Last Wednesday night, when they walked through the doors of the Rose Garden, Blazer fans can be forgiven for thinking they had been teleported to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Dancing in the aisle, screaming “MVP” at the top of their collective lungs every time Kobe Bryant stepped to the free throw line, wearing a wide selection of Lakers gear—No. 8 Bryant jerseys, No. 24 Bryant jerseys, Lower Merion High School No. 33 Bryant jerseys, a couple Steve Nash Phoenix Suns jerseys—the crowd at the Rose Garden was two- or three-to-one purple and gold over red and black.
Nobody in the arena had a better angle on Kobe Bean Bryant, at least when Wednesday’s game started, than Blazer rookie Will Barton. That was just part of what has been the biggest week of Barton’s professional career.
Drafted 40th overall out of Memphis in 2012, Barton has spent much of his first season on the bench or working the mop-up shift at the end of lopsided loses. As the Blazers’ season has wilted and ground slowly to its end, Barton has seen his minutes and his role increase. It’s the traditional trajectory of a second-round draft pick on a lottery-bound team, and Barton is making the most of it.
Barton had his best game as a pro last Sunday, scoring 22 points in an almost-comeback against the Dallas Mavericks. Then, he got his first professional start Wednesday night against the Lakers—the beneficiary of a Wesley Matthews sprained ankle—drawing the herculean task of defending Kobe Bryant.
“I just wanted to make him work for everything. Make him take tough shots, don’t give him anything easy,” Barton said after Wednesday’s game. “Just be there on his shots, and hopefully he’ll miss. That’s all I’m thinking about—just guarding him tough.”
But for a young player like Barton, there’s an added significance to guarding Kobe Bryant. Kobe is the guy who has been dominating the NBA for much of Barton’s life, or for at least as long as Barton has been watching professional basketball.
“Definitely it’s surreal,” Barton said of going head-to-head with a player he idolized as a youth. “I was just watching this guy in middle school and high school, watching all his highlights, emulating his moves, taking differing bits and pieces from his game and trying to put them into mine. I always looked up to him, and to play against him today it was kind of surreal.”
As NBA players are basketball junkies by nature, young guys spend their first season facing off night in and night out against players they watched ad nauseam for years. Sometimes, this leads to awkward situations. A few years ago, former Blazer Martell Webster found himself in a bit of hot water after asking LeBron James to give him his game-worn sneakers. The theory that was posited at the time was that it could be hard—impossible, even—for an up-and-comer to be competitive with a guy whose shoes he’d like to take home as a souvenir.
But paying homage to his idol was the furthest thing from Will Barton’s mind Wednesday night.
“As soon as the ball tips, all I’m thinking about is competing, playing hard, defending whoever I’m playing against and just making winning plays,” Barton said. “At the end of the day, we’re all professional. I feel like I’m just as good as anybody else. He’s Kobe Bryant. He is who he is. He’s one of the best. [But] I’m not going to ask him for his autograph or anything like that.”
A 47-point outing from Kobe—maybe one of the last big scoring nights of Bryant’s career after sustaining a gnarly Achilles injury Friday in Los Angeles—spoiled Barton’s first big night as a Blazer. As one of the team’s most confident players, Barton is taking it in stride.
“I can use this [game] as motivation for my next game,” Barton said. “You’re only as good as your last game.”
Barton closed his coming-out week with another solid performance against the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder. His 18 points Friday night led all Blazer scorers. Two of those points came from a two-handed baseline jam over OKC’s defensive stopper, Thabo Sefolosha, a dunk that will be in heavy rotation in next season’s pre-game highlight packages.
The Thunder ran the Blazers out of the Rose Garden Friday, pushing Portland’s season-ending losing streak into the double digits. The Blazers have yet to win with Barton in the starting lineup, and have only won a single game in which he scores double figures.
Getting Barton into the rotation is half the battle for the Blazers. Figuring out how to get wins with the pieces the Blazers have on the bench is one of the most important long-term projects this team has on the docket.
“All I’m doing is focusing on the next game and my next opportunity to get out there and play so I can play better, and we can get a win,” Barton said. “That’s all I care about.”