For two years, Damian Lillard went out of his way to watch the University of Memphis basketball team practice on television at midnight.
A glorified pep rally halfway across the county from his then-life at Weber State University wouldn't qualify as must-see-TV for most. But Lillard -- not yet the NBA Rookie of the Year, not yet an All-Star, not yet the hero in Portland for his buzzer-beating series-winning playoff heroics against the Houston Rockets -- tuned in for one reason: Will Barton.
Lillard, the third-year budding superstar for the Trail Blazers, counts himself as an early passenger of the Barton bandwagon.
"Since he's been here," Lillard said recently when asked to talk about his teammate and fellow 2012 NBA draft class alum, "I've been his biggest fan."
In a recent interview, Lillard touted Barton as "a top three talent" on the roster, high praise for a guy who logged just 387 minutes of play during the regular season last year. But Lillard said it's clear Barton is a fan favorite. "When you have that presence, you just have that presence," he added.
As the Trail Blazers embark on a season offering the opportunity to affirm the squad as a legitimate contender in the loaded Western Conference, Barton is also at a pivotal point in his young career. He's proven the ability to score and create for teammates in spurts, but consistent playing time has been hard to come by, consistent play has been a problem, too.
Barton feels he's ready to break through, and the man who's gone by "The Thrill" since a youth coach gifted him the nickname at the age of 6, could be the next in line to carry on the mantle of Blazers fan favorites -- hard-working, energetic players that often come off the bench and wreak havoc.
Those players - from Billy Ray Bates to Drazen Petrovic to Rudy Fernandez, often break through to have long impactful careers. But the opposite is frequently the case, too.
Jerome Kersey, a Blazers legend and one of a handful of team ambassadors, knows what qualities Rip City fans look for in a player, and he sees them in Barton. "Will Barton is a blue collar guy," Kersey said. "If you go out there and work hard, they can respect that."
The respect is mutual. Barton, a 6-foot-6 wiry guard with a gap-toothed grin, said he's got an everyman appeal that fans gravitate to. "That's the thing they like about me," he said, "I feel like a lot of guys in professional sports, you know, the fans feel like they can't touch them. The fans want to see that you're real."
Barton, imminently approachable and friendly, said he's shown fans that he's just an average guy.
The 23-year-old said he's ready to show much more and seize his opportunity to earn a permanent spot in the rotation. "I feel complete," Barton, a new father, said.
Will and his younger brother Antonio grew up playing basketball in Baltimore, where you had to be tough to make it in the sport. "They don't really care if you're younger or older bigger or smaller, how good you are, they're going to come right at you and try to rough you up.," Barton said of pickup basketball. "You've got to grow up quick."
For much of his life, Barton's safe haven was on the court.
"It's the only time of the day, the only place where I can be me," he said.
The game brings out all of his emotions and he wears them on his sleeves at times.
"I can be happy, I can be angry, I can smile, I can fight. It makes me feel ways that no one and nothing else does," Barton said. "It brings out my confidence. It makes me feel good about myself. It's just everything to me."
Coming out of high school, Barton was a heralded recruit. He wasn't supposed to be a second-round NBA draft pick -- not when you go undefeated and win state at east Baltimore's Lake Clifton High School as a junior, not when you're ranked as the nation's top high school shooting guard prospect by two different recruiting services after attending New Hampshire's Brewster Academy his senior year.
But he excelled at Memphis, where he was once thought to be a one-and-done prospect. Barton stayed for a second year, and was the Conference USA player of the year. The Blazers drafted him with the 40th pick of the 2012 NBA draft.
Barton's career numbers hardly jump off the page. His career scoring average is 4 points per game, with 1.9 rebounds in two seasons.
But despite playing far fewer minutes his second year than his rookie campaign, Barton made an impact as the 2013-14 season wore on.
In February, Barton showed fans a glimpse of his repertoire by dropping 21 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists in just 23 minutes during a 44-point team bludgeoning of the Brooklyn Nets, without superstar LaMarcus Aldridge.
A Barton game will likely include alley-oops, aggressive and contested drives to the rim and nifty passes. The Nets game included all of the above.
Social media erupted in the wake of that game with praise for Barton.
After the game, Barton joked that was "The People's Champ." The name stuck.
In the playoffs against the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, Barton injected energy and life off the bench to help the team avoid a series sweep. In game 3, Barton was fearless, scoring 17 points and forcing the issue to help Portland claim its only victory in the series.
Fan Favorites: A Rip City Blueprint
Trail Blazers fans take special joy in the success of certain players. We're not talking about superstars from any given era. These fan favorites were never the best player on their Portland teams.
Here's a blueprint for making it as a fan favorite in Portland.
- Must have a personality
- Must bring energy every time they're on the court
- May have an everyman appeal
- Their success is especially exciting for fans
- They often lead big comebacks with small plays, or put games out of reach
- Fan favorite status is revocable if player shows lack of effort, or insults the fans or Portland
The Blazers, and any other NBA franchise for that matter, boast a long history of players just like Barton -- full of potential and personality. Their success produces a different sort of reaction from fans than the team's bonafide stars - star players like Aldridge and Lillard, Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter or Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas.
Bill Schonely, the team's legendary broadcaster, is one of the few Blazers lifers who can recall fan favorites through any era.
The formula for a fan favorite is relatively simple, Schonely said: typically the player comes off the bench, works their tail off, plays hard every night and connects with the fans.
Any such list, Schonely said, must begin with Billy Ray Bates.
Bates, signed mid-year during the 1979-1980 season emerged out of nowhere. He was twice named the league's player of the week in 1980, came and went through Portland like a tornado. He could score in bunches, and in the 1981 playoffs he scored ten buckets in one half of a playoff game. "He did everything in the world," Schonely recalled. "He was a natural athlete, and his body was just perfect and he loved the game of basketball, but the rest of life he had no clue about what was going on. Just a crying shame."
The Blazers waived Bates in 1982 as his life unraveled outside the court.
Kersey, Schonely said, was also undeniably a fan favorite. "He would dive for balls, right from the get-go. The guy did everything, and he made it," Schonely said, "Big time."
Of Barton, Schonely said, "He's got talent, there's no doubt about that," but Schonely thinks the guard needs more time to develop.
Terry Stotts, Portland's head coach, said Barton has improved and now must seize his chances as they arrive. "It's about opportunity," Stotts said, "And when he gets his opportunity I expect him to make the most of it."
Lillard said Barton is more than just a fan favorite, he's a popular guy in the locker room because he's "a chill dude," calm, cool and a laid-back presence off the court.
Lillard also compared Barton to another former 40th overall pick in the NBA draft who was also a heralded youth player: Lance Stephenson. Lillard pointed out that Stephenson didn't break through until his third season with the Indiana Pacers, once his minutes jumped considerably. "He's one of those guys who's going to take off," Lillard said of Barton.
Barton said regardless of his opportunities, he's just looking to help the team win games first and foremost. "My confidence hasn't gone anywhere," Barton said, "I still feel like I'm one for the best players on this team, one of the best players in this league. You have to wait your turn to show everything, and right now I've accepted my role."
-- Andrew Theen
By Andrew Theen | oreganlive.com | October 29, 2014