The thrill could soon be back in Will Barton III’s game.
The Nuggets’ expected starting shooting guard enjoyed his first healthy offseason of the last few seasons until he sprained an ankle on the first day of training camp. Coach Michael Malone noticed the benefits of an offseason full of health and development during a workout in Las Vegas during Summer League.
“As we’re going through the workout, Will is doing the drills and getting to the basket and dunking, and it’s looking easy,” Malone said. “You can see the smile on his face, and he’s talking ‘I got that pop back, coach.’”
The sprain on the first day of the team’s training camp in San Diego was only frustrating, Barton said, until his MRI came back clean. The minor injury forced Barton to miss the Nuggets’ first three preseason games – all losses – but he’s expected to play Wednesday in Oklahoma City.
“When it initially happened, I was like ‘Oh man, here were (expletive)ing go again,’” Barton said.
Prior to the minor injury, Barton spent his offseason working on different areas of his game. He said he worked to improve in catch-and-shoot situations and scoring off the dribble. He also expected to pick up more opportunities to initiate the offense as the Nuggets will start the season without lead guard Jamal Murray.
“You see me play, I promise I’m going to have a very versatile game whether it’s knocking down shots, playmaking, trying to defend to my best ability,” Barton said. “Whatever it is, my offseason is always working on a multitude of things, never one thing because I know my role on the team. I wear plenty of hats.”
After missing most of training camp, the longest-tenured Nugget said the biggest loss was the time to make sure he’s in the best shape possible and get into rhythm. While Barton is likely to make his season debut Wednesday in Oklahoma City, he may not have his full burst back by then, but it should be soon.
“Probably going to be a couple games or a couple of days before the full strength is back in my ankle, but it’s good to go,” Barton said. “(I’m) still running, jumping, playing good, so I’m ready to go.”
Malone added that depending on how Barton feels, he could play in both games of the back-to-back against the Thunder. Most other starters, the coach said, will either not play in Thursday's preseason finale or have their minutes heavily restricted.
“When I say he’s got pop, I see a guy that is able to get to places on the floor that a lot of guys on our team can’t, whether that’s breaking down a defense, getting to the basket, finishing. On his jump shot, he’s leaving the floor. He just looks like a much healthier, explosive Will Barton that we saw probably two years ago,” Malone said. “It’s been a while, and I’m thrilled for him, because when you know your body as well as he knows his body and you’re not capable of doing the things for so many years you took for granted, that’s hard. And you ask yourself ‘Well, is this my new reality? Or do I have to work harder to get my body back to where I can do those things?’ He did that. I’m proud of him for that, and I just can’t wait to get him on the floor tomorrow night.”
Starter or not, Dozier expected to play important minutes
Barton’s return could relegate PJ Dozier to a reserve role, but that doesn’t sound like it will prevent him from playing decisive minutes.
“The great thing about PJ is he’s a guy that – if he’s not starting – there’s a great chance that he’ll be closing a lot of games (with) the size, the versatility that he brings to the table,” Malone said.
The Nuggets’ coach said Dozier, alongside rookie Bones Hyland, has had an “outstanding” training camp and preseason. While the pecking order for much of the reserve unit is to be determined, Malone said Dozier’s role only changes minimally depending on his role.
“He’s at his best when he’s being aggressive, playing pick and roll, getting downhill, making his teammates better and being disruptive on the defensive end,” Malone said. “I think the great thing about PJ is he knows that with that starting group ‘Hey, my job is just to kind of fit in here and help Nikola and help Michael and help Will or Aaron or whoever it might be.’ Coming off the bench, it’s kind of the same thing. We need him to be a guy that’s a glue guy and helps whatever group he’s on the court with, and he has that potential. I really feel that PJ Dozier is extremely important and valuable to what we’re trying to do this year because of what he brings on both ends.”