Despite returning just a single starter from last season, the No. 22 Michigan men’s basketball team expected to dominate its season opener against Purdue Fort Wayne.
But the downsides of major roster turnover showed in the early going. A sluggish start, where the Wolverines were shooting poorly from the field, left them in need of a spark plug.
Struggling to produce offensively, missing defensive assignments and falling short of the success they’d shown in the exhibition matchup, the Wolverines needed some juice.
Enter graduate guard Joey Baker.
Just under four minutes in, and standing in the corner of the court as the first sub off the bench, Baker was poised and ready. With his hands mimicking his starting shooting form, it was as if he knew he’d end up with the ball — and the chance to make a momentum-shifting shot.
Whipping the ball all the way around the arc, Baker’s teammates fed him in the corner. And as the ball floated off his fingertips, barely touching the net on the way through the hoop, Baker changed the trajectory of the Wolverines’ season opener just minutes into the game, sparking an 18-0 run that would be the basis of Michigan’s lead for the rest of the game.
“He can shoot the ball,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said. “I think you saw that out there tonight. He’s a floor stretcher. Somebody that commands a lot of attention and makes it easy for me if I’m out there on the floor.”
There’s been much speculation about Baker throughout the offseason. Transferring from Duke and undergoing hip surgery, it was unclear how successful Baker was going to be in delivering the veteran leadership this Michigan squad desperately needed after rampant roster turnover.
Baker also offered 3-point shooting prowess, a trait the Wolverines were missing last season. But with limited playing time with the Blue Devils, many wondered if that shooting would carry over in a larger role.
On Monday night, Baker put those questions to rest.
“The kid knows how to play,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “One of his strengths is shooting, and I don’t want him to pass up any open shots. Let it fly. Make a miss, we live with the results.”
Baker’s nine points all came from behind the 3-point line. Shooting 50% from deep, Baker resurrected a poor 3-point shooting night from the grave, as the Wolverines shot just 31% from beyond the arc. Adding three rebounds and an assist to the stat sheet, Baker was a key component of the Wolverines’ offense. In only 12 minutes of playing time, he deeply affected the Wolverines’ momentum and the game’s overall trajectory.
While he was a spark on the offensive end, Baker’s flame flickered on the defensive end. Returning from hip surgery, Baker isn’t the fastest or most agile player on the floor. He sometimes struggled to stick with his man, forcing players like Dickinson to help off his man and leading to easy scoring opportunities for the Mastodons.
“(Howard’s) philosophy is always like ‘I’m gonna let you rock out on the offensive end, as long as you just are able to guard your man and be in the right spot,’ ” Dickinson said. “That’s big for him is being able to guard on the defensive end. He always talks about ‘two-way players’.”
If Baker can correct those defensive mistakes and evolve into the kind of “two-way player” Howard looks for, Baker could become a more consistent contributor.
And with more playing time comes more opportunities for Baker to solidify himself as a dangerous sharp-shooter other teams will have to contend with. Adding another layer of offensive depth with his 3-point shooting will only serve to open the floor for players like Dickinson.
But, no matter the situation, Baker proved on Monday night that he’s capable of reviving a dormant offense.
And that’s a confidence that can’t be taught.