He probably owns the title Most Mysterious Member for this year’s Kentucky basketball team. From spending an entire season (plus a few games) on the bench to that silent “R” in his name, Jemarl Baker has only just started to emerge from a space of uncertainty. And although he’s been on the team for two years – something that’s become somewhat of a rarity for Kentucky basketball – he’s relatively unknown by the BBN. In fact, he just participated in his first post-game media opportunity Tuesday after the team beat Texas A&M. When he emerged from the locker room, his eyes were wide.
“I didn’t know it would be like this,” Baker said of the swarm of media members. “I like it; I love it.”
He may have to get used to the craziness of post-game interviews. Although he’s played just 45 minutes of collegiate basketball, Baker has started to earn his spot on the court. He’s scored 13 points, 12 of which came from behind the three-point line. He’s also added four assists, three rebounds and one block.
Here are his stats so far this season, via ESPN:
When Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made his end-of-the-season appearance on Kentucky Sports Radio last year, he said Jemarl Baker was the best shooter on the team. At the time, no one quite knew what to do with that information. But now, could a hot-handed Baker be what turns up the productivity for the Cats’ season? Against Texas A&M, Baker wowed the Rupp crowd with his four-point play, and he attempted his first two-point shot of his Kentucky career.
“I just got in and played my game. I brought effort and energy and played as hard as I could,” Baker said after the win. “I don’t like to force things. I’m not trying to be flashy. I just like to go out there and play basketball.”
His humble response likely comes from his humble beginning as a Wildcat. After missing so much time due to injury, Baker’s just happy to finally be able to play his game. His favorite part?
“Just being on the court with the team. I’m just having fun, playing hard and just trying to play for everyone on the team.”
His effort contributed to an impressive outing by Kentucky’s bench against the Aggies. While many of the starters struggled, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards came in and scored 15 of the team’s first 17 points. According to Coach Cal himself, “Our bench won the game.” Calipari went so far as to say Baker’s contributions “changed the whole complexion of the game” against Texas A&M.
“I keep telling [Baker], if any of these guys are in that funk or they’re not focused or they’re not into it, or if ‘My offense doesn’t go, I can’t play,’ then he’ll play,” Calipari said. “I told him – you’ll get your minutes now.”
“We just want to play hard and give energy,” Baker said of the reserve-players’ current mentality. “That’s what Cal preaches a lot: when we come in, we have to give energy and be aggressive. I just try to go out there and play my game and I know everyone else does the same.”
And while this energy may be seen through his three-point shooting (he’s averaging about 36 percent so far this season, by the way), that’s not all he can do. Calipari was pleasantly surprised by the “shooter’s” defensive performances so far.
“I didn’t know he could defend the way he defends,” Calipari said. “He really plays hard; he really tries. I told him, as long as you defend and rebound, I can leave you in games.”
While Baker’s abilities on the defensive side of the ball may have come as a bit of a surprise to Coach Cal, it’s nothing new for Baker himself.
“I take a lot of pride in defense, and I have since I was really little,” Baker said. “My dad taught me [and] my coaches growing up taught me to defend and give it all you’ve got, whether it’s on offense or defense. I take pride in everything I do.”
As for Baker, he doesn’t really care if you call him a “shooter” or not.
“That’s for everybody else,” Baker said of his (perhaps short-sighted) label. “But I just go out there and play my game. I know what I can do well, so I just do whatever it takes to win.”
But his confidence hasn’t come without adversity. It’s not easy riding the bench for a season while your teammates are collecting wins and, in some cases, national recognition. Throughout the comeback process Baker described as “really frustrating,” he relied on his relationship with God. So, when Coach Calipari had the players pick a word to define the rest of their season, Baker’s choice was easy: faith.
“I couldn’t always see it happening, but I always had faith it would,” Baker said of his long-awaited return to the court. “It was a tough situation. I just worked hard everyday, stayed positive and trusted in God. I’m just happy to be here.”
And Kentucky is happy to finally have him.