Duke basketball success hinges on Coach K trusting Joey Baker

Duke basketball (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

A skilled scorer with an admirable attitude shouldn’t have to claim permanent residence on the Duke basketball bench for the final two months of the season.

The 2019-20 Duke basketball team (19-3, 9-2 ACC) is 10-0 when Joey Baker plays at least 15 minutes. However, his zero minutes in Saturday’s 97-88 victory at Syracuse sure made it seem as if head coach Mike Krzyzewski trusted the 6-foot-7, 210-pound sophomore wing the least among his 10 regular contributors.

True, one selective stat doesn’t tell the whole story. No worries, for a whole collection of Baker-related numbers argue the Fayetteville, N.C., native warrants more opportunities to showcase his worth in February, March, and possibly April.

Let’s start with No. 7 Duke’s 63-55 win on Tuesday night at Boston College (11-12, 5-7 ACC), in which the 19-year-old saw only 13 minutes yet managed to serve as the team’s saving grace. While the rest of the Blue Devils combined to shoot 34.5 percent from the field (20-for-58) and 0.0 percent from beyond the arc (0-for-14), Baker was a perfect 3-for-3, including 1-for-1 from downtown.

In the first half, Baker didn’t appear to do anything wrong after entering the game seven minutes in, and Duke even cut its deficit by three points across that two-minute stretch with him on the floor. Nevertheless, Krzyzewski did not call his number again until seven minutes had passed in the second half.

At the time, the Blue Devils led, 36-34, and the program’s possible end to a 30-year streak of hitting at least one 3-pointer in every contest was becoming a hot topic. By the time Baker exited the game with one minute remaining — after tallying eight points, a rebound, and a steal — Duke’s win streak (now four games) and the 3-point streak (now 1,081 games) remained intact.

Within five minutes of his entering the second half, his silky mid-range jumper, aggressive “and-one” drive, and sigh-of-relief swish from deep had ignited Duke’s stagnant offense, and his energy level had obviously boosted that of his going-through-the-motions teammates. Plus, Baker was a pivotal vocal piece in the center of a fullcourt zone that stymied the Eagles down the stretch.

No, Baker is not a great defender. Also, he’s not a strong rebounder. Nor is he an impressive ballhandler.

That said, Baker’s shortcomings are never due to a lack of effort. And his effort has proven time and again to be contagious.

Most importantly, the numbers show that Baker is Duke’s deadliest threat from long distance — not to mention the most reliable foul shooter at 91.7 percent (11-for-12, with his first miss coming against Boston College). He leads the team with 3.7 makes from 3-point land per 40 minutes; meanwhile, his 42.4 percent 3-point clip (25-for-59) is higher than that of any Blue Devil with at least 10 attempts.

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Add to that the fact Baker is fourth on the team in points per 40 minutes (18.6). Furthermore, he has never committed more than two turnovers in a game, and junior combo guard Jordan Goldwire is the only Blue Devil averaging fewer giveaways per 40 minutes (Goldwire at 1.3 and Baker at 1.8).

So maybe the efficient Baker, who is now averaging only 13.6 minutes per game, needs to take more playing time from inefficient junior guard Alex O’Connell, who has connected on a dismal 24.1 percent of his 3-point attempts for the season while averaging approximately one brainfart every couple of minutes.

Or maybe Coach K needs to let Baker sometimes try his hand at being a stretch-four so that he can share time with inconsistent freshman Matthew Hurt. With his broad shoulders and noticeable determination, maybe all he needs is the challenge to show he can hold his own on defense against big fellas down low — while potentially being a nightmare for giant defenders to chase out to the perimeter.

Besides, with a projected 2020-21 Duke basketball roster showing more talent and experience on the perimeter than in the paint, Baker’s best chance in the longterm to see regular action as a Blue Devil might be to learn to play with his back to the basket at times (of course, bulking up a bit in the offseason also wouldn’t hurt).

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Plain and simple, though, no matter where Baker’s minutes are to come from, his shooting and slashing are imperative to Duke making a deep run in the 2020 NCAA Tournament. After all, how many teams have ever advanced in March after going 0-for-14 from deep?

And how many past Duke basketball seasons under Coach K have come to a sudden end the first or second weekend of the Big Dance as a result of the type of prolonged scoring woes that a weapon like Joey Baker would surely help prevent?

Yes, all Joey Buckets needs to become a consistent clutch contributor — and a fulltime energy provider — is Coach K’s full trust every time out.

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