Duke basketball star in town, waiting on green light downtown

Less than 12 minutes a game isn't nearly enough to properly showcase the star-like stroke of the current Duke basketball team's primary energy provider.

Because Joey Baker saw only 18 total minutes of action last season and is for some inexplicable reason only averaging 11.9 minutes this season, it's only fair to add in all of his preseason stats to support this assertion: the sophomore is ready to etch his name as the next great Duke basketball gunslinger.

Baker, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound wing out of Fayetteville, N.C. who is averaging 5.6 points, seems to just be waiting on the coaches to give him both the consistent minutes and green light he has consistently proven to deserve.

Including his 4-for-5 mark from deep on his way to 16 points across his 23 minutes of action to fuel No. 1 Duke's 83-70 win over Winthrop on Friday night — thereby saving the Blue Devils from suffering consecutive non-conference home losses for the first time in 50 years — Baker is now 24-for-45 from beyond the arc while wearing a Duke basketball jersey.

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That's 53.3 percent. And that's exactly what the program needs.

After all, all five Duke squads that won national championships connected on at least 38 percent of their trifecta tries, a mark none of the past three teams in Durham eclipsed (the Blue Devils hit rock bottom last season at 30.8 percent, and the current group is now up to 35.2 percent thanks in large part to Baker's increasing role).

Baker's stroke is not only silky and accurate, but it's also compact and quick. It's the type of shot that is easy for fans to trust the moment the ball leaves his fingertips — the type they haven't often seen from any Duke basketball player the past couple of years. It's the type of shot that lands a guy who is suddenly erupting with swagger at No. 1 in highlight reels:

The best way, though, to put into words Baker's pure release and confidence to pull the trigger in critical moments — such as when trailing a 4-3 Winthrop squad midway through the first half following a shocking upset loss at home to Stephen F. Austin three nights prior — is to simply point out how one of his shots forced Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to fess up to eating his words.

Krzyzewski's postgame comments to the media suggest both a full-time green light and a boost in playing time could and should be on the horizon for the most reliable shooter on the team at the moment:

"I thought we were putting pressure on ourselves shooting...at either the 12 or eight-minute mark, my whole timeout was ‘Look, we’re squeezing the ball, you guys are putting the weight of the world on yourselves.' I said, ‘Just shoot free.’ Darn it, man, Joey came out and he went flying in transition [and shot from deep], and I said, ‘Maybe not that much confidence,’ and boom it went in."

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Shooting, though, is arguably not even Baker's greatest asset. Whether from the bench last season or both from the bench and on the floor this season, the always-in-the-moment 19-year-old has already shown to be one of the most enthusiastic presences for Duke this decade. He doesn't go through lulls like many of his teammates. He doesn't need the coaches to pep him up.

He builds up his teammates. He never brags. He never gripes. He just seems to get it.

And after the Winthrop game, during which freshman starting guard Cassius Stanley injured his hamstring to the degree that will reportedly keep him off the court until at least after Christmas, Baker responded to a reporter's question about the subsequent outlook for more playing time in a way that shows he knows what he needs to do and that extra minutes are not a handout.

"I mean, just continue to do what I've been doing: putting in extra work, staying ready, getting a lot work with the assistants before or after practice, whatever, just staying prepared for when my name is called."

So what exactly is keeping Baker from a starting gig and/or 25-30 minutes per game?

Some critics have claimed the reason for his limited minutes is his ineffective defense. Debunking that myth, though, beyond his providing the first floor slap of the season a few games back, are his 1.7 steals per 40 minutes in addition to his willingness and instincts to draw charges, including the one that gave the Blue Devils a vitamin B12 shot heading into a timeout with just under eight minutes to play against Winthrop and Duke leading by only eight.

Some observers, including Coach K, have claimed his handles need work. Maybe so, but Baker sure does seem to like putting in work, so that shouldn't be an issue. Plus, what he provides with his stellar shooting and exemplary attitude are what the Duke offense needs in order to work.

The redshirt-pulling fiasco last season was unfair to Baker. The flashing yellow he has seen through the 7-1 start this season has been unnecessary. So when Duke plays at Michigan State on Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. (ESPN), it's time to show Baker a permanent green light and then watch him burn basketball rubber by freely firing away on all cylinders all night.

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Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, opinions, and predictions regarding the 2019-20 Duke basketball season.