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Nuggets veteran Will Barton is authentic and honest. The last thing he could be described as is ambiguous.
Following his return to the basketball court Wednesday night – essentially his first action in nine months – Barton reiterated he doesn’t view himself as a reserve.
“Like I said, I’m a starter,” said Barton after logging nine points and three assists in 18 minutes off the bench. “I looked comfortable out there because I’m just that good of a basketball player. I’m comfortable with playing with anybody on the planet. It doesn’t really matter. I put a lot of hard work into this game, and I think it shows when I’m healthy. I have no plans on being the sixth man. I have no desire to be that at all.”
Barton’s stubbornness may put Nuggets coach Michael Malone in a dilemma with just one preseason game left before next Wednesday’s season opener against Sacramento. The starters for the past two preseason games have been Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. After Barton left the “Bubble” to rehab his sore right knee, Porter played well in his absence, temporary sliding into the starter’s role.
“We know that he’s definitely a starter,” said veteran Paul Millsap. “There’s no question about that. He adds playmaking. To have a guy like that playmake and do the things that he can do with that unit, it was beautiful to see tonight. Beautiful to see him running the offense.”
On Wednesday, Barton fit seamlessly with Denver’s second unit. Malone even described the unit’s chemistry as “phenomenal” as their lead ballooned in the second quarter against Portland. He initiated offense, created points off the dribble and meshed well with guys like Monte Morris and PJ Dozier.
“It was easy,” Barton said. “A lot of high IQ basketball players with that group, starting with P.J. and Monte, two good playmakers. Then you have Isaiah, who sets great screens and rolls hard, so he gives me a threat with me and him in pick-and-roll and then you’ve got (JaMychal Green), who’s versatile, pick-and-pop and can roll. It’s a good talented group.”
Yet Barton sounded adamant that he’d rather play alongside the starters. Malone knows what decisions are on his doorstep.
“When you have a really deep and talented roster, and you have guys that are proven in this league, you can’t play everybody,” Malone said when asked about the team’s depth. “That’s just the bottom line. … My job isn’t to keep anybody happy. If I wanted to keep people happy, I’d sell ice cream for a living. I have to make tough decisions.”
Before his knee injury cropped up last season, Barton was the Nuggets’ third-most consistent player. His playmaking ability, versatility, rebounding and competitive edge added an element the Nuggets sorely missed in the postseason.
But when he left Orlando on Aug. 17, Barton wasn’t close to healthy. His knee soreness had extended to other areas of his body, and he was in no condition to help the Nuggets. He spent the next few months in Miami rehabbing extensively on his knee.
“From working on my body, getting my body back together, to then getting back on the court, conditioning,” Barton said. “I mean everything. It was a tough road for me. It was a tough process. It was some hard and tough days. … I’m so antsy, I love the game, it’s hard for me not to be able to work on my game.”
Barton’s only been able to participate in a handful of live practices yet Wednesday was a huge step forward.
“With me, it’s all about health,” he said. “If I’m healthy, I know what type of player I am. I know what I bring to the table. I just need to see that I can run, jump, plant, fly up and down that court because like I said, I know when I’m healthy everything else for me … the game comes easy for me.”