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The missing link that’s elevated the rest of Will Barton’s game

Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Will Barton wasn’t always considered a good three-point shooter. In fact, his jumper (or lack thereof) was one of the few blemishes on his scouting report going back to the draft.

“I knew that was one of the knocks on me coming into the league, and I needed to get better at it,” Barton said. “Every summer I went back in the gym and shot, shot, shot.”

Barton converted on just nine of his 65 three-point attempts during his rookie year in Portland. He raised his three-point percentage to around 30 percent in his sophomore season, but his shot was anything but consistent when he arrived in Denver in February 2015.

Then, progress. Barton hit 34.5 percent of his three-point attempts during his first full year in Denver and shot a career-high 37.0 percent from distance last season.

Barton’s shooting 36.3 percent from three this season — a minuscule drop from last year but still a high enough percentage that defenses must respect his range.

“This is the best it’s felt,” Barton said regarding his jumper. “I think its shown in the numbers, the percentages,” “I’m getting a lot of them up, and it’s just going in. I put in a lot of work.”

The proof is in the pudding. Barton is shooting 38 percent of his shots from three-point range — up from 33 percent last season, per CleaningTheGlass.com.

Barton’s three-point point prowess was front and center Saturday against the Clippers The 27-year-old led a vaunted Nuggets’ attack that rediscovered their identity after back-to-back performances versus the Pacers and Bucks where Denver shot below 32 percent from the field. As a team, the Nuggets hit 12-29 (41.4 percent) from distance in their 134-115 win. Barton banged home five of his game-high nine attempts on his way to a game-high 31 points. Two came in transition while the other three came within Denver’s read-and-react offense.

Barton also scored six baskets that weren’t threes on Saturday. He shot a perfect 3-3 from the paint and 3-3 from the mid-range. Per usual, the ever-probing Barton, who averages a team-best 8.6 drives per game according to data provided by NBA.com and SecondSpectrum, executed 10 drives and got to the rim at will against a broken Clippers’ defense.

“Unbelievable,” Paul Millsap said when describing Barton’s performance.

Barton’s jumper unlocks the rest of his game. When his shot feels as good as it has as of late, “it’s over” for the defense, he says.

“Everyone knows I want to get to the rim, and I can finish around the rim and I can make plays for others. So once the jumper is on, you’ve got to respect that and then you’ve got to respect my whole game,” Barton said. “I just feel like once I get to that point, you’re in for a long night.”

When Gary Harris went down with a right knee injury on March 15 against the Pistons, Barton knew he’d be called upon to pick up the slack. Harris still isn’t back and will likely stay sidelined through Denver’s final two regular-season games. Since Harris went out Barton has upped his averages to 18.5 points on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 38.8 percent from three, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

He’s also helped the Nuggets’ offense average roughly five points per 100 possession more over their past 11 games without Harris than Denver averages on the season. In his fifth NBA season, Barton is putting together a career year. The 15.3 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 4.1 assists per game Barton is averaging this season are all career-highs.

“We’re not in this position without him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Behind Barton, All-NBA caliber play from Nikola Jokic and a defensive-first mindset from Paul Millsap, the Nuggets have reeled off five-straight wins.

“He just wants to play. He wants the ball in his hands to make a play,” Malone said. “And what I love lately is he’s doing things so efficiently, and he’s playing the right way.”