Denver Nuggets' Will Barton holds his annual basketball skills camp at Waverly Middle School. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)
Will Barton could easily walk away from Baltimore, the town that raised him, and settle in Denver, where his NBA career is booming.
Having agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract with the Nuggets this week, why return to his hometown and look for ways to give back? He could simply leave Baltimore behind.
But that isn’t the person Barton tries to be.
“Just [want] more for the city,” the 27-year-old Lake Clifton grad said. “Wanting to give them hope, inspire the youth. Show them that there is positive things going on in Baltimore, and that you can make it out of here and people can have success and still come back.”
Barton is holding his seventh annual Will Barton Skills Camp basketball clinic next week at Waverly Elementary/Middle School, where he and coaches he trusts run kids through everything from shooting to five-on-five live games.
Seeing his camp unfold over the course of his professional career, which has taken off the past few years, is a fulfillment of Barton’s lifelong wish. He’s just a kid of the city who wants to return the support he received growing up.
Barton told himself growing up, “once I made it, I would give back to the community, I would give my time. Time is more important than money,” he said.
Now set to earn $54 million until 2022 with the Nuggets, Barton’s stepping up his “time over money” philosophy. His heftier paycheck has afforded him the ability to get rid of the summer camp’s fee for the inner city camp, starting next summer. He’s also establishing a new camp somewhere outside of the city, which will still cost to attend.
For five days a week from July 9 to Aug. 10, campers begin the morning with yoga, stretching and calisthenics, followed by shooting and drill-work. After lunch, the coaches regroup them into three-on-three, five-on-five live sessions.
“It’s a blessing to see a childhood friend fulfill his dreams as an NBA player, and bring that back to help these kids become better kids,” said Brandon Russell, 34, who coaches at the camp as well as Team Thrill, an AAU program Barton started about five years ago. “We stand to make a difference and help kids thrive, no matter where they came from.”
Barton works the camp once a week to interact and show NBA-caliber skills to the young players, so they can connect the repetitive work they’re putting forward all day with what it takes to become a professional.
All this, of course, is on top of Barton’s five-hours-a-day shooting and lifting sessions he conducts in the city to stay game-ready all summer long.
“Every summer, he says, this is my last summer doing this,” said Roland Cox, Barton’s childhood coach turned business manager. “And he doesn’t do it because he realizes it’s the only way he’s going to be able to compete with these guys. Will’s not as gifted as a lot of these guys. He made himself into an NBA player out of hard work and dedication.”
Lessons of keeping your grades up, opening your ears to adults and steering clear of dangerous crowds are taught between dribbles. All of these things, Barton realizes, might sound like the typical claptrap a child can expect to hear from an adult trying to say the right thing — but all of it were essential to Barton’s own rise.
Cox recalls a 15-year old Barton, with tears streaming down his cheeks, informing him that he’d “failed off the basketball team.”
“I told him he had to change small character flaws that he had,” Cox said. “I told him ‘You have to take the responsibility of your education. I can’t do it for you.’ Once he done that, the sky was the limit.”
When Barton delivers that advice to his campers, he has the experience to back it up. Trying to blossom at the beginning of his career in Portland, he was hampered by frustrations for him.
Barton was mostly saddled to the bench with the Trail Blazers — in 2013 he didn’t start a game and averaged just 9.4 minutes played a game. A trade to the Nuggets in 2015 gave him a new opportunity and his scoring has gone up each season in Denver.
Last season he averaged a career-high 15.7 points a game playing in 81 games. He remembered the change the Nuggets gave him when he bypassed a bigger offer from the Indiana Pacers to re-sign with Denver.
“Once I got traded to Denver, they gave me an opportunity immediately. I played right away. That was really big for me, them giving me a chance to show my talents,” Barton said. “I’m a loyal person, and that sat big in my mind when making my decision in free agency, that was what I was looking for and the role I wanted. We both came together and got what we both wanted, and it kind of worked out really well.”
It isn’t just playing through tough seasons that Barton will reflect on with his campers, but the attitude that develops because of it. Cox remembers when Barton was traded to the Nuggets, the Trail Blazers had called Denver to tell them out of the three players they had sent them, Barton was the only one to walk to the front office, shake everyone’s hand and say, “Thank you for the opportunity you gave me.”
Prioritizing the process without taking a minute of it for granted, it seems, could be the slogan of Barton’s summer camp.
“If a kid wants to get to the NBA, I definitely think it’s important to reach out and talk to me, especially because I’m here. I always try to give them the best advice,” he said. “There’s no better teacher than experience, and I’m experiencing what they want to be and dealing what they want to go through.”