No. 1 Duke’s need for perimeter shooting for its NCAA tournament run next month outweighed its need to have Joey Baker available for the 2022-23 basketball season.
That’s why, after not playing in the Blue Devils’ first 26 regular season games while working on a redshirt track, the 6-7 freshman guard from Fayetteville saw his first minutes of the season in Duke’s 75-65 win at Syracuse on Saturday.
The Blue Devils (24-3, 12-2 ACC), despite their status as a leading NCAA championship contender, have proven to be an inconsistent 3-point shooting team. Duke ranks 328th in the country, having made 30.6 percent of its 3-pointers.
Duke hasn’t finished a season shooting below 37 percent from behind the 3-point line since the 2008-09 team wound up at 34.9. This year’s Blue Devils will have to turn red hot to catch that pedestrian number.
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His team’s 8 of 39 (20.5 percent) effort on 3-pointers in an 88-72 loss to North Carolina last Wednesday night was enough for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to make a change. Zion Williamson’s sprained knee injury caused an opening in the starting lineup, which created a chance to go deeper down the player rotation.
With junior reserve forward Jack White having missed 25 consecutive 3-pointers since his last make on Jan. 12 at Florida State, Krzyzewski inserted sophomore guard Alex O’Connell in the starting lineup for Williamson and told Baker they’d need him available in a reserve role.
Baker said he was “absolutely” good with seeing his redshirt burned this late in the season.
“I just tried to stay ready,” Baker said. “At end of the day, it’s all about just getting better. That’s what I’ve been doing this season. I know I’ve said stay ready a thousand times, but that’s what it comes down to. I want to help this team win.”
Krzyzewski said Baker impressed the coaches in practice more and more lately. With the regular season down to two weeks and the NCAA tournament a month away, he couldn’t wait any more for the team’s 3-point shooting to improve.
“He’s played well in practice,” Krzyzewski said of Baker. “He did a good job. Obviously we haven’t shot the ball well, except for that Virginia game. Alex and Joey are two of our better shooters. So we are going to look to see if he can continue to get stuff.”
Duke made 13 of 24 3-pointers (54.2 percent) while winning 81-71 at Virginia on Feb. 9.
In the three games following that win, the Blue Devils went a combined 18 of 83 (21.6 percent).
While O’Connell hit five of eight 3-pointers to score 20 points at Syracuse, Baker missed his only 3-pointer while grabbing two rebounds in his five minutes -- all in the first half.
With that, his chances to redshirt are gone unless he suffers an injury that keeps him out of the rest of the season.
Having committed to the Blue Devils in October 2017 to be part of the 2019 recruiting class, Baker graduated a year early from Fayetteville’s Trinity Christian Academy last May and enrolled at Duke over the summer.
He said then he was open to helping the team this year if need be. But even if he didn’t, Baker thought he would improve as a player by being in the Duke program as a redshirt.
Baker stayed ready
On Thursday and Friday, when the Blue Devils were formulating a plan for Syracuse without Williamson, Baker got word from the coaching staff to expect to play.
“All season, I’ve been trying to work my butt off and stay ready for when my name was called,” Baker said. “I told them I would be ready if they needed me. It happened this week (due to) certain circumstances. So, again, I just tried to stay ready for the moment.”
Duke junior forward Javin DeLaurier said Baker’s work has been noticed. He expects him to provide positive contributions from here on out if Krzyzewski sticks to this plan.
“Joey, he’s been working his butt off since he got on campus,” DeLaurier said. “The coaches thought it was time for him to play in a game and we were excited to see him out there so he could finally reap the rewards of his hard work. He came in and did some good things for us.”
Baker admitted to anxiousness, but not nervousness, after playing in his first college game.
He called this Duke team “special” because the group is so tight-knit.
“Behind the scenes in the locker room and practice we all push each other,” Baker said. “We are all winners. When we get out there on the court we battle. It shows.”