Every player wants to maximize their playing time. Few could provide a more positive direct link from minutes to individual production than Nuggets shooting guard Will Barton.
When Barton scored 20 or more points, the Nuggets were 9-4. When Barton played at least 34 minutes, the Nuggets were 7-7. When he played at least 34 minutes and scored at least 20 points in those games, the Nuggets were 6-0.
He always said he was a rhythm player. His individual success with more minutes on the court, and the team’s success the more he was on the court, backed up those claims. But from about the end of December until the end of the season, carving out consistent time for Barton became one of the most difficult tasks Nuggets coach Michael Malone had to try and accomplish.
Then there was this number – 60. That was the number of games Barton played, 22 less than the season before when he played in all 82 games. Injuries hit Barton early on and never truly let up all season long. He’d been identified as one of the Nuggets whose productive summer put him in position to flourish during the regular season. And it started out exactly that way.
He poured in 22 points in a season opening Nuggets’ victory. Then 16 more in the second game of the season. Barton was in the midst of another big game – 16 points in 28 minutes at Toronto in the third game of the season – when an ankle injury knocked him out of that contest and caused him to miss nine games over the next three weeks. He pushed to come back sooner, didn’t feel himself, and three games later shut himself down again for another three games.
Barton’s season had peaks and valleys after that. He did not play a single game in April and missed the final eight games overall. Barton’s final averages were 13.7 points and 4.3 rebounds. He shot career highs from the field (44.3 percent) and the 3-point line (37.0 percent).
OFFENSE. The biggest difference in Barton’s duties this season came in additional ball-handling responsibilities, and that helped him average a career-high 3.4 assists. The jump from last season to this season was stark.
Barton being the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations rose from 24 percent in 2015-16 to 30.2 percent this season. That six percent jump took its toll in his other top actions. In 2015-16, Barton was basically evenly split between screen-roll ball handling (24 percent), spot up shooting (22.6 percent) and transition (22.3 percent). This season? Handling the ball in screen-roll situations was the runaway leader, followed by transition, down to 20.1 percent, and spot up shooting, which dropped to 18.8 percent of his possessions.
He was good in screen-roll situations, averaging 0.843 points per possession, but Barton also had his highest turnover percentage in those actions (16.1 percent). When things broke down, Barton was one of the Nuggets’ best players at creating his own shot – and scoring. According to Synergy stats, Barton boasted the sixth-best points per possession in the NBA in isolation circumstances (1.286). But the Nuggets were a heavy ball movement-based offense, and Barton only used isolation actions 7.5 percent of the time. Because he was handling the ball more, he was forced to get his own offense more often, too. The percentage of his field goals made that were unassisted rose three percent from 50 last season to 53 percent this season.
DEFENSE. At the start of the season, Barton talked about improving on defense more than any other aspect of his game. He knew he had to dial-in more, have better awareness on the court and give better effort on that end overall.
Barton did improve in two areas: off-screen defense and spot-up defense, which is simply closing out to shooters. Barton regressed in his pick-and-roll ball handler defense, and he defended more of those actions than he ever had before. His defensive season was indicative of the roller coaster ride in 2016-17.
Getting back to full health is a priority for Barton this offseason, and then picking up where he left off in a promising start this season.