The Thrill Is Back: Film Study On Early-Season Resurgence Of Nuggets’ Will Barton III

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Of all the players in the Denver Nuggets’ regular rotation last season, none had a more difficult and frustrating year than Will Barton III.

In just the second game of the 2018-19regular season, Barton went down with a hip injury which would sideline him for 38 games. And although he made his return in January, he was never able to fully recuperate either his physical health and conditioning or his confidence.

To make matters even more disheartening, despite Barton having returned to the starter’s role originally slated for him, head coach Michael Malone would ultimately replace him in the starting lineup with Torrey Craig just four games into the playoffs, an adjustment which proved successful but was a tough pill for Barton to swallow.

When asked about the situation at his exit interview last May, Barton explained that he was “frustrated about it,” adding that while it provided “motivation to come back and do better” it was “just a tough season for [him] mentally and physically.”

Now, having reclaimed the starting small forward spot following an open competition for the position, Barton appears to be on track (minor toe injury notwithstanding) to legitimately regaining his form from two years ago when he had the best season of his career.

To be clear, Barton has played a total of 150 minutes this season, so major caveats apply in terms of being able to project him continuing to perform at the level he has through his first five games. That said, he has genuinely looked great through the lens of the eye test, and the fact he’s showing improvement over last season nearly across the board and in many cases to a high degree bodes well for at least some of it sticking.

According to data from Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets have outscored their opponents by a whopping 30.2 points per 100 possessions with Barton on the court versus off, the most among all players on Denver’s roster, with Jamal Murray a fairly distant second at plus-23.6. That puts Barton in the 97th percentile among all NBA players, and what may be most impressive and encouraging is that he’s in the 98th percentile defensively, where he has shown visible improvement so far.

Here we go to the film to take a look at the various aspects of Barton’s improved performance this season.

Defense

Crunching matchup data from NBA.com, opposing players have combined to make just 38.3% of shots which Barton has defended this season, which puts him in elite territory at least for the time being. Barton’s defensive rating of 90.8 is the best among Denver’s regular rotation players, and worlds improved from last season’s 109.1 which was the worst on the team. While this should be expected to regress to a degree, the effort and awareness he has shown on the defensive end of the ball so far is undeniable.

Individual Defense

As the Nuggets’ best perimeter defender, Gary Harris will continue to be first in line to draw the toughest defensive assignments (as will Craig when he’s on the court), but Barton is showing that he can hold his own against some of the league’s best scorers.

He’s showing good effort in fighting through screens and chasing his assignments around the court. He isn’t always able to stay in front of his man, but he has the ability to put his quickness and length to good use in recovering and contesting shots when he gets beat off the dribble. Importantly, he also has been doing this without fouling, as his 1.1% foul percentage puts him in the 100th percentile for the wing position, per Cleaning the Glass.

Blocks And Steals

In addition to contesting shots, Barton is showing an improved aptitude for deflecting shots and passes. Some of this goes back to his recovering and chasing down opponents when the blow past him, as in the first clip. But he seems to be displaying better court awareness and more focused engagement on the defensive end as well, which is leading to more plays disrupting passing lanes and swooping in to help from the weak side. Again, with such a small sample size the sustainability of this remains an open question, but the early signs at the very least are pointing in a positive direction.

If Barton can continue providing even a marginal bump in steals, blocks and deflections, it could add up to a significant boost not only for Denver’s defense, which tends to best thrive when the energy gets ramped up in a positive feedback loop, but for their offense as well, as opportunities open up for sparking the offense by boosting transition scoring and pushing the team’s pace, which at 97.13 as of now is the slowest in the league.

Offense

Barton has been putting on an offensive array which demonstrates his capabilities as a legit three-level scorer. Moreover, he’s showing a good balance between executing within the flow of the offense, especially out of the pick-and-roll, and creating his own shots. As with his defensive rating, his offensive rating of 108.8 is also the best among rotation players, and one area which is giving him a boost in this regard is crashing the offensive glass.

Offensive Rebounding

Here we again find Barton performing at an elite level for his position, as his offensive rebound rate of 6.6% puts him in the 96th percentile among wings. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it yet again bears repeating that these numbers will almost certainly come down to earth as the season progresses, but the salient point for now is that the effort, focus and execution Barton is putting forth through this early season stretch is paying off across most aspects of his game, not to mention that he just looks more healthy, vibrant and explosive again.

Both Barton’s timing and reads on the offensive glass have been great this season, and he’s displaying a better awareness and anticipation of where to best position himself to retrieve the ball. But what Malone is probably happier about is just his willingness to get into the fray and mix it up. He’s come down with some strong rebounds by battling for them, and that kind of tenacity should help him keep a secure hold on the starting small forward job.

Midrange Jumpers

There has been a lot of hullabaloo recently about the pros and cons of midrange shots, which among the analytics-minded have long had a reputation as being the most inefficient in basketball. (See Seth Partnow’s great analysis of this topic at The Athletic for a deep dive.) At least up to this point in the season, however, Barton has done a commendable job of optimizing these looks by making great use of screens out of the pick-and-roll as well as cuts when Nikola Jokic has the ball.

While the shot attempts themselves have tended to be solid, Barton’s execution on them has been subpar at a 22% field goal percentage which places him in the very lowly 11th percentile. A positive regression should be expected here, however, as the looks are often open, and the majority are coming from the short rather than long midrange. Additionally, Barton’s shot profile is solid, with only 31% of his shots coming from midrange (compare that to Jamal Murray’s 47%), so the liability should be limited.

Shots At The Rim

If there’s any single statistic which serves as an indicator of Barton’s improved health, it is probably the percentage of his shots taken at the rim, which is up to 42% (85th percentile) from 28% (53rd percentile) last season. He’s done an excellent job of getting into the lane and finishing at the basket, making excellent use of screens out of pick-and-rolls, most often with Nikola Jokic.

These are often done with Jokic rolling to the rim in tandem while Barton slithers and slides his way through the paint. With the combination of Jokic’s gravity and Barton’s playmaking ability, it keeps the help defense honest and unsure of where to commit, creating lanes open enough for Barton to reach the hoop. Barton also has a good knack for cutting to the spots where he knows Jokic will find him, and will run the floor in transition to get behind the defense when the opportunity arises.

Three-Point Shots

Will Barton provides two offensive skills which Torrey Craig can’t really deliver on (at least at present) that are exceedingly important for the proper functioning of the Nuggets offense: Generating his own shots and spacing the floor.

Pay attention to the shot clock times on the first few clips, and the importance of Barton being able to pull-up and knock down threes is readily apparent. Sometimes a team just needs tough shot makers, and while Barton has not always been consistent in this way, he is both a shooting threat that defenses have to take seriously, and one who is capable of inflicting some serious damage when his shots are falling, which this season so far is happening at a 50% clip from the three-point arc. That will regress, but if it does so closer to the 37-38% from two to three seasons ago rather than last year’s 35%, it should help lift the Nuggets’ shooting efficiency through both better shooting and better spacing for Barton’s teammates.

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Of all the players in the Denver Nuggets’ regular rotation last season, none had a more difficult and frustrating year than Will Barton III.

In just the second game of the 2018-19regular season, Barton went down with a hip injury which would sideline him for 38 games. And although he made his return in January, he was never able to fully recuperate either his physical health and conditioning or his confidence.

To make matters even more disheartening, despite Barton having returned to the starter’s role originally slated for him, head coach Michael Malone would ultimately replace him in the starting lineup with Torrey Craig just four games into the playoffs, an adjustment which proved successful but was a tough pill for Barton to swallow.

When asked about the situation at his exit interview last May, Barton explained that he was “frustrated about it,” adding that while it provided “motivation to come back and do better” it was “just a tough season for [him] mentally and physically.”

Now, having reclaimed the starting small forward spot following an open competition for the position, Barton appears to be on track (minor toe injury notwithstanding) to legitimately regaining his form from two years ago when he had the best season of his career.

To be clear, Barton has played a total of 150 minutes this season, so major caveats apply in terms of being able to project him continuing to perform at the level he has through his first five games. That said, he has genuinely looked great through the lens of the eye test, and the fact he’s showing improvement over last season nearly across the board and in many cases to a high degree bodes well for at least some of it sticking.

According to data from Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets have outscored their opponents by a whopping 30.2 points per 100 possessions with Barton on the court versus off, the most among all players on Denver’s roster, with Jamal Murray a fairly distant second at plus-23.6. That puts Barton in the 97th percentile among all NBA players, and what may be most impressive and encouraging is that he’s in the 98th percentile defensively, where he has shown visible improvement so far.

Here we go to the film to take a look at the various aspects of Barton’s improved performance this season.

Defense

Crunching matchup data from NBA.com, opposing players have combined to make just 38.3% of shots which Barton has defended this season, which puts him in elite territory at least for the time being. Barton’s defensive rating of 90.8 is the best among Denver’s regular rotation players, and worlds improved from last season’s 109.1 which was the worst on the team. While this should be expected to regress to a degree, the effort and awareness he has shown on the defensive end of the ball so far is undeniable.

Individual Defense

As the Nuggets’ best perimeter defender, Gary Harris will continue to be first in line to draw the toughest defensive assignments (as will Craig when he’s on the court), but Barton is showing that he can hold his own against some of the league’s best scorers.

He’s showing good effort in fighting through screens and chasing his assignments around the court. He isn’t always able to stay in front of his man, but he has the ability to put his quickness and length to good use in recovering and contesting shots when he gets beat off the dribble. Importantly, he also has been doing this without fouling, as his 1.1% foul percentage puts him in the 100th percentile for the wing position, per Cleaning the Glass.

Blocks And Steals

In addition to contesting shots, Barton is showing an improved aptitude for deflecting shots and passes. Some of this goes back to his recovering and chasing down opponents when the blow past him, as in the first clip. But he seems to be displaying better court awareness and more focused engagement on the defensive end as well, which is leading to more plays disrupting passing lanes and swooping in to help from the weak side. Again, with such a small sample size the sustainability of this remains an open question, but the early signs at the very least are pointing in a positive direction.

If Barton can continue providing even a marginal bump in steals, blocks and deflections, it could add up to a significant boost not only for Denver’s defense, which tends to best thrive when the energy gets ramped up in a positive feedback loop, but for their offense as well, as opportunities open up for sparking the offense by boosting transition scoring and pushing the team’s pace, which at 97.13 as of now is the slowest in the league.

Offense

Barton has been putting on an offensive array which demonstrates his capabilities as a legit three-level scorer. Moreover, he’s showing a good balance between executing within the flow of the offense, especially out of the pick-and-roll, and creating his own shots. As with his defensive rating, his offensive rating of 108.8 is also the best among rotation players, and one area which is giving him a boost in this regard is crashing the offensive glass.

Offensive Rebounding

Here we again find Barton performing at an elite level for his position, as his offensive rebound rate of 6.6% puts him in the 96th percentile among wings. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it yet again bears repeating that these numbers will almost certainly come down to earth as the season progresses, but the salient point for now is that the effort, focus and execution Barton is putting forth through this early season stretch is paying off across most aspects of his game, not to mention that he just looks more healthy, vibrant and explosive again.

Both Barton’s timing and reads on the offensive glass have been great this season, and he’s displaying a better awareness and anticipation of where to best position himself to retrieve the ball. But what Malone is probably happier about is just his willingness to get into the fray and mix it up. He’s come down with some strong rebounds by battling for them, and that kind of tenacity should help him keep a secure hold on the starting small forward job.

Midrange Jumpers

There has been a lot of hullabaloo recently about the pros and cons of midrange shots, which among the analytics-minded have long had a reputation as being the most inefficient in basketball. (See Seth Partnow’s great analysis of this topic at The Athletic for a deep dive.) At least up to this point in the season, however, Barton has done a commendable job of optimizing these looks by making great use of screens out of the pick-and-roll as well as cuts when Nikola Jokic has the ball.

While the shot attempts themselves have tended to be solid, Barton’s execution on them has been subpar at a 22% field goal percentage which places him in the very lowly 11th percentile. A positive regression should be expected here, however, as the looks are often open, and the majority are coming from the short rather than long midrange. Additionally, Barton’s shot profile is solid, with only 31% of his shots coming from midrange (compare that to Jamal Murray’s 47%), so the liability should be limited.

Shots At The Rim

If there’s any single statistic which serves as an indicator of Barton’s improved health, it is probably the percentage of his shots taken at the rim, which is up to 42% (85th percentile) from 28% (53rd percentile) last season. He’s done an excellent job of getting into the lane and finishing at the basket, making excellent use of screens out of pick-and-rolls, most often with Nikola Jokic.

These are often done with Jokic rolling to the rim in tandem while Barton slithers and slides his way through the paint. With the combination of Jokic’s gravity and Barton’s playmaking ability, it keeps the help defense honest and unsure of where to commit, creating lanes open enough for Barton to reach the hoop. Barton also has a good knack for cutting to the spots where he knows Jokic will find him, and will run the floor in transition to get behind the defense when the opportunity arises.

Three-Point Shots

Will Barton provides two offensive skills which Torrey Craig can’t really deliver on (at least at present) that are exceedingly important for the proper functioning of the Nuggets offense: Generating his own shots and spacing the floor.

Pay attention to the shot clock times on the first few clips, and the importance of Barton being able to pull-up and knock down threes is readily apparent. Sometimes a team just needs tough shot makers, and while Barton has not always been consistent in this way, he is both a shooting threat that defenses have to take seriously, and one who is capable of inflicting some serious damage when his shots are falling, which this season so far is happening at a 50% clip from the three-point arc. That will regress, but if it does so closer to the 37-38% from two to three seasons ago rather than last year’s 35%, it should help lift the Nuggets’ shooting efficiency through both better shooting and better spacing for Barton’s teammates.

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I've covered the Nuggets since 2005, writing for Forbes, BSN Denver, Roundball Mining Company, and more. Follow me on Twitter at @JoelRushNBA, where my views are my own

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