Will Barton and Summer League Promise


There were a couple moments in the Blazers’ Summer League debut Saturday that seemed to capture Will Barton perfectly. First, late in the fourth quarter, he brought the ball up in transition against the Knicks and spotted Thomas Robinson running the floor ahead of him. He pushed a difficult pass ahead to Robinson, who couldn’t catch it cleanly and stepped out of bounds. The camera caught T-Rob signaling to Barton afterwards something to the effect of “hit me on the other shoulder next time.”

A minute or two later, Barton had a similar opportunity. Pushing the ball, he saw Robinson ahead of him, this time filling the left side. The degree of difficulty on this pass was lower; Robinson was wide open, and there wasn’t a Knick near Barton to harass him. Recognizing this, Barton made the unfathomable, unconscionable, and wholly unnecessary decision to look away as he made the pass.

The biggest knock on Barton in his two year career has been his decision making–he knows it, we know it, and the coaching staff knows it. So how amazing is it that in the middle of a sleepy Summer League game, with a golden opportunity to rectify an earlier mistake and make a no-brainer of a decision, Barton decided it would be even better if he didn’t look at his target?

The pass worked out fine, and Robinson drew free throws. Most of Barton’s decisions have worked out fine in this Summer League. He’s exactly the sort of player who you can dream on in Las Vegas, where his faults are hidden by subpar competition and his riskier decisions are rewarded by the run-and-gun nature of summer ball. “Better decision making in Summer League” should usually be placed right next to “best shape of his life,” “added X pounds of muscle,” and “has been taking X thousand jumpers every day” in the pantheon of meaningless preseason teases.

It’s really, really hard to know if any performance in Summer League is at all translatable to actual NBA play. I think it was clear pretty quickly to those of us watching in July 2012 that Damian Lillard was going to be good. Similarly, watching Donatas Motiejunas abuse and baffle Meyers Leonard that same year turned out to be fairly predictive of the latter’s career. But we also hear ad nauseum every summer about Josh Selby and Jerryd Bayless, whose promise in July evaporated in the fall.

It’s impossible to accurately transpose an NBA environment onto a player’s Summer League play, so it’s basically a matter of faith whether you think Barton’s performance (and suddenly effective jumper) will translate into a productive rotation spot for the Blazers. You can choose to believe, or not to believe, but I’m hoping like hell that it’s not a mirage. Because what Barton represents to me is everything that’s not supposed to work in the NBA.

Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) dunks against Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh (1) during the first half in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Manu Ginobili has long been cast as the whirling-Eurostepping-dervish acting as a foil for the Spurs’ rigidity. Like most cut-and-dried narratives, it’s not exact. The Spurs are full of creative players. But it’s essentially true, and it’s why so many Spurs fans will name Manu rather than Timmy or Tony as their favorite player. We as basketball fans love the high-risk, high-reward guy, the one who’s willing to make things tougher on himself for the sheer anarchy of it. Ginobili makes completely baffling decisions, decisions that only he would ever think to make, all the time.

Will Barton is like that, but all the more absurd, to my eyes, because he’s shaped like no one else in the NBA. His listed weight is an insane 174 pounds, which is lighter than essentially anyone in the league (based on a quick Basketball-Reference search, the only exceptions I found were John Lucas III, Darren Collison, and Aaron Brooks) and much lighter than anyone his height. He’s way underweight, with an until-recently broken jumper, a messy handle, and chronically weird thought processes. He also rebounds like mad for his position and has runs of truly bewildering success, like his turn as a hyperactive wrecking ball in the otherwise miserable Spurs series.

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To be clear: Ginobili is more talented in every way than Barton. The Blazers will never expect from Barton what the Spurs expect from Ginobili. But there is a spiritual connection between the two. I hope he sticks around. The NBA needs more guys who can declare themselves to be “the people’s champ” and sound reasonable.

Toward the very end of that same Summer League Knicks game, Barton pulled up for a 26-foot jumper that would’ve put Portland up by 1 with 28 seconds left. But while in the air, Barton decided that he would rather whip a bullet pass to Joel Freeland in traffic. The pass connected, because this is Summer League. Freeland missed the layup, because this is Summer League. Cleanthony Early muffed an open fastbreak opportunity, because this is Summer League. Some other stuff happened, and it was all typical, nonsensical Summer League. Barton was in the middle of it all. Is it meaningless? Probably. But Barton’s fun as hell, and he might be more one day. I mean, it’s just Summer League, but we can hope.

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