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NBA Beat: Will Barton seizes opportunity with Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton has emerged as a candidate for Most Improved Player this season. ... Barton brings the ball upcourt during an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Denver.
Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton has emerged as a candidate for Most Improved Player this season. ... Barton brings the ball upcourt during an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Denver. The Associated Press

Will Barton approached this past offseason as he had when entering the NBA as Portland’s second-round pick in 2012.

He had a new coach and possibly a new opportunity.

Barton’s made the most of increased minutes, emerging as a candidate for Most Improved Player with the Denver Nuggets.

The 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 15.2 points, nearly double his career average of 7.7 points. Barton knew he had the potential to contribute if given the chance by coach Michael Malone.

“No, I’m not surprised. I’m just humbled and thankful and blessed,” he said. “I know the work I put in, so it’s expected. It’s just whether I get the opportunity to play or not.”

When he was hired by Denver, Malone knew little about Barton, who was traded to the Nuggets during the 2014-15 season after being buried on Portland’s bench.

Barton has earned Malone’s trust, becoming a top reserve and a reliable fourth-quarter option.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I expected him to play as well as he has this year,” Malone said. “He’s a hard worker. He committed himself to getting better, coming back as an improved player and, like all players, I feel he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity given him. We play him 25, 30 minutes a night, put the ball in his hands and allow him to make plays and he’s done a great job of doing that, especially in the open court.”

Barton said Malone told him he had a “clean slate” with his coaching staff.

“As the season started off I was playing well, and then we had some injuries, and I really picked it up, and that’s when it really took off for me as far as (Malone) trusting me,” Barton said. “And now he’s just letting me play ball.”

Unlike on Portland’s deep playoff team last season, Barton has found his opportunity amid Denver’s rebuilding process. Malone’s backing gives him confidence.

“It made me not have to be always looking over my shoulder, seeing when I was going to be subbed out or if I make a bad play or things of that nature,” Barton said. “I can just go out there and be myself and play free.”

Barton has emerged from relative obscurity, but he said he’s not focused on becoming the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

“I try not to,” Barton said of thinking about awards. “I just try to stay humble and keep thinking about the team.”

Trending up

Watch out for the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics are not talked about as a contender to win the Eastern Conference. That’s Cleveland, maybe Toronto, or even Miami. But the Celtics have proved to be an intriguing bunch. They are third in the East and have won 13 consecutive home games.

Isaiah Thomas is worthy of All-NBA consideration and Avery Bradley should receive Defensive Player of the Year votes.

The Celtics are a young bunch, but they play hard, are fun to watch and will not be an easy out in the playoffs after being swept by Cleveland last year.

Trending down

The New York Knicks are in danger of missing the postseason again. The team is 3-13 since improving to 22-22 on Jan. 20.

Carmelo Anthony is bickering with fans, coach Derek Fisher has been fired and not even the feel-good story of rookie Kristaps Porzingis lessens the disappointment of another losing season.

Look for a rise in speculation this offseason that Anthony would waive his no-trade clause to escape New York.

Last words

“What do I go there for? Go there ’cause I want to. I would love to go to L.A., but I’ll take 2½ (hour flight) over 4½. I’ve got a house in L.A., but it makes more sense for me to go south than go west. But I go because I want to.”

Cleveland forward LeBron James addressing reporters over flying to Miami on his off-day to work out with his trainer, former teammate Dwyane Wade.

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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