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'Something you dream about': Joey Baker enters his fourth year with Duke men's basketball

Joey Baker is Duke's only four-year player on the roster this season, and his longer tenure has led to captainship.
Joey Baker is Duke's only four-year player on the roster this season, and his longer tenure has led to captainship.

Just taking it day by day.

If you ask Joey Baker what his mindset is going into this season, that’s what he’ll probably tell you. That’s what he told virtually everyone at Duke’s preseason media day, and that’s what he told virtually everyone at the ACC preseason media day.

It may sound like a repetitive non-answer, but for Baker’s senior season it’s a mindset he needs to have. A senior season coming off of two consecutive heartbreaking endings. A senior season coming off of a year of empty Cameron Indoor Stadium bleachers and the worst record Duke has had in over two decades.

And, of course, a senior season coinciding with head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final ride.

“For it to be my senior year and Coach’s last year, too—I mean, that’s incredible,” Baker said. “And I think this season, it's just perfect. The way last season ended—it wasn't the season that we wanted to have—so having one more shot at it with Coach and with fans back and everything, we're just gonna approach every day, work as hard as we can and try and be prepared.”

A rollercoaster ride

Baker’s had an interesting Duke journey to say the least.

First, there’s the well-documented reclassification. After initially committing to the Blue Devils in Oct. 2017 as one of the top high school juniors in the country, Baker announced the following May that he would be joining Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and company in Durham that fall.

Baker was giving up a lot to come to Duke a year early—becoming a McDonald’s All-American, a potential run at a third state title at Trinity Christian School, etc.—and had many people scratching their heads at the decision, especially as the 2018-19 season went on and it appeared he wouldn’t have a major role on the team.

But Baker and Duke’s coaching staff both saw the reclassification as an opportunity for him to develop as a player, as well as give the former a chance to “be a part of something special.”

For the vast majority of the season, Baker practiced with the team but remained a healthy scratch come gametime, presumably redshirting. Then, “Shoe-Gate” took Williamson out of the Blue Devils’ lineup down the stretch, which sent Krzyzewski on the lookout for an offensive spark.

So, he sent Baker on the floor in a late February contest against Syracuse, burning the freshman’s redshirt with just five games remaining in the regular season. The move didn’t pay off—Baker played just five minutes that day against the Orange, scoring no points, and notched just a single 3-point field goal in 13 total minutes for the rest of the season.

That wasn’t the only bump in the road throughout Baker’s first three years in Durham, though.

The Fayetteville, N.C., native saw relatively consistent playing time as a sophomore, averaging five points during the regular season while shooting 41.0% from the field and 39.4% from three in 12.5 minutes a night. And with the real season—meaning ACC and NCAA tournament time—on the horizon, his childhood dreams were unfolding right in front of him.

“It’s something you dream about as a kid,” Baker said. “Playing in the driveway, playing for Duke and being in big games, big moments.”

But then, everything came crashing down when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign.

Throughout last season, as Baker struggled individually and the Blue Devils endured their worst season since the turn of the century, it seemed like things couldn’t get much worse. Then came March 11, when COVID-19 once again ended Duke’s season just as it was starting to reach its potential.

“I think the hardest moments were definitely the way that my sophomore and junior year ended,” Baker said of the most difficult moments he’s had to overcome during his career. “You work your butt off all season, and it's for a chance to play in March and to see what happens. And having that cut short both times, it's tough to describe, but it makes me appreciate having another shot at it knowing that this year we’ll have a good chance at playing in March and taking it a game at a time and then taking nothing for granted.”

‘A special year’

This year, however, is a chance to make up for everything that hasn’t necessarily gone to plan thus far. And the first part of that on Baker’s end is understanding his role on the floor.

Baker may not be the do-it-all five-star some projected him to be out of high school. But on a team with Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Wendell Moore Jr. and others, he doesn’t need to be.  

Instead, he just needs to be someone Duke can rely on behind the arc, can rely on for a stop on defense and can rely on to do all the little things role players need to do for a team to truly be a championship contender.

“I’m looking forward to him having a breakout year, and to be a specialist for us,” Krzyzewski said in an Instagram video this past April. “He’s gotta knock down those shots, and in order to knock them down, you gotta take them. And I know he’s ramped up to make sure that he has a great year.”

Baker seems to be taking the specialist role in full stride, labeling himself an “energetic, gritty, floor-spacer” in another Instagram video later in the summer. But perhaps just as important as his role on the court will be his role off of it.

Last month, Duke announced that Baker and Moore would assume the role of Krzyzewski’s final captains at Duke. It’s a position that undoubtedly comes with pressure, but is also one Baker’s been preparing for.

“Being a better leader,” Baker said of his offseason focuses. “I feel like last year, we were lacking that a bit. So making sure that there's a voice and a presence, I think Wendell and I have done a good job with that, and then having Theo [John] and Bates [Jones] as older guys has helped a ton.”

Furthermore, serving as captain for a team that will garner as much attention as this one will, and has the potential to be among the most memorable in college basketball history, is an opportunity for Baker. It’s not only an opportunity to make up for the disappointment of the last two (or three) seasons, but an opportunity for Baker’s Duke career to culminate in the way he imagined it would on his driveway as a kid.

That’s surely a lot of things to think about at once, though. So for now, Baker’s just going to take things day by day.

“Obviously, I want the game to start and I want to get competing and stuff, but I'm trying to soak in every moment,” Baker said. “It's my senior year, last year, and then Coach’s last year. So taking it day by day, and really enjoying every moment with this team, these coaches, because it's a special year.

“Especially after last season, not having fans, just the overall COVID environment. I feel like this season is just a combination of a lot of exciting things. We can't wait to get going but we're gonna enjoy every second before.”

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.

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