Memphis’ Barton looks past size for success

ATLANTA — Will Barton eats. He swears he does.

The NBA Draft prospect from the University of Memphis carries the weight of his professional aspirations as he works out for league coaches around the country, but his interview sessions lately tend to center on actual weight — the type that shows up on the scales. On a 6-foot-6 frame, 175 pounds leads to this level of concern.

“I eat a lot. I’m serious,” Barton said with a laugh after a private workout with the Atlanta Hawks. “I do push-ups, I lift weights. It’s just a thing to where I’ll never put on that much weight.”

Such questions have persisted since his high school days, though nothing stopped him back then. After averaging 20.8 points per game his senior season at Brewster Academy in Maryland, Barton was tabbed as the nation’s top shooting guard in the Class of 2010. And when he and his brother, Antonio, spurned top colleges around the country for coach Josh Pastner and Memphis, talks of a revival ensued.

The news could not have come at a better time for Pastner, who had recently been named the Tigers coach. His predecessor, John Calipari, took most of Memphis’ 2009 recruits with him to Kentucky, the team’s top returning scorer decided to forgo his senior season and another top recruit — Latavious Williams — backed out of his commitment to be drafted by the NBA’s D-League.

Barton was expected to change the momentum of the program under Pastner. Memphis was back in the national title picture, or so it was assumed.

But fast forward two years later and not much has changed.

Memphis still struggles to reach Calipari-esque heights, and Barton — who declared for the NBA Draft following his sophomore season — possesses a draft profile that reads similar to his high school scouting report: aggressive scoring threat, versatile skill set, preferable height yet oddly undersized. He averaged 18 points per game during his sophomore campaign, but even as he confidently fielded questions in the Atlanta Hawks practice gym Tuesday afternoon, his gangly frame never strayed far from the conversation.

“(I’ll never be) necessarily bigger, just keep gaining strength. They know I’m not going to be the guy who puts on a lot of weight or be real muscular and stuff like that,” Barton said. “The key was just to keep gaining strength, and they’ve been saying to just make sure I can take hits, finish with contact, defend bigger guys.”

History suggests that Barton will find a place in the NBA. 

Top shooting guard recruits in recent years have all found their way to NBA rosters, including prominent players Eric Gordon, Monta Ellis, Louis Williams, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. Even Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington, Martell Webster and Xavier Henry have carved out niches on NBA rosters.

There’s also this little dose of reality: Will Barton has too much upside for 30 teams to pass on.

Despite the size that he has, forgivingly, grown tired of answering for, Barton improved all facets of his game last season — from shot selection to defense. He even averaged more than nine rebounds per 40 minutes, an abnormally high rate for a wing player, but he shrugged it off by saying he “lives in the paint.”

“You don’t have to be skilled to rebound,” he said. “It’s something that you gotta want to do and have a knack for the ball. Just be tough.”

Most draft analysts have him as a fringe prospect dwindling on the fine line that separates late first-round and early second-round prospects. The Hawks worked him out Tuesday morning to see if he fits into their future, but a decision will need to be made within the next week: Will Hawks coach Larry Drew or any other NBA staff use a late first-rounder on a 175-pound scorer? Chances are he won’t be there later on.

Barton possesses the air of confidence one expects for a player who has been tabbed an NBA prospect for so long, and it’s a quality that certainly serves him well in these private workout settings and subsequent interviews. As the questions about every one of those 175 pounds persisted, Barton continued on with the nonchalance of a player satisfied with what his future holds.

“As long as I’m able to take hits, defend my position and rebound and do these things I need to do, then I’ll be fine,” he said.