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Will Barton Remembers “Dark Years” with Trail Blazers

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ESPN’s Chris Haynes chronicles the evolution of one of the league’s best bench scorers.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Recently Chris Haynes of ESPN.com sat down with Denver Nuggets wing Will Barton to discuss his early, “dark years” in the NBA—including his time with the Portland Trail Blazers—and how he “recaptured the thrill” with the Nuggets.

Selected 40th in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Blazers, Barton was one of four rookies brought in alongside Damian Lillard. Also in that class were Meyers Leonard and Victor Claver. Coming to a team already stocked with backcourt members, Barton’s opportunity to get on the floor, particularly as a second-round pick, was limited. From the beginning, though, his teammates recognized his promise.

During one practice, Damian Lillard picked off a pass and initiated a two-on-one break with Barton, who was in his second year. With Lopez the lone defender backpedaling to challenge them, Barton motioned for an alley-oop. “I was thinking, ‘You’re serious?’” Lillard recalled to ESPN. “With Rolo back there? Ooookay.” Lillard threw the ball to a soaring Barton, who caught it outside of the paint and then twirled in midair, pulling off a 360-degree, two-handed dunk over Lopez.

”I couldn’t believe it,” Lillard said. “Who tries that? And he just ran back on defense like he didn’t do anything. ...

”He was probably our best player in practice every year that he was here. I always wanted him to get that opportunity because I knew how good he was.”

After his rookie year, the Blazers jumped from a middling 33-win team to 54 wins. The increased total brought aspirations for a deep playoff run. Between the news goals and playing behind another lottery pick in CJ McCollum, Barton’s opportunities became even more scarce.

Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey often described Barton as a gym rat who genuinely loves the game. The team just couldn’t afford to develop its young players in games because there was a lot at stake at the time. The Blazers were a 54-win playoff team, and each win was vital to appeasing star LaMarcus Aldridge, who would become a free agent that summer. As a result, coach Terry Stotts opted to play proven veterans.

”We both couldn’t get on the floor much,” said C.J. McCollum, who was drafted by the Blazers in 2013. “It was tough on the both of us. We just had to wait for things to change.”

While Barton was publicly jovial and embraced his self-endowed moniker “the People’s Champ”, he was struggling behind the scenes. According to Haynes, it all came to head for him on a simple car ride.

Barton was in a car with a childhood friend from his hometown of Baltimore who was often tasked with driving him to the airport. His friend made a ritual of playing thought-provoking music during the ride to set the tone. On this commute, one of the songs selected was “Dollar and a Dream” by hip-hop artist and activist J. Cole. About 45 seconds into the track, an upbeat vibe instantly reversed.

Barton began to weep uncontrollably, prompting his friend to pull the car over.

”That was one of the darkest times in my career,” Barton told ESPN. “I’m just thinking if I’m ever going to get a chance to play and prove myself. I know I put all the work in. I knew I was good enough, but I never got to showcase my talent. I was wondering if I’m going to be out of the league. That was my darkest period.

Barton was eventually moved to Denver for veteran Arron Afflalo. In Denver, Barton rediscovered his early promise, playing himself into contention as one of the top sixth men in the league. Even with the new found success, Barton still reminisces...

To this day, Barton ponders what could’ve been in Portland.

”I wouldn’t say I hold any ill will [toward Portland],” he said. “At the end of the day, they drafted me. It just was like, ‘Damn, I wish that I could have made it work.’ It’s like your first girlfriend. I was so close with Dame. He’s always been one of my biggest supporters. It was a dream of mine to play alongside him. We came in together, played Summer League together. How special would it have been with me, him and CJ in the backcourt?

Haynes’ interview with Barton is fantastic, whether you’re a longtime fan of the People’s Champ or this is you’re first time down that magical road, take a minute and check out the rest of the article to get some insight into one of the most interesting guys in the league.