Last October, before his junior season of high school, Joey Baker committed to play college basketball for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
And he said he couldn’t really believe it.
“Heck no,” Baker said Monday before playing in MLK tournament at Carmel Christian School. “I wasn’t that good growing up. I was a stretch 5 (center). I would just grab rebounds and stuff. But I shot a lot in my driveway and used my imagination.”
Baker would shoot and picture himself on his favorite NBA team, the Boston Celtics; and in his dreams, he was always making game-winning shots.
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All that shooting, plus his size, eventually transformed him from a clumsy big man into an elite recruit. At 6-foot-7, 195 pounds, Baker is ranked No. 13 nationally in the class of 2019 by ESPN. By the time he choose Duke a few months ago, Baker had received more than a dozen high-major offers, from schools such as Florida, Kansas, N.C. State and Texas.
Baker’s range makes him a tough cover for bigger players, whom he can drive past as they come away from the basket to guard him. Try a smaller player, and he can just shoot over the top, with a pretty release and soft touch. Monday, Baker had 18 points, six rebounds and two assists in Trinity Christian’s 72-67 win over Asheville Christian.
“He’s one of the most versatile wings in the country,” said Phenom Hoops recruiting analyst Rick Lewis, who closely follows Carolina recruits. “He can shoot from all three levels and he has the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He’s fundamentally sound with a great feel for the game.”
This season, Baker is averaging 18 points and three rebounds for Fayetteville Trinity Christian, the same high school that produced NBA rookie Dennis Smith. Trinity Christian played Asheville Christian Monday at the Phenom Hoops MLK tournament at Carmel Christian School.
Baker – who got into some early foul trouble Monday and had trouble getting into a rhythm – has also discovered that life as a Blue Devils recruit can be tough.
“Almost every game, I’m face-guarded everywhere I go on the court,” Baker said. “Or I’m facing double-teams, and I’ve just learned to deal with it every game. The players talk to me, too, but I try to block it out and I don’t really pay attention to it. But they’re always in your ear and if they make one good play or get one stop, it’s like they think they beat the whole world. I guess for everybody, it’s their Super Bowl.”
Growing up, Baker said he was more a fan of Kansas, as he watched players such as Ben McLemore and Andrew Wiggins play for the Jayhawks, but he began to fall in love with Duke on a visit last year when the Blue Devils were playing Clemson.
“I went on a visit and I just felt the environment was right,” he said. “Then, I talked to the coaches and kept a closer eye on it, to see what players would be there and who might be leaving. It was a good fit.”
When Baker made up his mind about the Blue Devils last fall, he said that Kansas, N.C. State, Florida and Texas were most heavily involved with his recruiting. But he knew what he wanted and he didn’t want to wait.
“It is honestly a stressful process,” he said, “and if you know where you want to go, there’s no need to wait it out. I knew where I wanted to go and nothing was going to change that. So I called all the guys that were recruiting me pretty hard and told them. They understood. It’s a business and they want to use me and my game, and I want to use them in a way, too. It’s a business decision, end of the day.”
Baker said he and Krzyzewski have become close, frequently trading texts. And, for now, he’s focusing on winning a state title – or a couple of them – and then being what he calls “a totally different player” when arrives on campus in Durham in the fall of 2019.
“I’m going to keep doing the same things that got me to where I am right now,” Baker said. “That’s working my butt off and improving on my weaknesses and getting better at my strengths. I just want to be a totally different player. That’s the goal. I want to be bigger, faster, smarter. ...
“Really, I just want to keep learning the game.”
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Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr