Freshman forward Tarris Reed Jr. appointed a nickname for graduate guard Joey Baker on Saturday:
Transferring from Duke this season, Baker has brought a spark for the Michigan men’s basketball team off the bench. But more importantly, he has provided imperative leadership and knowledge. Excelling in both aspects is exactly why he earned the nickname.
“I call him a wise owl,” Reed said. “He knows a lot, he’s been through a lot, he’s been through Duke. He’s seen the ins and outs of this college basketball program’s state.”
That key leadership didn’t shine through for Baker on day one, though. It took time for Baker to become comfortable with the team and carve out his role in the program. As he did so during the front end of the season, that veterency began reaping rewards for the Wolverines.
“I think coming in I had a lot to say and I didn’t know how to present it,” Baker said Saturday. “I didn’t want to overstep, coming in guns blazing right away, I kind of felt it out. And as I’ve gotten more comfortable and just more confident in being a leader, I think that started to take off. That’s been the past month, two months now where I’ve been more vocal and talking more. (I’m) just trying to be more of a veteran leader.”
Throughout this past month, becoming more comfortable has also translated to an uptick in production on the court. In his last seven games, Baker is averaging 7.3 points per game — a notable uptick from the 4.7 points per game in the 21 contests prior. Additionally, five of Baker’s 11 steals this season have come in February, showing his increased defensive intensity.
Being a strong leader doesn’t mean being the best player, but it does require ferocity on both sides of the ball. Baker has that, and demonstrates how that can help his leadership.
With some of Michigan’s younger players, that has proven effective.
“(Baker’s) the one telling me what to do on the court,” Reed said. “… He really knows the game, so having a player like that — especially a leader, especially for a young guy like me — talking to him can really help me elevate my game.”
Michigan is a young team, and having a leader who can guide the way through experience and knowledge is critical to a team’s success. The downfalls of lacking experience were glaring early in the year, as the Wolverines struggled in tight games and suffered many close losses. With Baker stepping up, those problems are less garish — at both the individual and team level.
Baker’s leadership helped Reed take a big step recently, but beyond player prosperity, it’s aided in the Wolverines’ recent success as a unit. Michigan is 5-2 in February and looks more succinct than it did to start conference play.
“I sensed it for myself, the team was in need of (a leader) and I could offer it,” Baker said. “So I just kind of had to step up and start talking more, start doing whatever it took for the team.”
His leadership will face a considerable test on Sunday as the Wolverines face Wisconsin for the second time this season. The Badgers are one of Michigan’s two losses in its recent strong stretch. How the Wolverines bounce back from a disparaging loss less than two weeks ago in Madison will speak volumes. And for Michigan to win, Baker’s contribution must be indicative of his growth as a leader this season.
Although the matchup doubles as senior day, where Baker will be the only rostered player getting honored Sunday, Baker made it clear that he isn’t focused on it. His mind isn’t on his individual accolades or recognition, but instead on team-wide success.
And it’s his blooming leadership stemming from that team-centric attitude that can guide the Wolverines’ success — on senior night and beyond.