The Arizona Wildcats barely made a third of their 3-pointers in conference play last season, placing them in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in efficiency.
Those woes were embarrassingly bad at times, like when they endured a 9-for-47 slump as they were swept by the Los Angeles schools.
It’s an area Arizona sorely needs to improve this season, but it will have to be done by an almost entirely new group of shooters.
Max Hazzard, Stone Gettings, Dylan Smith and Josh Green—Arizona’s top four marksmen from a percentage standpoint—have all moved on from the program.
But their fifth-best shooter—Jemarl Baker Jr.—is still around and Arizona is counting on him to lead the charge.
That is daunting considering he only made 34 percent of his 3s in his first season at Arizona, though head coach Sean Miller explained why he believes Baker is a better shooter than his numbers indicate.
“We expect a lot from Jemarl Baker,” Miller said Thursday. “Last year, we played him really at two different positions. We played him exclusively at the point guard position when Nico (Mannion) was out of the game for foul trouble, rest, etc. And Jemarl for a long period of time, I think he was one of the best in the country at assist-to-turnover ratio. But we also played him with Nico and he played off the ball. It’s not always easy to play those two positions, especially if you’re a non-starter. But he didn’t shoot the ball as well as he got into conference play. I think some of it is that he wasn’t always healthy. He had a number of things that he was playing through a year ago.
“This year, he’s more confident, he’s a year older, he’s healthy at the moment, we’re playing him more off the ball. He certainly can play the 1, but based on how our team is made up, I think he’ll be in the game most of the time if not always with a point guard. I think that frees him up to get away from running our team and being more of a playmaker and a shooter, but the biggest point is we need him to shoot the ball effectively.”
That’s because Arizona doesn’t have any other proven shooters. Only two other perimeter players on the roster have even played at the Division I level before, and neither can be classified as a great shooter.
Even “above average” would be stretching it.
James Akinjo made 36 percent of his treys at Georgetown, but only shot 24 percent in limited action last season. Seattle U grad transfer Terrell Brown barely made 30 percent of his 3s in two seasons with the Redhawks.
International freshmen Kerr Kriisa and Tibet Gorener are known for their shooting strokes—and Bennedict Mathurin’s is looking pretty good too—but it remains to be see how well they will translate in their first season at the college level. Plus, Gorener needs to add considerable strength before he is ready to play meaningful minutes in the frontcourt.
So if Baker struggles with his shooting, Arizona probably will too.
The good news is Baker used the extra long offseason to rehab his knee, which hindered him at both ends last season, and evidently he’s looking sharp in practice so far.
Baker said earlier in the offseason that this is the first time he’s ever entered a season fully healthy.
“When I watch him in drills and Jason Terry spending time working with him, as Jack Murphy is and Danny (Peters), all three of those guys would say Jemarl is an excellent shooter,” Miller said. “He makes free throws. He can shoot from the 3-point line. He has a great pull-up, and it’s just a matter of him gaining more confidence, getting more of an opportunity being a year older and and I think to some degree just being healthy. But I believe he can be a double-figure scorer for us. I think he can be a very consistent Pac-12 player.”
Another reason Baker is so critical to this year’s team: his experience, something the Wildcats are otherwise lacking after adding 10 newcomers this offseason.
The 2020-21 campaign will mark Baker’s fourth year in college basketball, and he and Ira Lee are the only Wildcats who have ever played in the NCAA Tournament.
Baker was a key reserve on Kentucky’s 2019 Elite Eight squad.
“And on this year’s team, if you rank experience, he’s right there at the top,” Miller echoed. “I mean, he played at Kentucky for multiple years, he’s been in NCAA Tournament games, he played in every game a year ago and had some big, big moments. I point you towards our game at Washington, which is a great road victory where he was instrumental in us winning that game and he was playing his best at the very end as well. If you look at us down the stretch, I believe Jemarl is really finding his niche. Again a different system, a different style, it takes some time to familiarize players with that second style. Because unlike James Akinjo and Jordan Brown, Jemarl wasn’t able to practice with us prior to last year, so we expect him to be a really solid player for us and so far in practice he’s been that.”