Will Barton is folding into a point guard. He seems conflicted. But the Nuggets don’t want him to change stripes.

Will Barton is folding into a point guard. He seems conflicted. But the Nuggets don’t want him to change stripes.

There is an angel and a devil whispering in Will Barton’s ears. The Nuggets’ 27-year-old guard, now in his seventh NBA season, has played himself into an expanded role, but now he seems torn. His coach wants him to listen to the devil.

“For a little while, it was like Will was fighting himself,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Friday after his team’s practice at the Pepsi Center. “One guy was saying, ‘You’re Will the Thrill! Play your game!’ And the other guy is saying, ‘Well, Coach Malone is having you play point guard. I have to come off and make the play and find the pass.’ You could see the conflict within him.”

Barton, like he has been through the better part of three previous seasons in Denver, is a go-to sixth man off the bench, a play-making shooting guard who never saw a shot he couldn’t take. But his scoring output and hefty court time forced Malone to lean on his go-to.

And as Malone shortened his roster rotation, Barton suddenly added backup point guard to his duties.

“My teammates trust me all the time, in big moments, big shots, big plays. Throughout practice, games, whatever. I have their confidence,” Barton said recently. “It’s just a matter of doing what I have to do to get us a win.”

Barton of late has played behind starting point guard Jamal Murray, in place of struggling third-year point Emmanuel Mudiay. A natural shooting guard, he has at times played on the wing with Murray, then taken over ball-handling duties when Murray needs a breather.

But Barton will not be confused for an old-school point.

“I keep telling him, ‘I don’t want you to be John Stockton. You’re not John Stockton. Be you. Run your team, but be aggressive,’ ” Malone said.

The traditional point guard is a dying concept in the NBA. It used to be the point was responsible for constantly setting up other scorers, a high-assist perimeter player who rarely involved himself in the paint. But successful teams in recent years have found variety is paramount. Centers have become passers. Guards will post up. Wings run the break.

And point guards shoot.

“In today’s NBA, let’s be honest, the true point guard is a dodo bird,” Malone said. “There are very few left. All the top point guards are scorers.”

That seems like a natural fit for Barton, a natural scorer who is averaging 14.9 points this season off the bench. But in his mind, Barton thought he needed to change.

“Initially, it was tough for Will,” Malone said. “But when Will plays aggressive, he takes his game to another level. That’s when he’s at his best. He’s settling into the position a little bit. He’s feeling more comfortable being the backup point guard.”

In his past nine games, as he has adapted to the point, Barton is averaging 6.0 assists per game, well above his season-long mark of 3.8 assists and triple his career 2.0 mark. But his scoring is down, at 12.2 points per game over that stretch, with five games in single digits.

This is Barton’s conflict: handle the position like a court general without sacrificing his bent for baskets.

“My work ethic, our coaching staff will tell you, I’m one of the first players in the gym and the last one to leave. That’s every day,” Barton said. “It starts with those kinds of habits. And then it will show on the court.”

Murray remains the Nuggets’ top point guard. But with center Nikola Jokic carrying an assist load and Malone allowing for freedom of movement on offense, there is room for Barton to be himself, no matter his position.

“That’s why he’ll be a sixth-man of the year candidate, because he can impact the game in so many ways,” Malone said. “Most sixth-men of the year affect the game in one way: scoring. But what separates Will is his playmaking, his scoring and his rebounding. And he’s a much improved defender.”

Published at Sat, 30 Dec 2017 02:26:11 +0000