Not long before Arizona’s scrimmage against Chico State, Jemarl Baker Jr. was called into the coaches’ offices, the reason unbeknownst to him.
“I went in there and I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
It turns out he’d get the news he had been waiting so long to hear. The NCAA granted his waiver request and deemed him immediately eligible to play for the Arizona Wildcats.
Sitting out the 2019-20 season? No longer required.
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “I talked to Coach (Sean) Miller for a little bit and then talked to my parents right after.”
And then he got back to work. Baker’s eligibility may have changed but nothing else did. He was already approaching the season as if he was going to play, even though he was unsure if the NCAA would rule in his favor.
“I was engaged with the team, I was getting better with everybody, I was pushing everybody to be better as well,” he said. “So it didn’t change for me.”
News of Baker’s eligibility was met with the same excitement by his teammates.
“Point guard, shooting guard, can knock down the 3, he can take you off the dribble, drive, mid-range, Jemarl’s got a little bit of everything,” said center Chase Jeter. “Defensively, too. So we’re going to be counting on him a lot this year. We’re really excited to have him.”
With Nico Mannion being the lead guard, Baker is spending more time at the 2 than the 1, but is willing to take on any role that’s needed.
“I have to switch my focus because it’s not my job to get anybody involved anymore when I’m off the ball,” Baker said. “Playing with [Mannion] is easy because he’s looking for me and all I have to do is focus on one thing and that’s really score the ball.”
Jemarl Baker was “ecstatic” when he learned he is eligible to play for Arizona this season.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) November 12, 2019
He details how he got the news and what he hopes to add to the team. pic.twitter.com/3qvkz6xNVp
Baker also thinks he can provide leadership and defensive mettle. Through two games, he is averaging 5.5 points in 13.5 minutes off the bench, shooting 4 for 11 from the field, 1 for 2 from 3, and 11 for 15 from the free-throw line.
Miller said Baker has only shown “a small percentage” of what he is capable of because he is still working his way back from a hip injury that kept him out of several practices during the preseason.
Slowly but surely Baker is getting up to speed. He said he rehabs his hip “a lot throughout the day” and is no longer missing practices.
“I’ve been working with [Justin Kokoskie], working with (Chris) Rounds, just it getting better,” he said. “It’s gradually getting better for sure. Regardless, I just have to step on the court and produce.”
Baker has been in and out of the trainer’s room his entire college career. He missed his freshman season at Kentucky due to a meniscus injury and experienced swelling in that same knee during his redshirt freshman season.
In 28 career games at Kentucky, Baker averaged 2.3 points while shooting 33 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3.
When asked if his injury history has been frustrating, Baker said he tries not to think of it that way.
“I try to think of it as everything happens for a reason,” he said.
After all, his knee troubles are probably why he is eligible at Arizona this season. It is unclear why Baker received a waiver but it likely had something to do with the way his injury was handled at Kentucky.
Baker only played 9.1 minutes per game at UK, and admitted on media day that there were times last season when the discomfort in his knee hindered his performance.
Baker otherwise doesn’t like to talk about his Kentucky career, but he thanked Coach John Calipari for helping him through the waiver process and says he is “blessed” to have the opportunity to play for two well-known coaches like Calipari and Miller.
“Coach Miller is a great coach, Coach Cal is a great coach as well,” Baker said. “Coach Miller, he’s a teacher. And I love that about him. I learn from him every day, every day in practice, and I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to learn.”