Baltimore has a population of 621,849 folks within its city limits. A city with a rich culture but inferior to other I-95 cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia when it comes to size and amount of people.
One thing Baltimore does not falls short on is producing basketball stars, the unofficial favorite sport of the town. This past summer, the Brunson League exposed the world to what Baltimore City basketball looks like if they were still wondering.
And in the heart of that exposure was NBA veteran, Will Barton.
Barton is headed into his seventh NBA season, fourth with the Denver Nuggets. To get ready for the season, Barton used his hometown and the Brunson League as a way to prepare mentally and physically. Playing in the NBA, he is usually on the hunt for the big names, but in the Brunson, everyone wanted to make a name off him. Guys like the legendary Mo Hatten (who Barton said was his toughest check), Stanton Kidd, and many others used him as a barometer for their own success
"Up until that point, I probably never played in a league where I was the main target," he said about the competition level. "It made the competition crazy. I knew everyone would be gunning for me and my team. It was exactly what I wanted because I knew that was the only way I can get better."
Barton was a high school standout coming out of Lake Clifton, under the tutelage of the great Harry "Tree" Harried. From there he went on to be the Conference USA Player of the Year at Memphis in 2012, playing alongside his brother Antonio "Tone" Barton before being drafted to Blazers in the 2nd round. Barton spent the summer working out in Baltimore, something he planned with his trainer, Jevonte Holmes. Barton knew in order for him to flourish, he needed to spend his summer home. He credits his breakout season in 2014-15 where he averages 14 points a game with Denver, to a summer spent in Baltimore. To replicate that season going into his contract year, he wanted needed to see something different, something real, something raw.
"A lot of people don't make it out where I'm from," Barton said about training in his hometown. He didn't want to be in L.A. or Denver or other places where you see a lot of success. Being home, he got to see what he wanted to escape, a reminder to go beyond where he is now.
If Barton and the Nuggets are able to secure a deal, he will be a free agent next summer. Only 26, (turning 27 next January), he has the opportunity to secure one more big contract heading into the prime of his career. He is on the final year of his 3-year $11 million contract he signed with the Nuggets back in 2015. With the new collective bargaining agreement, the market dictates that he could see an extension of $50+ million from the Nuggets or even more in the open market. Others of his caliber like Tim Hardaway Jr. was able to sign a $71 million offer sheet with the New York Knicks this past summer, after averaging a career-high 14.7 points a game.
Barton must put the work in first.
Already averaging 13.7 points a night for his career, this season will be about showcasing the complete arsenal, not just the scoring. Playing in the Brunson, Will averaged 28 points a game and dropped 40 points in the league's championship game. Scoring was never the issue 6'6 wing. What head coach, Mike Malone wants to see from his swingman is the ability to control the game from all aspects: scoring, rebounding and dishing.
What Barton wants from Malone are longer minutes. Last season, he would focus on trying to score at will and "get hot" in order to stay on the court. After a conversation with Malone, Barton is expected to have more minutes and more freedom to operate when he is on the court, thanks to better trust between the two. In the final preseason game against the Thunder, Barton scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half, matching up with Paul George. He played a total of 30 minutes.
"I was honest and told him the game I didn't play a lot of minutes...I was thinking about myself," he said about the conversation. "It was just us talking and getting on the same page."
Barton is expected to play at least 25 minutes a game, but that could rise throughout the season. With his role, he has an opportunity to be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Depending on his success or an injury, he could also see himself as a starter, something he wants to be in the near future. For Barton though, it's all about excelling at his role whether it be a sixth man or starter.
After his breakout performance against the Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference Playoffs that saved the Blazers from being swept, Barton crowned himself The People's Champ. That was more than true this summer, as he gave the people a sense of hope. It was important for Barton for people to see that even though he was in the NBA, he was still just like them. He came from the same Baltimore streets and playgrounds. Not only did he play every game he was allowed to play in the Brunson, he stayed long after just to talk to those that just watched him put on a show.
"I just wanted to show them it's real," he said about being available for the people. "I'm from Baltimore and I just felt like it's important for me to be there. I'm becoming the person I want to be in the NBA and I feel it's the perfect time to go back and let them touch me, let them feel, give the kids hope."
For Barton, nothing means more to him than to be recognized as the king of Baltimore. He loves his town, so much that he still wants people to recognize him as the best ballplayer in the city, without the NBA success. Playing in the Brunson for him was proving to everyone that he is the King of the City, and until someone dethrones him and the PTF Mob next summer in the Brunson, he will remain the king of the city.