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Nuggets coach Michael Malone may be uncertain who will start alongside superstars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray this season.
But as far as wing Will Barton is concerned, there’s no such mystery when it comes to his role.
“I’m a starter in this league,” Barton insisted in a video conference call with reporters Friday. “I think I’ve proved that year in and year out being one of the most consistent players in the whole NBA.
“… I think it is clear cut who I am in this league.”
While Barton is confident in his ability to secure one of the starting spots declared open by Malone at the start of training camp, what remains to be seen is how Barton will return from a lingering right knee injury that sent him home early from the NBA bubble. The 29-year-old veteran hasn’t played in an NBA game since the coronavirus pandemic initially shut things down in March, appearing in just one half of an exhibition game since then.
Malone said Barton was in a “much better place” when addressing reporters earlier this week — a sentiment the 6-foot-5 guard echoed Friday.
“(The knee) feels much better — jumping off it, running, cutting and planting, it feels real good,” Barton said. “… I just gotta get back in shape, but I feel very good as far as my body and being able to be athletic and do the things I need to do.”
Barton admitted it wasn’t easy being away from the team as the Nuggets made their “magnificent” bubble run to the Western Conference Finals, overcoming a pair of 3-1 deficits against Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers.
What made it an even tougher pill to swallow: Barton was in the midst of a comeback year that saw him play some of the best basketball of his career after a 2018-19 season marred by an early season hip injury. Malone went so far as to suggest Barton was playing at an all-star level before the break. But that all went away after his knee soreness cropped up — an injury that led to discomfort in other areas of his body.
Once the pandemic shut things down, Barton said his inability to train and receive proper treatment only made it worse. As a result, the Nuggets allowed him to leave Orlando to focus on treatment and rehabilitation.
“I was really looking forward to the playoffs, especially with our team’s success and my individual success,” said Barton, who averaged 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game in 2019-20 while shooting 45.0% from the field. “The playoffs is where you really make your name and not being able to go out there and compete at a high level with my teammates, it crushed me.”
That absence now serves as motivation for Barton entering a new season, as well as helping the Nuggets making a championship run.
And while he finds himself in a battle to maintain his spot in the starting lineup — Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. are also in the mix for the 2 and 3 spots — there is also a need to help fill the defensive void left behind by two-way wing Jerami Grant’s departure for Detroit.
“That was a big loss for us, he was versatile on both ends really,” Barton said. “I definitely want to take pride in trying to step up and try to fill some of those holes, but we got to do it as a team. But me personally, I definitely feel like it’s a challenge for me to raise my game.”