Baltimore native Will Barton maintains ties to hometown as he breaks out for Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) in the second half Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Denver. Memphis won, 102-101.

Asked what trait defined her eldest son, Karen Bush contemplates for a moment, then gives a firm answer: "Ambition."

More than any of the other grade schoolers playing pick-up basketball in his East Baltimore neighborhood, more than any player in the city as it turned out, Will Barton had it.


Growing up in a place that often crushes dreams, he gripped his tightly. Confronted by NBA scouts and coaches who didn't see him as a star, he worked that much harder to become one, firing jump shots late into the night and poring over customized video clips of every play from his games.

"I think that's the biggest word," Barton says of the one his mother used to sum him up. "Without it, I wouldn't be here. I wasn't the biggest guy growing up, wasn't the strongest or the fastest. Everyone [in the NBA] has talent, but a lot of people don't have a strong mindset, and that's where they fail. I can't be one of those people."


Now, the basketball world's vision of Barton — Will the Thrill to his growing legion of fans — is catching up to his own. He's the second leading scorer and rebounder on the Denver Nuggets and a viable candidate to be the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. Beyond that, his fearless forays to the rim have made him a YouTube favorite.

There's something else to know about Barton's drive, however — it extends beyond his desire to become an NBA All-Star. His love for the city that shaped him burns just as brightly. He says he's only interested in lifting himself if he can pull others with him.

That's why, as civil unrest erupted in the wake of Freddie Gray's death, Barton invited neighbors and youths for a relaxed day of hoops and picnicking at Druid Hill Park. "More than any basketball stuff, that was my proudest moment with him this summer," says his personal coach, Dan Connelly.

It's why he ran a free basketball camp for city youths a few months later. It's why he recently opened a clothing store in Waverly with plans to donate a portion of the proceeds from his "Protect The Family" brand to mentoring programs for underprivileged children.

Barton, 25, wants every child he meets to understand he faced long odds, the same ones many of them encounter in rough neighborhoods and single-parent homes. He didn't see his work during the tense days of unrest as any kind of grand gesture. He was one Baltimore kid embracing a bunch of others.

"There was a lot of chaos going on, and they just needed to know someone cared about them," he says. "And not only did they need me, I needed them. When I come back to the city, I get a feeling I can't get anywhere else."

Some pro athletes talk of feeling choked by the hangers-on from their old neighborhoods. But Barton's spirit gets a boost as he ducks out of a black Cadillac Escalade to enter the store he's opening with childhood friend Xavier Harper.

He's an hour late because of snow-choked traffic and pretty soon, he'll have to head to Washington to play the Wizards. But his patience with old friends who want a hug or a photo seems bottomless.


"I think I'm more happy to see them than they are to see me," he says, glancing out at Greenmount Avenue.

Focusing on basketball

Barton's mother was a nurse, raising her three children in various homes on the city's east side. She preached the sanctity of family and she kept her kids active.

The "Protect The Family" slogan Barton has adopted for his gear is a tribute to his mother's philosophy. In fact, he frets that he doesn't spend as much time as he'd like with his own 1-year-old son, Wyatt, who lives in Memphis.

His older sister, Sharina Bush, says Barton avoided trouble in part because he was so focused on building a basketball career. Even in elementary school, there was no plan B.

Sharina often cared for her brothers on days when her mother worked, and she could never coax Will to come in from the court behind the family home. He'd simply scoot up to the side window, grab a paper plate piled with food and race back for the next game.


She recalls that if her brother heard another kid was the best player in the city, he'd find a way to arrange a game and prove his superiority. "He wanted that title," she says. "I believed in him. I've never seen anyone with that type of passion."

Barton and his brother Antonio, just 11 months younger, were as close as twins. Their mother even dressed them alike. On the court, they attacked each other in order to improve. Off it, they were best friends who could seemingly read one another's minds. Will was the loud one, Antonio the calmer presence.

They would go on to star together at City College, Lake Clifton and Memphis. Antonio moved to Denver this year to be near Will as he tries to get his own pro career off the ground.

Barton was already a highly touted prospect when he left City (his coach there, Mike Daniel, says he's never had a better all-around talent, not even Carmelo Anthony). After a year at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Barton settled at longtime powerhouse Lake Clifton. He was looking to have his game polished by coach Herman "Tree" Harried before graduating to the college game.

Harried quickly assessed Barton as a future pro with a remarkable range of skills, but he wasn't about to say that out loud. In fact, when Barton ducked into his office one day and said maybe he didn't need to do all the running Harried demanded, the old-school coach kicked his star out of the building.

Barton waited at home for a call from the coach. Harried didn't budge; Barton had to return to the gym and humble himself. Harried said the team would do nothing but run until Barton finished in the top three of every sprint.


"I think that was the turning point for us," Harried says. "He realized I wasn't going to bow down to him because he was top 25 in the country. He had to learn how to work consistently."

The Barton brothers elevated a good Lake Clifton team to unbeaten city champions and perhaps the best Baltimore squad of the last 20 years.

Barton, in turn, describes "Coach Tree" as a key influence in showing him how hard he would have to push himself to succeed.

Harried was moved to tears when Barton made a surprise appearance as one of the keynote speakers at his 50th birthday party last summer.

"That was one of the best gifts I could've gotten," he says. "Seeing this boy I had standing in front of me as a man."

Second-round pick


After a year of prep school in New Hampshire, Barton committed to Memphis and won Conference USA Player of the Year as a sophomore. He entered the 2012 NBA Draft, figuring his college production would guarantee a spot in the first round.

Instead, he waited until pick No. 40 for the Portland Trailblazers to call his name. He then spent 2 1/2 seasons in Portland, never receiving consistent playing time. He had his moments, including a stellar 2014 playoff series against the eventual-champion San Antonio Spurs. But they were just moments.

"I'd be lying if I said he didn't get down," says J.J. Hickson, a teammate and close friend in both Portland and Denver. "Of course he did. But I wouldn't say the word down. I would just say he had a little frustration, because he knew he could play."

The problem was the 6-foot-6 Barton didn't fit any preconceived image of an NBA player, says Connelly, one of five Baltimore brothers who all became scouts or executives in the league.

He wasn't a dead-eye shooter from three-point range and scouts figured that at 175 pounds, he'd struggle to finish over brawnier players.

"NBA guys have very cookie-cutter mentalities about what they want at each position," Connelly says.


It didn't matter if Barton could do things that, in Connelly's words "you just can't teach." The coach had spent time around many great players, including Anthony, but sometimes he laughed in awe at the way Barton could improvise a shot or assist out of hopeless situations.

The Nuggets, coincidentally led by Connelly's brother Tim, traded for Barton midway through last season. Immediately, his minutes and his production climbed. He hadn't scored in double figures all season for Portland but twice scored 22 points in his first five games with Denver.

None of this left Barton satisfied. Instead, he planned a summer of work with Dan Connelly that would resemble the training sequence from a Rocky movie — all in sweltering Baltimore gyms with basic moves repeated hundreds of times.

"I just turned 25," Barton says. "Up to this season, I hadn't done anything. So nothing can be boring to me, especially with the goals I have. My whole thing was let's just do it."

Barton hoisted 3-point shot after 3-point shot from the corner. He and Connelly reviewed video of every shot he'd taken the previous season. Stop fading when you're open, Connelly chided.

Much of this played out in Barton's old gym at Lake Clifton, where he'd work out with Connelly, Antonio and maybe a few other guys.


"There was no air [conditioning]," Barton says. "Open a window, that doesn't help. Open a door, that doesn't help. It's 105, maybe 110 degrees in there. You want to quit, maybe cut your workout short. But the greats push themselves through. You take yourself somewhere else mentally."

Harried woke early every morning to open the doors for him. One day, Barton didn't show and his old coach got on him like it was 2009. Barton quickly apologized.

Barton finished the summer with a vastly improved jump shot. He's made two three-pointers per 36 minutes this year, more than double his previous best. "When I'm making them," he says, "I feel unguardable."

New contract

The Nuggets obviously liked what they saw from Barton because they signed him to a three-year, $11-million deal in the offseason. But first-year coach Mike Malone happily acknowledges how blown away he was by Barton's skill level.

"He is a guy that totally has surprised me," says Malone, who played his college ball at Loyola. "I never expected him to have the month of November and month of December he had—the scoring, the rebounding, the efficiency, the playmaking, everything he's done."


Some of his stat lines — 32 points, 10 rebounds, six assists against the New Orleans Pelicans, 31 points in a return trip to Portland, 21 points in 26 minutes of an upset win over the Golden State Warriors — scream superstar.

The next step, Malone says, is for Barton to play with the consistency and discipline required of a featured player.

"In Portland, he was playing with a couple of All-Stars and he had a very small role on that team," he says. "Well, he's got a much bigger role on this team and with that role, comes responsibility. I think that's what Will is getting used to now. We need him every night, and games where he might not have it are games where we struggle. But I love his passion, love his energy off the bench."

Barton has no problem with Malone's words. He agrees he still has plenty of work to do.

Though he says he's never modeled himself after any one player, it's no coincidence he admires Kobe Bryant.

"Never cried 4 retirements but probably will when Kobe does," Barton wrote on Twitter when Bryant announced this would be his last season. "& if my tears hold value then I would drop 1 for every single thing he showed us."


When Barton is on his game, he's a frenetic presence. He'll grab a rebound and speed up the floor one-on-three to attempt an improbable twisting lay-up. "Will Barton doesn't thrive in transition. He creates transition out of thin air," ESPN analyst Zach Lowe marveled in a recent column.

One play against the Wizards sums him up perfectly. Washington center Marcin Gortat dunks violently from the baseline. But while the crowd is still buzzing, Barton grabs the inbounds pass and outraces everyone on the court for an exuberant slam of his own. He's that same kid who used to roam Baltimore looking for games against the most-hyped competition. His dunk highlights a personal run of 11 points in 11 minutes, and the Nuggets take control of the game, eventually winning.

It's the ending he wanted for a day that also featured his brief and cherished homecoming to open his brand store. But after the game, he's already looking for a text from Connelly with video clips from all his plays against the Wizards, coaching notes attached.

He'll kick himself for losing his man on defense and fading on his jumper. The quest never ends.

If Barton could tell kids from Baltimore anything, it might be that. When you think you've worked hard enough to make your ambition reality, the work has just begun.

He'll be back this summer, working with his "Team Thrill" AAU squad, talking trash to friends behind the counter at his store in Waverly, honing his game in the heat.


"For me, it's about my time, just letting kids know they can touch it and it's real, that I come from the same areas and homes as they did," he says. "I never want them to look up to me as some type of god or somebody that's impossible. I want them to look at me and say, 'Dang, that's Will from down the street.'"