11.2 minutes in his first two seasons.

Lillard was always impressed with Barton, who used to treat scrimmages like they were Game 7 of the Finals. In fact, three years after Barton was dealt to Denver in 2015, Lillard asked owner Paul Allen for an explanation. Three years later. Would you ever care enough to ask your ex from three years ago what happened? Lillard was upset, but it was what was best for Barton. “That trade saved my life,” Barton said on Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye’s podcast, Road Trippin’, in February 2018. Barton more than doubled his playing time in 2014-15 after joining the Nuggets. By 2015-16, he was a candidate for the Most Improved Player award. Had Barton stayed in Portland, he believes he’d have been out of the league a long time ago, and he may be right. Instead, he’s been a mainstay through general manager Tim Connelly’s transfiguration of the Nuggets, a veteran presence who almost never became a veteran at all.

What’s his game like?

First, a disclaimer: For half the season, Barton’s game was nonexistent. He tore multiple core and hip muscles in Denver’s second game, requiring surgery and months of rehab. Barton made his return in January for Game 41 but with holes in his game—some fluidity in cutting to the basket had faded, for example, along with overall consistency. Those issues are still present today, scattered with classic Will the Thrill performances.

Pre-injury, Barton was whoever you wanted him to be. Starter. Sixth man. Playmaker. Small forward. Backup point guard. Closer. The Nuggets dealt with so many injuries last season that you had to essentially list the entire roster as day-to-day. Mike Malone needed an all-purpose role player; who better than a workaholic like Barton? He’s as good at filling in openings as he is finding them on drives to the basket. Barton’s lanky, 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and can often look like the high schooler whose body hasn’t caught up to his height yet. But that’s his advantage on drives, which he led the Nuggets in last year—ball-faking with those limbs makes every Barton finish looks like a game of keep-away.

One of the most important aspects of Barton’s game is spot-up shooting, though it hasn’t always been that way. He spent years making his shot serviceable. This season, his overall 3-point percentage has regressed from 37 percent in 2017-18 to 34.6 percent, but his catch-and-shoot attempts from behind the arc outperform both at 38 percent.

What does his team say about him?

Mike Malone in 2018: “He’s a playmaker. That’s who Thrill Barton is. He’s a playmaking basketball player that can get by his man, get to the rim, finish or make plays to his teammates. And he’s won games for us this year being Will the Thrill. He just loves the big moment, and he’s not afraid of the moment.”

Connelly in 2016: “If you spent a few days with Will, you’d be, like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ He doesn’t sleep, he’s just non-stop energy. If we’re at another high school or college, if a kid asks to play one-on-one after he’s working on something, he would never stop. There’s been days where Will is just dead tired, and he would still be out there just working on stuff on his own or playing one-on-one with a 10-year-old.”

Gary Harris in 2018: “He’s done it all for us this season, and he’s won games for us. That’s what we’re going to need from him if we’re going to be at our best.”

On a scale from Jokic to J.R. Smith, how irrational is his confidence?

You tell me how much confidence you’d have if someone as high-caliber as Lillard held on to post-trade resentment for 36 months. You tell me how much confidence you’d have if Denver re-signed you to a four-year, $53 million deal the same summer the team re-signed Nikola Jokic to the maximum, raising the salary cap sheet to (at the time) $145 million? You tell me how much confidence you’d have with The Ringer’s Chris Ryan ready to go to war for you!!

What’s his biggest moment so far?

Because Barton spent most of his season either sidelined or not the player he was pre-injury, his apogee was a game in which he simply, as Malone put it, “looked like old Will Barton.” A couple of days before the Nuggets played the Thunder in late February, Barton sent a text to Malone: “I want to guard Paul George.”

“You’ve got it,” Malone responded. (I like to think he added the 100 emoji.)

It was Barton’s 19th game back, and he reached a season-high 23 points while making good on his offer: George went 7-for-24 from the field and 3-for-14 from 3.

Why might he swing a playoff game?

It sounds reductive, but when Barton is good, the Nuggets can be great. Barton won’t bump Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray off Denver’s podium, and the Nuggets achieved a top-2 or top-3 seed without him completely healthy for half the season and without him at all for the other half. Still, in the 41 games Barton has played, Denver’s very good when he is: The Nuggets are 8-2 when Barton scores 16 points or more, his average from last season. Next week will be the first postseason for this iteration of the Nuggets. They’re much easier to believe in if Barton can provide the extra help Denver’s learned to live without.