Will Barton recaptured thrill with Nuggets after dark times in NBA

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Gary Harris was the first to race over to Will Barton, shoving him to the hardwood floor at the Pepsi Center. The rest of the Nuggets joined in and hovered around Barton, who was smiling from ear to ear while fans chanted his nickname, "Thrill."

Down by one with 9.6 seconds remaining against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 30, Barton had delivered a game-winning, twirling, reverse layup beyond the outstretched arm of Robin Lopez. The bucket capped a career-high 37 points for Barton in 35 minutes off the bench. It would be one of many highlights for Barton in what has been the best season of his career. He has been playing the best ball of his career this season as one of the top sixth men in the league.

Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Harris are Denver's big three, but Barton -- in many ways -- has been the glue. He leads the team in minutes played. He has come off the bench, he has played backup point guard, and he has started at shooting guard and small forward. He has been the organization's human putty, filling voids from the numerous injuries throughout the season to Harris, Paul Millsap and Emmanuel Mudiay before he was traded to the New York Knicks.

The Nuggets are fighting desperately for their playoff lives -- one game out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with four games to go -- and Barton has been a key factor in keeping the team afloat. While critics might point out that Barton can play out of control and take ill-advised shots, Barton is one of only two players in the league this season who has started fewer than 40 games and is averaging more than 15 points, four rebounds and four assists. (Memphis' Tyreke Evans is the other.)

"He's done it all for us this season, and he's won games for us," Harris told ESPN. "That's what we're going to need from him if we're going to be at our best."

Said Nuggets coach Mike Malone: "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."

There was a time, however, when Barton feared that he didn't have a place in the league, when The Thrill was almost gone.

There are legends of Barton destroying the competition in practice during his first couple of years in the league with the Blazers, who drafted him with the 40th pick in 2012.

"He was always the leading scorer in scrimmages," former teammate and former Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson said.

During one practice, Damian Lillard picked off a pass and initiated a two-on-one break with Barton, who was in his second year. With Lopez the lone defender backpedaling to challenge them, Barton motioned for an alley-oop. "I was thinking, 'You're serious?'" Lillard recalled to ESPN. "With Rolo back there? Ooookay." Lillard threw the ball to a soaring Barton, who caught it outside of the paint and then twirled in midair, pulling off a 360-degree, two-handed dunk over Lopez.

"I couldn't believe it," Lillard said. "Who tries that? And he just ran back on defense like he didn't do anything. ...

"He was probably our best player in practice every year that he was here. I always wanted him to get that opportunity because I knew how good he was."

Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey often described Barton as a gym rat who genuinely loves the game. The team just couldn't afford to develop its young players in games because there was a lot at stake at the time. The Blazers were a 54-win playoff team, and each win was vital to appeasing star LaMarcus Aldridge, who would become a free agent that summer. As a result, coach Terry Stotts opted to play proven veterans.

"We both couldn't get on the floor much," said C.J. McCollum, who was drafted by the Blazers in 2013. "It was tough on the both of us. We just had to wait for things to change."

Barton ended up logging a total of 387 minutes that season, with most of his action coming in blowout situations or spot duty. Publicly, Barton kept a smile on his face and tried to hide any signs of despair. His personality matches his nickname in that he's flashy off the court, too -- he wears shades in the dark, has a 1970s-influenced wardrobe and always has a slick, go-to line readily available. "I'm just giving the people what they want," a laughing Barton told ESPN. "I am the People's Champ." But for one of the top-rated shooting guards in the 2010 high school class and the Conference USA Player of the Year at the University of Memphis as a sophomore, he was having a difficult time adjusting to being an out-of-the-rotation player in the NBA.

During the middle of the 2013-14 season, with the Blazers about to embark on a road trip, he finally broke down.

Barton was in a car with a childhood friend from his hometown of Baltimore who was often tasked with driving him to the airport. His friend made a ritual of playing thought-provoking music during the ride to set the tone. On this commute, one of the songs selected was "Dollar and a Dream" by hip-hop artist and activist J. Cole. About 45 seconds into the track, an upbeat vibe instantly reversed.

"S---, life at the bottom, nobody but God got 'em They say he wouldn't leave me yet I'm fallin' like it's Autumn
"Tell me, what do you do just when you're on your last dollar And the stress of this mess you're in can make your ass holla?"

Barton began to weep uncontrollably, prompting his friend to pull the car over.

"That was one of the darkest times in my career," Barton told ESPN. "I'm just thinking if I'm ever going to get a chance to play and prove myself. I know I put all the work in. I knew I was good enough, but I never got to showcase my talent. I was wondering if I'm going to be out of the league. That was my darkest period.

"Doubt started to creep in. 'What if I have to go overseas? I'm just not getting the opportunity here.' Those were some of my thoughts. It was scary. No one got to see me play. How are other teams going to have interest in someone who doesn't play?"

The following season was much of the same. He received DNP-CDs in 23 of the team's first 52 contests. But on Feb. 19, 2015, Barton's fortunes finally changed.

Sitting in the living room of his Portland-area home at the trade deadline, Barton was on edge. His phone was buzzing. Friends and loved ones were calling and texting, inquiring about trade rumors. He screened most of the calls. He didn't know if the talks were legit and was waiting to hear from team personnel.

"I was nervous as hell," Barton said.

After hours of waiting, he received a call from someone with a familiar area code. It was Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, a fellow native of Baltimore whose brother Dan used to work Barton out in college. When Barton answered the phone, the conversation was brief, but it was exactly what he had been waiting to hear. Barton recalled Connelly telling him that this was his opportunity, that he wanted him to come to Denver and be a leader.

The Nuggets acquired Barton along with Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver and a protected first-round pick, sending Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee to Portland in exchange.

"Man, you should have seen the look on my face when I got off the phone," Barton said. "I was ready."

The next day, Barton showed up at the Trail Blazers' practice facility unexpectedly and thanked each member of the front office and coaching staff for their role in his development. He was off to the Mile High City, where he immediately received consistent rotation minutes and has since established himself as one of the best sixth men in the league.

"People finally saw me play, and I put up some numbers," Barton said. "I was always confident in myself. It never wavered, man. I'm a truthful guy. All I kept saying is that I needed an opportunity."

Barton has come a long way since his DNP-CDs in Portland, but he will face another moment of uncertainty in his NBA career this offseason, when he will be an unrestricted free agent. Last summer, after hiring Aaron Goodwin as his agent, Barton turned down a four-year, $42 million extension in early October, league sources told ESPN. That was the most Denver could offer, given salary-cap rules. Goodwin told Barton to bet on himself, and Barton has put up strong numbers. But the 27-year-old will be entering a different market than free agents in recent summers. Due to the abundance of spending after the new TV revenue deal kicked in, money appears to have drastically dried up for this class.

The only teams that are projected to possess $10 million or more in cap space are the Hawks ($21 million), Nets ($15 million), Bulls ($24 million), Mavericks ($20 million), Lakers ($35 million), 76ers ($30 million) and Suns ($17 million). This is also a fairly deep wing class, headlined by stars Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Paul George along with Danny Green (player option), Trevor Ariza, J.J. Redick, Rodney Hood (restricted), Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Barton.

Despite carving out a niche as an electric scorer off the bench, Barton wants more. He has played 35 or more minutes in 27 games. In those contests, the team is 18-9, and he has produced more than 20 points, 5 rebounds and a shade under 5 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3.

"I'm a starter," Barton said. "No doubt about it. No question in my mind."

Denver's backcourt is set for the future with Murray and Harris, but there's a case for Barton's services at the small forward spot, and Wilson Chandler, who normally occupies that space on the court, has a player option for 2018-19. Still, there is no guarantee that the $10.5 million annually that he turned down before the season will be topped in July. Sixth man of the year front-runner Lou Williams -- four years older than Barton -- agreed to a three-year, $24 million extension with the Clippers in February to avoid the upcoming free-agent market.

"I think the biggest things I'm looking for is respect, honesty and a team that's going to be real aggressive and show that they really want me," Barton said. "I want to be where I can be able to showcase my entire game on a regular basis, somewhere they really believe in me and are ready for me to have a bigger role."

The Nuggets will likely have a tough decision to make, just like the Blazers did years ago.

To this day, Barton ponders what could've been in Portland.

"I wouldn't say I hold any ill will [toward Portland]," he said. "At the end of the day, they drafted me. It just was like, 'Damn, I wish that I could have made it work.' It's like your first girlfriend. I was so close with Dame. He's always been one of my biggest supporters. It was a dream of mine to play alongside him. We came in together, played Summer League together. How special would it have been with me, him and CJ in the backcourt?

"But I love Denver. I really want to stay with the Nuggets. This is where I got my shot, and I'm so thankful."