Sweet 16: Will Barton, Memphis

The expectations placed on Will Barton before his freshman season at Memphis were undeniably lofty.

The 2009 Baltimore Sun All-Metro Player of the Year was a Top 10 recruit and Scout.com’s No. 1 shooting guard in the country. He had just finished a post-grad year at Brewster (N.H.) Academy in which he led the Bobcats to the National Prep Championship and earned MVP honors for the tournament. And some NBA Draft analysts considered the former Lake Clifton star a potential one-and-done player.

“I was very aware of,” the hype, Barton admitted. “I heard what people were saying, talking about me. I was very aware of it.”

Josh Pastner, whose first commitments as Memphis’ coach were from Will and younger brother Antonio, could sense that the 6-foot-6, 182-pound swingman might have been reading too many of his own press clippings. The second-year coach made it his priority early in the season to make Barton understand just how much development was needed in his game.

“I think with Will, there was talk of all that,” Pastner said. “But I knew when I saw Will play – and I told Will this when we signed him – ‘if you can be a one-and-done, great. But you’ve got a long way to go before then. You’ve got to get a lot better.’ I told him, [the NBA] ‘should be so far out of your mind. Anyone who’s telling you that, they’re not aware [of what it takes].’ You have to get so much stronger and better. I think early on, he was just trying to get used to the college game.”

Anything less than dominance was completely foreign to Barton. During the summer of 2008, Barton starred for Nike Baltimore Elite on the AAU circuit, earning Top 10 national rankings from Scout.com, ESPN.com, MaxPreps.com and PrepStars.com. Months later, Barton’s storybook senior year at Lake Clifton ended with the Lakers capping a 32-0 season with the Class 3A state championship. Then came his prep year at Brewster in which he averaged 20.8 points and was named the 2009-10 New England Preparatory School Athletic Conference Class A Player of the Year.

That track record of success – along with a steady stream of media hype – probably would have made any player overconfident to an extent. Barton was no different. But while the former five-star prospect couldn’t possibly live up to the unreasonable predictions that some assigned to him, Barton went out and did the best he could. “[Freshman year] was a little harder than I thought it would be,” Barton said. “It didn’t go exactly as I planned it to be. I still had a great freshman year, but not great with the expectations I had for myself. In my mind, as a freshman, [some people thought] I actually had a great year. To me, I played OK. An OK season. Good learning experience.”

Barton’s “OK season” amounted to averages of 12.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He played in all 35 games, starting 25, and was the second-leading freshman scorer in Conference USA. Barton’s versatile play last season was instrumental in Memphis claiming the conference championship. In the title game against UTEP, Barton contributed 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists. In the second-round NCAA tournament loss to Arizona, Barton recorded 12 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals.

“Let’s keep in mind that he had a good year,” Pastner said. “He was our leading scorer, our second-leading rebounder, leading assist man. He had a real good freshman year. That’s why he’s a preseason Wooden Award [candidate].”

Barton, who was selected to the All-Conference USA third team and the All-Freshman team, is getting accustomed to being a nationally recognized player. CBSSports.com ranked him the No. 32 player in the country, and he’s still considered a potential NBA prospect. But talk of jumping to the league as soon as possible has ceased. Barton’s priorities, it seems, have been altered a bit.

“He’s playing at such a high level right now because of his focus and his maturity,” Pastner said. “His mindset is different, and he’s focused on the front of the jersey in terms of just focusing on this Memphis team. By him doing that, it allows us to just get the job done and play at a very high level. I think Will is going to have a really good year.”

Said Barton: “Towards the end of [last] season, that’s when I started to say, ‘For us to win basketball games and perform at a high level, I have to put all my thoughts into my team and my coaches.’ If I’m not winning and producing at the college level, I’ll never have to worry about the NBA. … I’m just focusing on what I have to do – dominating college basketball.”

Early returns on Barton elevating his game as a sophomore are promising. He stayed in Memphis most of the summer, working on his conditioning, his jumper and his body. The notoriously skinny guard has added nearly 17 pounds of muscle to his lanky frame. And he made progress in the classroom during summer school. Pastner said both Bartons are on pace to graduate in three years.

“[Will has] just got this mentality, this focus. Just his maturity level is different,” Pastner said. “He can be a very, very good player when he’s shooting the 3-point shot. He can still shoot the ball, and just make a dynamite living getting into the paint. He’s been fantastic so far. I’m excited for him.”

Barton is cautiously optimistic about this season – both in terms of team success and from an individual standpoint. He loves Memphis and considers it a “second home.” But he’ll never forget where he came from or how he came to be considered the top college player from this city. For Barton, Baltimore remains an inescapable and influential part of him.

“I always tell people that if I wasn’t from Baltimore, I wouldn’t be as good as I am right now,” Barton said. “Coming from Baltimore, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be tough to take the bumps – not just on the court, but just in life. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of shooting, a lot of drugs. Me coming from there and the things I had to go through, I had to overcome a lot. But I played hard and thank God that occurred. I’m still skinny, but what I am now is just [about] where I’m from. … [So I’m just] going to compete in every game, work as hard as I can, have a very successful season and a better season than last year.”

The Sweet 16 is an occasional series profiling the 16 best Division I college basketball players from the Baltimore area. Players were selected based on prior accomplishments and projections for the upcoming season.

Previous Sweet 16 selections:

Kim English, Missouri

Andrew Fitzgerald, Oklahoma

Roscoe Smith, Connecticut

Cleveland Melvin, DePaul

Kevin Thompson, Morgan State

Antonio Barton, Memphis

C.J. Fair, Syracuse

Brandon Young, DePaul

Sean Mosley, Maryland

Devon Saddler, Delaware

Devin Brown, Holy Cross

Eric Atkins, Notre Dame

Brendan Bald, Vermont

Jamar Briscoe, Charlotte

Dylon Cormier, Loyola

U.S. Presswire photo of Will Barton by Douglas Jones / Feb. 9, 2011

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