By LARRY VAUGHT
For some Kentucky basketball players, postgame basketball media interviews become routine because they have done so many. Not Jemarl Baker.
The redshirt freshman guard did a postgame interview for the first time Tuesday night after he played 13 minutes, scored four points, handed out three assists and grabbed one rebound in an 85-74 SEC win over Texas A&M.
“I didn’t know it would be like this,” said Baker when he saw media members surrounding him after the game. “I like it, love it.”
Who could blame him?
He had to redshirt the 2017-18 season because of a knee injury and then didn’t play in UK’s first eight games this year when the knee problem flared up again before getting in for only one minute in the overtime loss at Seton Hall. However, he played 15 minutes in the win over North Carolina, nine minutes against Louisville, six minutes at Alabama and then 13 Tuesday night.
Baker is making the most of his minutes. He has 13 points, four assists, three rebounds and one blocked shot in the 45 minutes he’s played. He made four of 11 3-point shots — and he has impressed Kentucy coach John Calipari with his defense as well.
“I thought Jemarl Baker went in and was just playing basketball. Wasn’t playing for himself,” Calipari said Tuesday night. “Wasn’t try to get his. If a guy was open, he threw it to him and guess what? It changed the whole complexion of the game.”
Forgive Jemarl Baker Sr. for smiling as he heard that and saw the reaction from Kentucky players and fans to what his son did. He knows most consider his son only a shooter, but he made sure his son, now 6-4, could do more than just shoot. Baker Sr. was a 6-1 shooting guard — who had no chance to play in the NBA at that size. He wanted his son to shoot like a two guard and pass and defend like a point guard.
“I really groomed him to be a point guard, but I also taught him that you can’t get on the court if you don’t play defense. If you can’t defend, you can’t get in the game. He knows you have to defend before you can shoot, pass or do anything,” Baker Sr. told me before his son ever got to Kentucky.
I thought about that as Calipari and others were praising the UK freshman Tuesday night and called Baker Sr. to get his reaction.
“All he wants to do is win,” Baker’s father said. “That’s the way he was raised. He gets just as much enjoyment out of a pass or defense as he does scoring. He just plays. If you need him to score, he’ll score. He will give you ball movement if you need that. If you need him to shut down a player, he can do whatever.
“I always knew he needed to be a point guard who could shoot like a two guard. He plays the point but the goal was to always have him shoot like a two at the same time. But he has really good court vision, too, and is a good passer as people are seeing.”
The Kentucky guard didn’t pat himself on the back for his performance. He said he played well and played to his strengths like he has been doing daily in practice.
“I just thought I would leave it out on the court. I got in and played my game, just brought effort and energy. I played as hard as I could,” he said. “I don’t like to force things. I am not trying to be flashy or anything. I was just trying to go out there and play basketball.”
He did and Calipari noticed, especially on defense where he says Baker is better than he realized.
“I told him, as long as you defend and rebound, I can leave you in games. Just be solid, no crazy stuff. The pass he threw to the post, no need. You’re forcing it to someone that was not — if you’re making that pass, it’s because he can catch it and score. If you’re throwing it to him and he’s going to catch it and can’t score, why throw it to him? Don’t do that,” Calipari said. “So he made that play, but other than that, kid’s playing. I keep telling him, if any of these guys are in that funk or they are not focused or they are not into it, or if my offense doesn’t go, I can’t play, then he’ll play. I told him, you’ll get your minutes now.”
Those are words the Baker family wasn’t sure they would hear after the guard spent so much time trying to come back from the knee injury suffered in high school. Calipari asked each player to pick out a word for the new year and not surprisingly, Baker picked faith because that’s what it took for him to get back to this point.
“We just relied on God and our faith,” Baker Sr. said. “He always wanted to make sure he was as positive as possible with his team. He’s really a positive kid and I was really proud of his approach when he couldn’t play. Was he frustrated? Of course he was. There was a time we knew he might not be back out there. We didn’t believe it, but we also knew it was possible.
“To see him out there now for one minute or two minutes, we are happy. To get 13 minutes like he got this last game, we are ecstatic.”
The redshirt freshman doesn’t plan to change his approach to practice or games because of his recent playing time. He does understand, though, that UK fans — along with Calipari — are changing their perception of him.
“I think people are just starting to notice who I really am,” he smiled and said.