“The uncertainty has been killing me,” Jemarl Baker Jr. continues to prepare as the team waits to return to campus
Arizona men’s basketball guard Jemarl Baker Jr. sits in his room in Menifee, Calif., next to his medals that he has collected over his high school career. His bed is placed under a framed poster of his favorite basketball player to ever wear a Chicago Bulls uniform. No, not Michael Jordan; Derrick Rose.
Baker is currently cooped up in his family’s home, working out in his backyard where he practices his shot every morning with his dad. He’s also been meeting up with his personal strength trainer this off-season to improve his speed and finishing. It’s the most he can do right now as he, and the rest of his team, wait for the green light from campus officials to allow the Wildcats to return to Tucson and practice as a team.
Arizona was originally scheduled to bring it’s men’s basketball team back to campus on July 27 but now hopes to return sometime in August after the athletic department paused its reentry plan for its student-athletes last month with no definitive return date set in place.
Baker is more eager than most to play basketball again, hoping to bounce back from his first season with the Wildcats where he averaged 5.7 points and 2.3 assists, shooting 36% from the field and 34% from three.
Baker feels he has something to prove as he told the media on Wednesday in a Zoom press conference that he was playing at “about 70%” last year after an injury he suffered at the beginning of last season.
“I messed up my hip right before the season and that kind of trickled down to my knee being aggravated as well,” Baker said. “That really hurt me defensively. I felt like I couldn't move at times.”
Although the extended off-season has helped Baker get back to feeling healthy again, the unpredictability has had him chomping at the bit to play again.
“The uncertainty has really been killing me,” Baker said. “I’m just trying to stay ready, get myself ready now so whenever the day comes and we’re able to start going again, I’ll be ready for the opportunity.”
Baker continues to train but can’t help remembering how abrupt the 2019-20 season ended. He recalled being in Las Vegas last March for the Pac-12 tournament walking through the hotel on his way to shootaround when he saw the coaches walking in the opposite direction. They told him to meet in the team suite where he was then given the news that the tournament had been canceled. The Wildcats had finally looked like a team with momentum after beating Washington the day before and were rolling into the next round of the tournament.
“We were ready for the next game,” Baker said. “I woke up that morning thinking that we were going to have a game … it was kind of weird. I wasn’t sad at the time, I was really [feeling] anything. I was just shocked.”
But that’s all in the past as Baker has now begun preparing for next season. The Wildcats will trot out a roster with a different look than past years. The team is composed of six international recruits and features 10 new players. This off-season would have been extra beneficial to practice in-person together as a team with so many new faces, but Baker has tried to make the best of it.
“I haven’t met up with any of them, but I talk to them often,” he said. “I’ve been talking to Ira [Lee]. We’ve been having team Zoom meetings and we talk to everybody. [Brandon Williams] is one of my friends. I talk to him often. I was actually playing a [video] game with him last night. I talk to James [Akinjo] every once in a while, just talking to everybody seeing how they’re doing and we’re all looking forward to getting back to campus whenever that would be.”
Baker sees his role next season as a leader amongst a roster full of ball handlers that are expected to be competing with him for playing time.
“Being somebody that’s played in really big games and somebody that’s kind of been through it,” Baker said. “Just trying to lead and trying to win and hopefully win a national championship here.”
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