Beginning with his first name, Kentucky freshman Jemarl Baker can be a human caution sign that calls attention to the danger associated with assumption.
Despite appearances, his first name is pronounced “Jamal.” He long ago grew used to hearing alternative pronunciations.
“More often mispronounced than pronounced right,” he said. “Growing up in school …, teachers calling me ‘Ja-marl.’”
The mauling (“Ja-mauling?”) of his name continues. “Most of the time, I don’t even correct them,” he said.
His father, who played for Cal State Northridge, is also named Jemarl. Baker does not know the origin of the name he shares with his father.
“I’ve tried to ask my grandmother,” he said. “And she still won’t give me an answer. She just tells me to deal with it.”
Do not misunderstand. Even with the mispronunciations, Baker likes his first name. “If I have a son, he’ll definitely be a 3rd,” he said.
Baker seems less accepting of another bit of labeling. He came to Kentucky billed as a shooter. He is not fond of the label. He sees it as the opposite of “positionless,” the trendy title currently in fashion in the NBA and at UK. To be considered a shooter is to be pigeonholed or limited to that one skill.
“Well, I don’t think it’s a great description,” he said. “That’s what I can do best, but I can defend. I can play-make. When people put the title ‘shooter’ on people, it’s like they’re a liability on defense. They can’t do anything else. But I can definitely do other things.”
In its preseason biographical sketch of Baker, UK begins with: “Tabbed as one of the premier shooters in the country.”
Such compliments come “all the time,” he said. “It’ll be the first thing people say to me. But it’s not what I say about myself.”
Baker made 94 three-point shots as a high school senior, made 44 percent of his shots from beyond the arc as a junior and led the under Armour circuit in three-pointers in the summer of 2016.
“I would definitely say I’m a real good shooter,” he said. “I’ve worked at it all my life. My dad, he can shoot. So he taught me what he knew. And I’ve worked on it. So I’d consider myself a really good shooter.”
The elder Baker played for Cal State Northridge from 1987 through 1990. As a senior, he had career highs in points (9.1 per game), rebounds (2.5) and shooting percentage (43.8). In his college career, he made 31.7 percent of his three-point shots.
Watching film of his father playing in high school surprised Baker.
“He was actually really skinny,” Baker said. “He’s not a skinny guy, now. But he was, like, probably 150 (pounds). He was out there competing. He didn’t play like his was skinny.”
One of Baker’s sisters, Anyia, played with a similar competitive spirit, he said.
“We’re kind of different,” he said. “She’s a tenacious defender, like a lock-down defender. I can defend really well, but she rips people. She’s, like, on-ball steals and everything. And that’s just not my game. She’s actually a really good facilitator, and I can pass, too. But she was a pass-first type of guard.”
Anyia completed her college career last season at Cal State Northridge. She earlier played for UC Davis and San Jose State.
Baker also has been flexible. He originally committed to California and then-coach Cuonzo Martin.
“Oh, I loved Cuonzo,” he said. “I loved him as a person. I loved him as a coach. He was going to push me. Things just didn’t work out. I understand that.”
Martin left Cal after last season to become Missouri’s coach.
“He’s just a really good guy, really a great person,” Baker said of Martin. “My mom loved him. And we loved the Cal campus.
“But I love Kentucky as well. So I’m here and I’m just ready to start the season off with this team.”
Baker was philosophical about how players must adapt to the nomadic nature of coaching.
“That’s just life,” he said of the adjustment that came after Martin changed jobs. “That’s in the past. Nothing that I can change. Nothing I’d want to go back and change. I’m here, and I love it and I’m ready to play on this stage.”