With Wednesday’s announcement that Quade Green will transfer, Kentucky’s next-man-up philosophy seems to elevate Jemarl Baker.
“The guy I’m looking to see — and who the spotlight is on — is Jemarl,” former UK star Rex Chapman said on Wednesday.
Baker, a redshirt freshman who has played one whole minute in his two UK seasons, denied bring fazed by the sudden weight of presumed responsibility. That UK Coach John Calipari singled out better shooting as a team need more than once Friday figures to only make the spotlight brighter
“I don’t feel any pressure or anything like that,” Baker said Friday. “We wanted (Green) here. But he had to do what’s best for him. And now I’m just going to step up and work hard and play my game.”
Then a reporter chose a different word to describe the situation Baker now finds himself in. Did he see an opportunity created by Green’s decision to transfer?
“Yeah,” Baker said before adding, “I felt an opportunity before when he was here. Now, I’m just going to work hard.”
Calipari explained Green’s decision to transfer as more than an issue of playing time.
“He felt he was in a situation that he didn’t see he could come back from,” Calipari said.
The UK coach said he met with Green and the player’s parents. The player’s mother, Tamika Johnson, cried during the meeting, Calipari said.
Even with Green, Kentucky had been practically unarmed when it came to three-point shooting. Through games on Thursday, UK ranked No. 324 in three-point baskets (5.6 per game, on average) and No. 199 in three-point shooting accuracy (34 percent).
The notes UK provides the media said that recruiting analysts considered Baker “one of the premier shooters in the country with range that extends beyond the college 3-point arc.”
When asked if Baker would play against Utah on Saturday, Calipari quipped, “He’s got a better chance. Down to nine guys, so he should get an opportunity.”
Calipari described Baker as “not just a three-point shooter.” PJ Washington echoed that sentiment.
“I feel he’s a lot more than a shooter,” Washington said of Baker. “He can play at both ends. He’s going to be a great guy for us. He just needs to stay healthy and find a role real quick.”
Of course, Baker has not taken a shot in a game since coming to UK in the summer of 2017. He injured the meniscus in his left knee while playing in the California state championship game as a senior. He did not play last season because of repeated swelling in the knee, he said.
Baker did not play in UK’s exhibitions in the Bahamas in August nor in preseason exhibitions this fall nor in any game this season until a one-minute relief stint against Seton Hall last Saturday.
Baker acknowledged the length of his layoff came as a surprise.
“A lot longer (than expected),” he said. “But I’m back now. So I’m excited. I’m excited.”
Baker pronounced himself in sufficiently good shape to play and contribute. But he did add a word of caution.
“I’ve been feeling good in practice,” he said. “But we’ll see. I haven’t been in a game too much. . . . I guess we’ll see.”
Baker suggested that Kentucky is capable of improving its shooting.
“In my opinion, we can shoot it really well,” he said. “And we will shoot it really well. We haven’t been shooting it to our best lately. But we will as we keep getting comfortable, and keep getting comfortable with each other (about) how we want to play. It’ll all start to come together.”
SEC Network commentator Pat Bradley, who is the career leader in three-point baskets for Arkansas, noted how important a coordinated approach with teammates is to a shooter.
“Your teammates have got to know when you want the ball, where you want the ball and how you want the ball,” Bradley said.
Baker agreed. “We’ve been all working hard to jell with each other,” he said, “to know where everybody wants it. . . . We’ve been all getting better, and it’ll show soon.”
Utah at No. 19 Kentucky
When: 5 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Utah 4-4, Kentucky 7-2
Series: Kentucky leads 9-2
Last meeting: Kentucky won 62-52 on March 25, 2005, in the NCAA Tournament Austin (Texas) Regional semifinals.