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Barton brings leadership, depth as Raptors make playoff push

Will Barton Toronto Raptors Will Barton - Mark Blinch/Getty Images

TORONTO – Earl Watson’s playing days are behind him, but the long-time NBA point guard isn’t done dishing out assists.

Watson was at the tail end of his 13-year career when he shared a locker room with a young Will Barton, then a sophomore. A decade has gone by since they were teammates in Portland, but the two remain close.

So, when Barton, now a veteran in the league, was weighing his options after being waived by the Washington Wizards last week he reached out to Watson, now an assistant coach with the Raptors.

Watson’s advice may have been a tad biased, but Barton heeded it anyway. Come to Toronto, Watson urged.

“Me and Earl have a very strong relationship,” said Barton, speaking after the first practice with his new team Wednesday afternoon. “So, I trust him a lot.”

It had been an eventful 24 hours for the 32-year-old swingman. Barton landed in Toronto at around 1 p.m. the day prior. He went straight to OVO Centre for his physical and then, shortly after that, to Scotiabank Arena, where he joined the club ahead of its Tuesday night date with the Chicago Bulls.

By 5 p.m. he was cleared, and the Raptors’ roster moves became official. In order to make room for Barton, who was signed for the remainder of the season, they waived sparingly used forward Juancho Hernangomez.

A half-hour later, Barton was on the court taking jumpers and getting a crash course from player development coach Jim Sann. He was in uniform and available to play when the game tipped off at 7:30 p.m., although it seemed like his debut would have to wait, given the circumstances.

Instead, Nick Nurse “rolled the dice,” as he put it afterwards, and called Barton’s number early in the second quarter.

It was a quiet four-minute shift, but Barton held his own considering he didn’t know the plays and had just met most of his teammates. Once he gets up to speed, he should carve out a bigger role.

Nurse has spent months searching for another reliable guard to soak up minutes in the rotation. He’s tried a bunch of different guys in the spot – Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn and, most recently, two-way player Jeff Dowtin Jr. – but no one has run away with the opportunity.

The chance to play meaningful minutes on a competitive team and re-establish his value in the market was another big reason why Barton chose Toronto over a few other interested teams.

“I just felt like it was a good opportunity,” Barton said. “This is a good team. I feel like I can come in, bring some leadership, some versatility, some bench playmaking and scoring, and a lot of energy.”

After playing a key role on some really good Denver Nuggets teams over the years, Barton has had a down season. In 40 games with the Wizards, he averaged 7.7 points on 39 per cent shooting in just under 20 minutes per contest. With Washington skewing younger in its rotation, he only appeared in five of 18 games before hitting waivers.

Still, he’s just one season removed from averaging 14.7 points and 32 minutes while starting 71 games for the Nuggets in 2021-22. The 11-year vet is out to prove that he remains an impact player in this league.

For the Raptors, this is a smart, low-risk addition. Hernangomez had fallen out of Nurse’s rotation plans, and given the makeup of the roster, Barton is a player who makes more sense positionally and in terms of skill set.

First and foremost, he should help address one of their most glaring areas of need: shooting. Over his last seven seasons, Barton has hit 37 per cent of his three-point attempts.

He also brings experience. He’s started. He’s come off the bench. He’s played in 29 postseason games. Both on and off the court, his presence could be a factor for a relatively young Raptors team looking to make a playoff push.

“When we saw that Will was available, doing our homework, the one thing that everybody said was he's a great pro,” Nurse said. “He’s been in the league so long, I assume that he’ll be a good locker room leader and good guy, good example for the some of the younger players.”

As the team’s self-proclaimed old head, Thaddeus Young knows how important Barton can be. The 16-year vet was in a similar position when the Raptors brought him in around this time last season. Many of the team’s younger players, including Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa, would often pick his brain and raved about his leadership down the stretch and into the playoffs.

“He’s definitely going to help us,” said Young, who’s known Barton for more than a decade given their mutual ties to Memphis, where the former grew up and the latter went to college. “He’s a tremendous player that can go out there and score, facilitate and make plays. Then he has that veteran savvy that we need.”

“We’ll take as many of those guys as we can get,” Fred VanVleet said after Toronto’s 104-98 win over Chicago. “He’s a hooper. He’s got some playoff experience and he’s battle tested. He has done it at a high level and played on some really good teams. So, whether it’s locker room experience to help with some of the other guys or just another guy that we can count on any given night, I think that’s a luxury to have coming off the bench.”

It’s usually best to temper your expectations when it comes to the buyout market. Those guys are generally made available for a reason. More often than not, they’re older players nearing the end of big contracts who fell out of favour with younger or rebuilding teams and didn’t draw interest at the trade deadline, so they’re cut loose. They rarely move the needle in a significant way, but in the right situation they can come in and make a subtle impact.

That’s the hope for Barton. With eight wins in their past 10 games, Toronto is fighting its way up the Eastern Conference standings. Tuesday’s win over Chicago was vital, gaining some separation with a team that’s right behind them, while also securing the tiebreaker.

The next two contests come against Barton’s former team, the Wizards, who are just one game back for ninth place. Meanwhile, the Raptors are within a half-game of eighth-place Atlanta and 2.5 games of seventh-place Miami. They’re four games back of Brooklyn for the coveted sixth seed and final guaranteed spot in the playoffs.

How much or how consistently Barton will play over the remaining 19 games remains to be seen. Assuming the club’s undisputed top eight players (VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Barnes, Jakob Poeltl, Gary Trent Jr., Achiuwa and Chris Boucher) are all healthy, they’ll eat up the bulk of the minutes, with Barton and Young likely serving as the ninth and 10th men in the rotation. Their usage could be sporadic and situational, depending on the matchup, game flow or injuries.

But for a team that’s lacked shooting, veteran knowhow and depth at his position, Barton is a welcomed addition going into the stretch run. 

“[They’re] definitely a team that is way better than their record; everybody knows that around the league,” Barton said of the 31-32 Raptors. “Very talented, well-coached, well-run organization. So, hopefully we can just keep getting wins, get our record better and get to the playoffs.”