Will Barton played nearly 30 minutes in the Trail Blazers’ victory over the San Antonio Spurs last night. It was the most he had played all season, and he produced 17 points in the absence of Mo Williams (groin). The Trail Blazers won by 11. So let’s give Barton some overdue attention and explore his strengths, weaknesses, and generally overlooked potential. Without him, this series would have ended in a San Antonio sweep.
First, some quick background: Barton is a second-year player out of Memphis. Anticipated to go late in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft, he slipped to the 40th spot and right into Portland’s eager arms. At a long 6’6” (6’9.75” wingspan), Barton was coveted at the guard position for his unique talent as a rebounder, as well as his ability to finish at the rim. Unfortunately, his arrival in Rip City coincided with the arrival of head coach Terry Stotts, who tends to neglect the development of young talent. I cannot fault Stotts for taking the safest route regarding allocation of minutes in his first year at a new gig – Barton’s would-be growth was the casualty of smart decision making. He showed glimpses of relevance in the last few injury riddled games of 2012-2013, but not enough to carry over to October of last year.
Fast forward to that point in time, and we see the Trail Blazers off to an unexpectedly hot start, temporarily climbing to the highest rank in the NBA. The pressure was on Stotts once again to keep the good times rolling. Barton’s development, again, became a casualty of smart decision making. He averaged even fewer minutes per game this season than he did during his rookie campaign; down to 9.4 from 12.2. Meanwhile his statistical contributions (extrapolated in the ‘per 36 minutes’ metric) spiked. Nearly all major categories showed marked improvement. Points per 36 rose from 11.9 to 15.4. Rebounds rose from 5.8 to 6.9. Assists from 2.3 to 3.1, and so on. The sample size shrank, but his output within it remains impressive even after that acknowledgement.
Here is where things get interesting. Moving away from the shakiness of ‘per 36,’ in games where Barton has played at least 20 minutes, he has averaged 14.3 points over the course of his career. For those of you counting at home, that’s more than Williams has averaged per game since playing for the Cleveland LeBron’s in 2010. For a team that struggles so mightily to find bench production, the Trail Blazers don’t seem to be looking very hard – or, at least, not trusting very hard. Barton is a 69.0 percent finisher at the rim for Pete’s sake (the best of all Portland’s guards by a wide margin) and he’s just now getting his run. Imagine the impact he could be having if he got one iota of attention this season.
Of course, there are good reasons he has not played as much as I would like. Compounding with the whole ‘let the good times roll’ pressure Stotts was dealing with were Barton’s inefficiencies from midrange and his ineffectiveness as a passer. He’s not exactly known for his court awareness. Once the ball is in Barton’s hands its next stop is the hoop. Defensively, he has his ups and downs. His on-ball defense is actually pretty respectable, but the same narrowed scope that limits his offensive game prevents him from functioning well with his team as a unit sometimes. These are things that can be fixable if properly addressed, but the second-round of the NBA Playoffs is the wrong time to introduce sweeping reform. Barton is as Barton does.
Whether the Trail Blazers’ current playoff run ends as early as Wednesday night, or ends as late as the NBA Finals, every game from here on out is important for Barton’s saga. His contract for next season is not guaranteed and he must prove to the Trail Blazers organization that he is worth exercising the $9.1K team option. He has very little time to cement himself in Portland’s plans for the future; especially with limited roster spots available for free agents. Only he, Williams, Robin Lopez, and Earl Watson are not yet officially on the books. If there is any logical way to retain Barton’s services, I am extraordinarily interested in seeing how he turns out. Cheap, young, talent with potential to fill an immediate need has to be at least considered.
As for his present impact, expect him to see healthy minutes moving forward, regardless of Williams’ availability. He is unlikely to see anywhere north of 25 again, but as long as the Trail Blazers are desperate, he will be the first desperate measure they call upon. Every game with the Spurs is win or go home now – a mindset Barton must have on a personal level as well in order to wear black and red for another season. It is time for Stotts to let Barton help the team and himself. The only way to beat a San Antonio team this deep is to alleviate primary scorers with bench players capable of sharing the burden. Barton is the closest we have seen to the latter since this series began.