Will Barton Making His Own Path in NBA

By Don Wade

Will Barton, in case you were wondering, still talks with his old college basketball coach.

“I talk to coach (Josh) Pastner all the time,” said Barton, in town to score 25 points and lead the Denver Nuggets past the hometown Grizzlies. “I was talking to him before they played in the conference championship game, giving him advice and encouragement.”

No, not even Will Barton, who is flourishing as an explosive bench player for the Denver Nuggets and is a legitimate NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate, can solve the current problems of the University of Memphis basketball program.

Barton’s last season at Memphis was 2011-2012 when he set a school record for points by a sophomore with 631 and averaged 18.0 points per game. The team went to the NCAA Tournament that season. Afterward, he moved on to the NBA and was a second-round selection of the Portland Trail Blazers.

He has been trending up, his old college team has been trending down.

“Tough times right now,” Barton said of the Tigers. “Hopefully we can get up out of it.”

I asked if he could get his mind around Memphis now being a “football school.” Barton shook his head.

“I try not to think about it, but congratulations to those guys because I know it was tough times for them when I was here and they were just trying to turn the program around. To see those guys doing well is awesome. We just gotta get basketball back because that’s the bread and butter.”

Barton is doing all right in the bread department himself. Traded from Portland to Denver in February of 2015, he signed a three-year $11 million contract with the Nuggets last summer. It surprised some, stunned others.

But then Will “The Thrill” Barton did not approach the NBA like a typical second-rounder. The 6-6, 175-pound Baltimore native was judged too thin to make it in the league and he arrived with, and has maintained, the same chip-on-his-shoulder attitude he carried with the Tigers.

“I came out trying to be myself,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody to put a label on me. A lot of guys drafted in the second round can get stuck as something they’re really not.

“If I fail, I fail. But I knew I was talented enough. I knew the work I put in.”

After barely making a ripple in the league with Portland, Barton now fills up the stat sheet nightly with Denver: 14.9 points per game, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists.

“Will is always hyped,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “I worry about Will when he is under-hyped. When Will is playing with flare and passion, that’s who he is, that’s when he is at his best.”

He showed all of that against the Grizzlies. He hit 4 of 7 shots from deep. Got his six rebounds, handed out three assists, including one on an alley-oop pass to JaKarr Sampson for a running dunk. He had a high-flying block. And he wore his trademark headband, now yellow, and smiled at delivering a memorable performance back in FedExForum.

It was his best game as a pro in Memphis and he admitted, “I do put pressure on myself when I come here. I know my son (who turns 2 in July) is here watching and my friends and family. I just want to play well for them.”

Had he not played well, he would have heard about it first from his brother and former Tiger guard Antonio Barton.

“He’ll tell me straight up. He’s been that way since we were young. He watches all my games. He sees stuff that no one else sees because he knows my game better than anybody.

“He tells me when I’m not being aggressive enough. Or he tells me when I’m out of control. I really take heed to everything he tells me.”

What he most likely would tell him now: Just keep on keeping on. Be yourself. Carry that chip on your shoulder.

And keep a good thought for the fellas wearing the blue and gray.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.