Will Barton didn’t have to, Bones Hyland certainly didn’t expect him to. They were close at the time, but not to this degree of obligation, at least as far as Hyland knew. In the aftermath of a 2018 house fire, which took the lives of Hyland’s grandmother and cousin, and forced him to jump out of a second-story window and tear his patellar tendon, Barton FaceTimed the then-17-year-old to offer condolences.
Four years prior, in the summer of 2014, the two met when Hyland dazzled against Barton’s AAU program, Team Thrill, on the Under Armour Circuit. With vast, elegant shooting range, twirling handles, and indistinguishable flair, Barton saw similarities between himself and the precocious guard. Hyland was someone with whom he wanted to forge a lasting connection.
“He reminded me of myself, so it was like an instant bond,” Barton says.
Over the ensuing three and a half years preceding that house fire, they developed a close-knit relationship, yet never to the point Hyland anticipated a phone call from Barton.
“That phone call … it made (us) even closer. Ever since then, I always smile when somebody asks me, ‘How’s Will Barton to you?’” Hyland says. “First thing, before I answer any question, I always smile because it meant the world to me, for him to reach out to me. That’s something that I’ll take with me for life. He’s like a big brother to me. … That’s something you don’t find in another human being.”
Another pivotal moment occurred last summer, when the Denver Nuggets selected Hyland 26th overall in the 2021 NBA Draft. Barton was entering his fourth season as a starter in Denver, while Hyland hoped to crack the rotation during his first year in the league.
Initially, Hyland hardly saw the floor to open the year. The inactivity chipped away at him. He believed — rather, knew — he could play. He knew he could help a shorthanded Denver team and yearned for the opportunity. The problem: Hyland didn’t know when or if it would arise.
“I’m the type of kid like, I’m ready for anything,” Hyland says. “I want to get out there and perform every time.”
Despite their contrasting situations, Barton related to the youngster. As a gangly, energetic, and ambitious rookie nearly a decade earlier with the Portland Trail Blazers, Barton, for the first time in his basketball career, scarcely saw rotation minutes.
“That first year,” Barton says, “it was so hard for me, man.”
Veterans like Jared Jeffries, Earl Watson, J.J. Hickson, and LaMarcus Aldridge ensured DNPs would not extinguish Barton’s confidence. They preached patience and stressed that when it was his turn, is moment would come. Everyone spotted his talent in practice, even if playing time didn’t immediately reflect it.
“These guys not going to say I got game for no reason because I’m not even playing. So, they don’t have to just say that,” Barton says. “When those guys, my vets, be like, ‘Nah, for real, you can hoop, it’s gonna happen for you,’ it made me lock in.”
Barton applied the stories woven into his formative NBA years to calm Hyland. He recognized there was a tense anxiousness and excitement pervading the rookie’s demeanor. They sat down for an hour-long talk early in the year. Barton put his own spin on the lessons bestowed upon him when he broke into the league.
He underlined the vitality of mental toughness amid the rigors of a six-month regular season. Sometimes, five games might pass and Hyland would be glued to the pine; other times, he’d be the first sub or even thrust into a starting gig. Readying for the NBA’s mercurial nature was a necessity.
Everything Barton shared resonated. Hyland remembered the veteran swingman had navigated, almost to a tee, a similar scenario when he was trying to find his way with the Blazers. Anything imparted was not an empty platitude designed to half-heartedly appease him, these were genuine lessons born from personal experience.
“He was telling me, ‘Stay patient. Everything might not be working in your favor right now, but trust me, you’re gonna be out there,’” Hyland says. “I always listen to Will. So, to hear from him, it made me settle down a little bit.”
By December, Barton’s belief in Hyland started to pay off in a big way. In late January, Hyland solidified himself as Denver’s premier creator off the bench and invigorated its guard rotation. Over the final 20 games of the regular season, he averaged 14 points, 4.6 assists, and 2.9 rebounds on 65.6 percent true shooting (.478/.412/.839 split).
“He got it towards the middle of the season, towards the end and that’s when you really seen his game really pick up and you saw him be consistent,” Barton says. “That’s what I was looking for from him, just being consistent, because we all knew he could play.”
A trade this summer meant their run as teammates was short-lived. Barton and Monte Morris were sent to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith. The two did get a chance to work together again, however, as coaches at Under Armour’s Elite 24 high school tournament in Chicago.
Both are quick to spot their shared, discernible on-court zeal. So, their advice to these athletes harkens back to that overlap. Barton encouraged them to play with passion and understand that actualizing NBA aspirations requires more than mere talent — they have to nail the mental aspect and preparation required in the league.
Growing up, Hyland didn’t get the chance to showcase himself in front of NBA players and scouts like these folks do. He wants them to maximize this platform, take to the floor and let their game do the talking. They’re among a select number of high school athletes afforded this stage, so seize it.
“There’s nothing more refreshing for guys like us to see you playing hard, even with that elite talent,” Barton says.
Across a brief 15-minute conversation with a stranger, the unmistakable warmth and depth of Barton and Hyland’s friendship is illuminated. It features little head nods, side-eyes, and smirks between each other, harbingers of a profound, joyful kinship. Their words can only convey so much, and those nuances are subtle means to further emphasize their rarified rapport.
Domineering chuckles from one repeatedly drown out and interrupt the anecdote the other shares. They grow giddy discussing the commonalities of their games. Hyland bursts out in laughter almost every time the paralleling play-styles are mentioned, as if they’ve cracked up countless times about it together. Their words are purposeful and effervescent.
Barton speaks with reverence, clarity, and conviction about Hyland’s future, one he believes might include All-Star appearances.
“Bones, he could just be really special, man. Everybody sees it, and he sees it,” Barton says. “The sky’s the limit.”
Hyland speaks with admiration and gratitude about Barton’s importance in his life.
“Will had that humbleness to him, the same swag, everything. That was a connection. It wasn’t forced,” Hyland says. “It was just, ‘Well, we got that brother connection’ early on.
“I’m just thankful for our relationship. … I see myself in Will.”