In June, Tim Connelly was at his parent’s home in South Baltimore when his do-it-all wing asked to meet up. Come to the barber shop, Will Barton told him. Free agency was weeks away, and Barton was eligible for a new deal. Barton was coming off a career year in which he’d done everything from start at small forward to fill in at backup point guard. Connelly wasn’t sure if a meeting was a good idea at first.
“I was like, ‘I’m not coming to the barber shop with 10 of your guys telling me we should pay you the max, man,'” Connelly, Denver’s president of basketball operations, said.
After some assuaging, Connelly got the address and walked to the barber shop, which was a few blocks away. The conversation they had helped the lay the groundwork for Barton re-signing with Denver for four years in the opening minutes of free agency on July 1 and illustrated why the partnership between the Baltimore natives works so well: Barton and Connelly keep it real with each other.
“Everything was above board,” Connelly said. “I knew exactly what he had. He knew what we were thinking. When teams came aggressively to get him, he was very honest about what they were doing, about what they could offer. He was very honest that he wanted to be here, but it’s a business. So I think without that level of honesty in the relationship, I don’t think he’d be in a Nuggets jersey right now.”
Barton had been on Connelly’s radar for more than a decade when Denver traded for him in February 2015. Connelly first heard the whispers about the skinny kid who’d take on anybody when Barton was in eighth grade. As a sophomore, Barton made varsity at Baltimore City College under Mike Daniel, who years earlier had coached Connelly at now-defunct Townson Catholic.
“You talking about a competitor?” Daniel said of Barton. “Oh my God. He wanted it more than anybody.”
Daniel, who retired last year after 47 years in coaching, is a legendary figure in Baltimore. He coached Skip Wise, the first player ever to make first-team All-ACC as a freshman, at Dunbar in the ’70s and later Carmelo Anthony at Townson Catholic in the early ’00s. Daniel has worked with too many Division I hoopers to count, but he considers Barton “the best all-around player” he’s ever coached.
“Will could do it all, man,” Daniel said. “He could handle the ball, run the team, shoot it, score. Will, he was destined for stardom. No doubt.”
Barton’s versatility was part of what made him one of the top recruits in the Class of 2010. So was his competitive fire. Barton was one of the youngest players on City College’s 08-09 team, and rail thin. None of that prevented him from speaking up when he felt like he should get the ball or mixing it up with older, stronger players. During one tournament outdoors, Daniel watched Barton dive for the basketball on a concrete court.
“Will Barton is the kind of kid who will do whatever is necessary to win,” Daniel said. “I looked up. A bunch of kids was diving for the ball. One of those kids happened to be Will Barton. He would go that extra mile to get the job done.”
Barton was a jack of all trades, capable of snatching the rebound, bringing the ball up the floor, setting teammates up and getting his own shot. Connelly’s role a decade and a half earlier under Daniel was much more narrow.
“His job was to shoot it, and shoot it he did,” Daniel said. “He had a hell of a year. I think he finished up maybe with 17, 18 points a game. He carried the team. And not only that, but he’s got guts like you wouldn’t believe.”
Not getting easily rattled is a prerequisite for playing basketball in Baltimore, which apart from Barton and Anthony, has produced Rudy Gay, Mugsy Bogues and Sam Cassell, the latter of whom became synonymous with large (metaphorical) cojones.
“It’s an underdog city,” Connelly said. “There are not a lot of great facilities, so you get used to playing in small gyms. Our high school gym couldn’t have been more than 60 feet long. You couldn’t even enter the gym until the ball was on the other side. The rec center Will grew up in, it was a small, confined space. You had to dribble and play fast.”
Today, Connelly believes the shared experience of knowing what it means to live and hoop in Charm City strengthens the bond between him and Barton. They’re “brutally honest” with each other. Connelly isn’t afraid to light into Barton when he fails to impact the game in ways besides scoring.
“‘You always play hard. You always look for games. Don’t become NBA-ized,'” Connelly tells him. “I get mad when he doesn’t have four plus rebounds. I get mad when he has an empty box score. He’s so talented.”
The frankness goes both ways. At the trade deadline two years ago, with the Nuggets in the playoff race, Connelly sent a second-round pick to Milwaukee for Roy Hibbert, who came in as the third-string center on Denver’s roster.
“Will tells the GM, ‘Way to make a splash, Tim,'” Mason Plumlee said on an episode of the Road Trippin’ podcast last year.
“I said that to his face, too,” Barton said.
Barton is Denver’s king of the one-liner. And many within the organization praise his work behind the scenes helping the team’s young players adjust to NBA life. Barton is one of the founding fathers of this incarnation of the Nuggets. He and Gary Harris are the only players who predate Michael Malone’s arrival in 2015. Barton has helped transform this franchise from laughing stock to burgeoning contender.
Seeing this rebuild through appealed to Barton. He came back even though other teams offered him more lucrative deals than the $53 million Denver gave him this summer. Barton could never crack the rotation in Portland his first two and a half years in the league. The Nuggets gave him a chance to play, and he in turn has helped them grow.
“I knew we had the talent,” Barton said. “Everything was right in front of us. It was just a matter of whether we were going to do it or not as a team. And we took that leap.”
The Nuggets are going to the playoffs for the first time in six years. They’ve shattered expectations this season, winning 50 games with nine left in the regular season. Two Baltimore natives — one of them this team’s architect and the other its starting small forward and emotional leader — have played enormous roles.
“We’re just so grateful,” Daniel said. “Everyone is so excited about Timmy. Everyone is excited about Will. Baltimore is not a big city, not a big town. Everybody is just excited because for years it was all about Washington D.C. and New York and Philly and this and that. And we’ve finally been able to put our stamp on what we’ve been able to do in Baltimore.”