By Christopher Dempsey, Nuggets Insider
NEW YORK – For Will Barton, the explanation is almost never complicated. In this instance, it was after the game on Friday night. The Nuggets had just beaten the Atlanta Hawks to collect their first road victory. Barton had scored 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting with three rebounds, three assists and two steals in the fourth quarter alone to help the Nuggets seal the deal.
“You knew my mindset was going to be,” he said, sunglasses on, no doubt to shade the blinding gleam of his diamond-studded Protect the Family chain. “Attack, attack, attack.”
Barton has attacked. Early and often. He’s off to a very hot start this season, hitting nearly every stat category with averages of 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.0 steals in the first five games as the top reserve off of the Nuggets’ bench. He’s shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from the 3-point line.
It doesn’t stop there.
Barton is the only Nuggets player in the top three on the team in points, field goals made per game, field goals attempted per game, 3-point field goals made average, rebound average, assists average and steals per game.
It is arguably the best start to a season in his career. And it isn’t by accident. He has always been attack-the-basket player. But this season, he’s doubled down on his efforts to get to the rim. According to NBA tracking stats, Barton is averaging 7.4 drives per game and is shooting 47.4 percent on those drives. The biggest chunk of his field goal attempts are from five feet or closer, and Barton is shooting 66.7 percent (16-of-24) on those shots.
Last season, 55.6 percent of Barton’s attempts were from 5-feet or less. So, he’s up more than 11 percent in slashing to the basket year-over-year. And with a Nuggets offense that, at its best, spreads defenses thin, which opens up driving lanes, Barton has no intention of slowing his slashing down.
And yet, his biggest growth over the last couple of seasons, offensively, has been in playmaking. His assist percentage has gone from 14.7 in the 2015-16 season to 18.7 in the early going this season. And as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, Barton has become as reliable a player as there is on the team. The percentage of pick-and-roll possessions in which he’s the ball handler that end in turnovers has gone from 16.1 percent last season all the way down to 4.3 percent so far this season. It’s a dramatic shift in taking care of the ball and making the right play, and it’s a huge reason Barton’s usage rate is significantly up this season over last.
It’s no secret he’s been more productive the more minutes he plays. And, in the preseason, he acknowledged it was “harder when I didn’t know when I’m going to play because I’m trying to go out there and just catch on fire so I can stay in the game. Now, I know when I’m coming in. It’s easier.”
But it was big change in his style of play this summer that is paying big dividends – playing lower to the ground.
“It just helps when you’re driving, making better passes, making better plays,” Barton said. “I was kind of playing up high. It makes my ball handling quicker, and my passes sharper. When you’re up high, it’s kind of hard to make those passes. When you’re low, you make better plays and if a play is not there, you can always bring it back. When you’re up high, it’s kind of hard to retract yourself like that. It’s good for me on all levels – defense, offense, both ends. It’s something I’ve been harping on, and just keep getting better at it.”
Simply, Barton is playing with a better base. Nuggets coach Michael Malone has raved about Barton’s improvement on defense, particularly one-on-one. The lion’s share of that can be attributed to being lower, playing wider in a better defensive stance, which allows him to be quicker laterally and more effectively utilize his athleticism to pivot and cut on a dime to stay in front of speedy offensive players.
So, playing lower has been a boost for him on both ends.
“I’ve just got to stay at it, especially when it comes to shooting because I have good form,” Barton said. “But sometimes I’m up high and I’m not ready to shoot. So, yeah, stay low – on my drives, on defense, anything. Low man wins.”
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter