During a press conference at the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, Memphis center Joey Dorsey was asked if his hometown of Baltimore was as tough as it was depicted in the hit HBO show The Wire.
“No,” Dorsey said, pausing for effect. “It’s worse.”
Antonio Barton knows exactly what Dorsey was talking about. Tennessee’s new point guard grew up in Baltimore and says that city’s mean streets helped shape him as a player, and a person.
“Coming from Baltimore, you have to be tough,” Barton said on Wednesday during his first media opportunity as a Vol. “I’ve played street basketball all my life, with older cats that pushed me around, toughened my game. Growing up, there were a lot of distractions, violence and gang stuff. You had to be a motivated person to stay on the right path.”
That path has taken Barton all across the Volunteer State, from Memphis, where he spent three years playing behind five-star point guard Joe Jackson, all the way east to Knoxville, where, thanks to an NCAA rule that allows players who graduate with eligibility remaining to transfer to another school and play without a redshirt year, Barton finally gets the keys to a high-powered offense.
For Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, adversity turned into one of the best breaks he’s gotten during his time in Knoxville. When it was announced last May that two-year starting point guard Trae Golden was going to transfer, it left Martin with a gaping hole in a starting lineup that many media pundits had deemed NCAA tournament worthy. But without Golden, those pundits weren’t so sure.
Enter Barton, whose minutes were cut as Jackson emerged last season to become the player everyone thought he could. Because he was on pace to graduate this summer, Barton’s options were wide open. He could have stayed at Memphis and been a reserve on a Top 25 team, but he decided to see who needed his services as a starting point guard.
When Barton announced he was transferring, it touched off a recruiting frenzy among power conference schools. The smart money for Barton’s new destination was Maryland. Barton has a young daughter still living in Baltimore, and Terrapin coach Mark Turgeon has kept the program he inherited from Gary Williams competing at a high level.
Barton trimmed his final list to Maryland, Texas A&M and Tennessee. But once Golden bolted, Barton’s choice was clear.
“It was the comfort level I had with the coaching staff,” Barton said. “And the players. The whole time during the recruiting process, they were texting me, telling me they wanted me here, welcoming me even though I wasn’t even there yet.”
Martin could barely contain his glee when Barton decided on Tennessee. A potentially devastating loss was turned into a gain. As talented as Golden is, Barton is a much better fit as a point guard in Martin’s system.
“Antonio is a tough kid, and he's got a lot of big-game experience,” Martin said. “He can knock down shots, he loves to defend, and he's going to make plays for his teammates. His style of play is in line with the identity I want for our program. He's a tougher breed.”
You don’t have to read between any lines to decipher what Martin perceives as the difference between his old point guard and his new one. Golden was never going to be accused of being tough, and in fact, under two different coaching staffs, that s-word—soft—might have been tossed out a time or two to describe him.
Golden wasn’t a pesky on-ball defender, and last season, his 3-point stroke all but abandoned him. Worse, he often put the brakes on Tennessee’s transition game, even though Martin wanted the Vols to push more often so they could collect easier baskets and prevent the prolong scoring slumps they sometimes dropped in to last season.
Barton might be the polar opposite of Golden. He loves to run the break, he’s a career 41 percent 3-point shooter—that’s in Chris Lofton territory, Tennessee fans—and he’ll gladly climb into an opposing point guard’s jersey and take him out of the picture.
Asked to describe his game, Barton offered a one-word reply.
“Aggression,” he said. Then he expounded a bit. “That’s on the defensive end and the offensive end. I play with aggression.”
Barton’s new teammates have noticed. The reports coming out of pick-up games have been glowing.
“The kids have been raving about him,” Tennessee assistant coach Kent Williams said. “They talk about how explosive he is, how much he attacks in transition. That wasn’t really Trae’s style. He was more of a power point guard because he was a pretty big kid at 205 pounds or whatever. Antonio likes to get out in transition, and so do we.
“In basketball, the hardest thing to do is guard teams in transition. When your back’s to the wall and you’re sprinting, that’s a vulnerable spot. With all our athletic wings—Jordan McRae, Robert Hubbs, Josh Richardson—Antonio’s going to have some weapons in transition.”
Barton knows that all too well.
“It’s a great fit for me,” Barton said. “I’m blessed to walk into a situation like this, with these players, and these coaches. It was the best decision for me.”