The Joey Baker UNC’s coaching staff watched in April was much different than the one it saw in July.
April’s version of Baker, a 6-7 wing from Fayetteville (N.C.) Trinity Christian, was a slightly tentative freshman playing 17U games with players two or three years his senior.
July’s version of Baker, a teammate of 2017 UNC commitment Jalek Felton on Team Felton, was an aggressive, confident rising sophomore, an Under Armour All-American and a player beginning to realize his potential.
“The first (Under Armour) session in New York was a ‘wow’ moment for him,” said Team Felton director Frederick Cannon. “After those first few games, he just settled in and realized he just needed to go out there and play basketball. The game comes natural to him.”
On the three summer shoe circuits (Nike, Under Armour and Adidas) few class of 2019 recruits played 17U. Baker’s size and the makeup of Team Felton, Cannon said, allowed him to do it -- successfully.
“We had players who made the game easy for him,” Cannon explained. “He could play his game, which is stretching the floor, putting down one or two dribbles and finishing at the cup. Without those key ingredients, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Baker averaged nearly 11 points and four rebounds per game this summer, while shooting nearly 40 percent from the three-point line
“I got more confident,” said Baker. “I put in a ton of work in May and June, just a lot of hours working on everything. It was more about comfort. Versatility is my greatest strength. I can do a lot of things, put the ball on the floor, spot up and make plays for my team and I can play a lot of different positions on offense and defense.”
Added Cannon: “Joey is his own worst critic. He works tirelessly in the gym and is always striving for more. His first though after every game is ‘what could I have done better?’”
Because of Roy Williams’s long-standing policy of tracking verbal commitments, like Felton, the same as any target, the Tar Heel coaching staff got extensive looks at Baker in the spring and summer. It’s not the first time Baker has played with a future ACC point guard, however. As an eighth grader he played varsity at Trinity with N.C. State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr.
Among Baker’s many attributes, it’s his desire to play up at an early age, as well as his growth during the summer, that has attracted UNC.
“They know him inside and out because of watching him with Jalek,” said Cannon. “Their attention has been very consistent and it’s been from the entire staff. They’ve been in contact all summer, but we’re all taking it one step and a time, there’s no rush.”
Gilbert Abraham, Baker’s trainer, also trains Raymond and Jalek Felton. Because of the relationship, Baker has been on UNC’s campus several times, in addition to his trip for “Late Night with Roy” in 2015.
“He’s (Roy Williams) one of the best college coaches in the country,” Baker said. “UNC is a well-known, big-time program. I like the campus.”
In addition to offers from N.C. State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Texas, Baker is also receiving interest from Kentucky and Wake Forest.
He's the highest-rated player in North Carolina, regardless of class. He checks in at No. 23 overall in the rising sophomore class.
“That’s cool, I guess,” Baker said of his stature in the state. “I’m just now finding it out. It doesn’t mean much because nobody remembers Joey the freshman, it’s about how you finish as a senior.”
With Felton off to UNC next year, Baker will become the face of Team Felton. Cannon said he, Baker and Abraham are working on a few things to get ready.
“He needs to get strong and he’s putting in that sweat equity,” said Cannon. “He’s working out four or five times a week. Sometimes we have to scale him back because he wants to go seven days in a row. The sky is the limit for him, but we don’t have to get there next month. We want to work on covering faster players on the perimeter, which isn’t a true deficiency, but we’re working on it.”
“It’s a fine line,” Cannon continued. “We don’t want his development to stall, but we don’t want to rush it and risk injury. When it’s all said and done I believe he’s a top-20 kid in his class.”