By LARRY VAUGHT
He was a rather late addition to the 2017-18 Kentucky basketball roster and thought his ability to make 3-point shots would be a perfect fit on coach John Calipari’s team.
However, Jemarl Baker never got a chance to showcase his shooting ability — or what he felt were underrated other parts of his game. A high school knee injury eventually needed surgery and sidelined him for the season. All he could do was sit and watch games where UK struggled to hit outside shots and listen to teammates acknowledge he was the best shooter on the team.
“Sitting out was tough but I tried to learn all I could,” Baker, a California native, said. “I had a front-row seat to learn all I could. I was not trying to be negative about being injured. People were telling me to stay positive, keep smiling. I think that helped me move the recovery faster than if I had been negative and moping around about not being able to play.”
He learned a lot of things but one thing stood out above everything else — the energy it took to succeed at this level.
Now it might be time for others to learn that Baker really is more than just a shooter. He proved that at UK’s recent Pro Day when he led the team with a 10.24-second lane agility time that ranks among the top 20 all-time best for that drill according to ESPN. He also led UK in 3/4-court sprint time in 3.18 seconds. Freshman Immanuel Quickley was second in both drills at 10.52 and 3.21seconds, respectively.
Teammates were not surprised at how fast he was.
“It didn’t surprise me to see what Jemarl did at all,” sophomore Nick Richards said. “He’s quick and he’s athletic. We see that every day in practice. He doesn’t finish first all the time in practice but he’s always the one consistently in front of everybody. He’s a basketball player, not just a shooter.”
“We were practicing those drills and he was always the fastest,” freshman Tyler Herro said. “He’s kind of sneaky like that. He is way more than a shooter as we see every day. He’s a playmaker, good on defense. He is definitely more than a shooter and obviously faster than most people knew.”
Baker downplayed his numbers, too.
“I was just out there doing what I do,” Baker said. “I knew I could run. I know what kind of speed I have but I didn’t expect to be the fastest or have one of the best times ever. But I still have to go out on the court and show what I can do.”
He didn’t play in the four exhibition games in the Bahamas as a precautionary measure to make sure his knee would be fine when the regular season started.
Baker understands why even some UK fans have doubts about him. Kentucky returns sophomore guard Quade Green and brought in freshman guards Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans and Herro. Freshman Keldon Johnson can also play guard or either wing spot.
“Last year we had good players. This year we have good players,” Baker said. “We have a lot more veterans this year and more people that have been through a season and they are teaching us what to do. I was asking questions last year when I didn’t play. I still haven’t played in a game, so I still have questions.
“These guys are all so passionate about basketball and I am as well. That’s one reason I fit right in. We compete every possession in practice. We all joke off the court and sometimes can be goofy. But on the court, we compete. I have been working on how to guard different things. I have been soaking it all in and learning all I can.”