On Wednesday, Jemarl Baker informed Kentucky he will be leaving for other opportunities. The decision to explore other options for his college basketball career came as a surprise to many, but the tea leaves were there along.
I see three major factors leading to his exit:
Homesickness: Going back several months, there were whispers that Baker missed his family and the West Coast. After all, he moved from Riverside, California, just outside Los Angeles, to a city 2,000 miles away with the most inconsistent weather on the planet (and most important, no In-N-Out). I don’t think he was actually like miserable with homesickness, but kept in the back of his mind that he would like to be a little closer to home if a situation popped up. On top of that, while most of his teammates’ parents were able to attend almost every home game, that’s impossible to ask of Baker’s family. I can’t believe Tyler Herro’s dad was able to visit as often as he did from Milwaukee. Imagine being the Baker family trying to make it to Lexington to take their son out to dinner after a game on a random Tuesday night in January without knowing if he’d even play in the game at all. Throw in being a couple thousand miles away from your friends and family and the only home life you know while coming back from multiple injuries, and it is completely understandable if he got a little lonely at times.
Playing Time: Jemarl Baker likely would’ve contributed to next year’s team, but he wouldn’t have been certain of that. No minutes would be promised. Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley are already ahead of him in the rotation and the two of them announced they will return for their sophomore years. Then there will be a newcomer in the backcourt, Tyrese Maxey, who is expected to log several minutes and be one of the better scorers on the team. Maxey is a top-10 player in the incoming class and expectations are high for him at Kentucky. So maybe Baker would’ve played more on the wing? The problem there is two more new faces entering the fold in Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks. Whitney is a true small forward, the top-ranked one in the class, and he too has high expectations in his freshman season. Brooks also needs minutes in that spot. Baker is good in his own right, but who’s to say he wouldn’t be limited to only eight or nine minutes a game again?
Calipari’s Short Leash (The Auburn Game): Look, I am in no way aware of a rift between Calipari and Baker, nor am I even suggesting there is one whatsoever, so don’t misread my uninformed speculation here. In fact, each of their comments today suggest they are still on very good terms and I genuinely believe Cal will be rooting for Baker and will always be there for him in the future, as he said in the release. (But I’m going to be a But guy real quick.) But we saw Cal sit Baker in the final game of the season over one mistake. Baker made one bonehead play, a foul on a three-pointer in the first half, and he was sent to the bench for the rest of the game. He played only three minutes in the Elite Eight, when other players were making their share of costly mistakes and were allowed to play through them. Cal had just raved about Baker’s defense earlier in the tournament; why not give him another go when Auburn’s guards started gutting Kentucky’s defense? Condemning him to the bench for the entire game wasn’t exactly encouraging to Baker and his future, and it was kind of what Baker dealt with all season. Get beat, you’re out. Miss a three, you’re out. Every year it seems there is one player with a shorter leash and this past year it was Baker. Again, I’m only speculating here, but it’s hard to blame the kid if he felt he was the victim of a little bit of favoritism or that Cal didn’t have as much faith in him. Then with another loaded backcourt next season, who can blame him for wanting to see what else is out there?
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m right. Probably a little bit of both. Only Jemarl Baker knows why he is leaving. Whatever the case, he is a good player who has gone through a lot and deserves the right opportunity before it is too late. Good luck, Jemarl.