Amidst the excitement of one of the best recruiting classes in college basketball history, something important, and yet relatively under the radar, happened: the reclassification of freshman Joey Baker.
Originally a member of the high school class of 2019, Baker committed to Duke Oct. 29, 2017, just 28 days after Duke offered the small forward from Fayetteville, N.C. With some of the best freshmen in Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and R.J. Barrett already committed to the Blue Devils at the start of last May, Duke fans figured their 2018-19 team was set in stone—until Baker decided to forgo his senior year of high school and come to Durham a year early.
This year will mark the second consecutive season in which a five-star recruit reclassified to play in a higher class for the Blue Devils, with 2018 ACC Player of the Year Marvin Bagley III doing the same for last year’s team. Unlike Bagley, however, Baker did not retain his five-star status for his new class, as his ranking dropped from No. 13 to No. 41.
The maneuver brought up questions about Baker’s motivations for the decision, and whether he would even get any playing time for this year.
After playing 44 minutes during Duke’s Canada trip, and a combined 21 minutes in Duke’s two exhibition games, the possibility of head coach Mike Krzyzewski choosing to redshirt Baker for this year remains viable, but somewhat unlikely. Nonetheless, it is clear that Baker did not reclassify to start and play a big role for the Blue Devils—at least this year. Instead, he hopes to develop and grow as a basketball player, with plenty of help from his classmates and coaches.
“Pretty much the whole reason is just getting better throughout the year,” Baker said. “Learning from Coach, it's such a great coaching staff. They’ve been through what we’re going through and they know all the ins and outs so I’m just learning from them.”
It's undeniable that practicing with and against Duke’s loaded freshman class—a foursome of potential NBA all-stars—will help Baker improve his game significantly more than going against high-schoolers. By reclassifying, Baker will also receive valuable experience and mentorship from being around Duke’s upperclassmen, especially junior captain Jack White, who raved about Baker’s hard-working mentality.
“I see a lot of myself in him since day one, same as all the freshmen, it's the same,” White said. “It's a credit to him and the work he's put in, really buying into the system, and working out how he can really contribute to the team and help us win. He's done a great job, and I'm really excited to see how he's going to continue to improve as the season goes on.”
Krzyzewski has echoed White’s sentiments, demonstrating that he also thinks highly of the young forward. With all the positive reviews, it would not be surprising to see Baker’s improvement from summer practices earn him some time on the floor. He is projected to be one of Duke's better spot-up shooters along with White and sophomore Alex O'Connell.
Whether the Trinity Christian School product plays or not this year, and whatever his reasoning was to enter college a year early, the net result should be positive.
Baker’s enthusiasm to develop and willingness to sacrifice parts of his life for basketball, should provide give Blue Devil fans a jolt of optimism. Baker will most likely stay at Duke for at least his sophomore year, and with a season of tough ACC play and NCAA tournament experience under his belt, could be ready to lead another Krzyzewski to great success—similar to the path of Grayson Allen.
"There’s no days off...if you take a day off here, you’re gonna get exposed ,so you’re just bringing your best every day,” Baker said. “You pick up ways to survive and have success out there so you’re just kinda just learning trying to stay afloat. And it's working, you know? I’m just learning so much from the coaching staff and the rest of the players."
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Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.