Meet the Wildcats: Loyalty, family fuel Baker on and off the court

Special thanks to Papa John’s for presenting this year’s Meet the Wildcats series.

The 2017-18 season is fast approaching, and head coach John Calipari’s latest top-ranked recruiting class features seven fresh new faces. Over the next several weeks, will profile each of Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with an episode of the Behind Kentucky Basketball podcast, as well as a video of each player playing a game of Horse against either Kentucky basketball great Rex Chapman or Hollywood actor and Kentucky basketball superfan Josh Hopkins. Today, the 2017-18 series begins with Jemarl Baker, a California native who values family, loyalty and hard work above all else.

emarl Baker’s alarm goes off in what is normally sunny Menifee, California. Only, it’s not sunny today.

Well, actually, it might be sunny later, but it isn’t right now.

That’s because it’s 4 a.m.

Baker rolls out of bed, gets dressed, grabs everything he needs for the day and walks to the car. He’ll get some extra shuteye on the ride up as his dad, Jemarl Sr., begins the hour-long trek to Roosevelt High School.

It’s an arduous routine for a high schooler to undergo just to get to school. Baker did it for four years. He’d arrive on campus around 6 a.m. to get a workout in, putting up shots, building a sweat and refining his craft. After that, it was time for class.

“It was really tough,” Baker said in an exclusive interview with “Me and my dad both were very exhausted. It was tough for both of us. I would sleep in the car. For him it was tough. Just to sacrifice for me like he did, it’s just a blessing.”

Baker could have left Roosevelt to attend a different high school. Perhaps he could have transferred somewhere closer to home, or perhaps he could have gone to a school that was ranked a bit higher than Roosevelt.

Bio Blast

Position: Guard
Date of birth: June 12, 1998
Parents: Portia and Jemarl Baker
Hometown: Menifee, Calif.
High school: Roosevelt High School
Nickname: JB
Twitter: @_jeyb3
Instagram: @_jeyb3
Favorite TV show: Tom and Jerry
Favorite food: Seafood and steak
Favorite superhero: Batman
Favorite player: Kobe Bryant
Favorite sport/hobby outside of basketball: Ping pong
Favorite movie: All About the Benjamins
Favorite musical artist: Notorious B.I.G., Tupac

Instead, the 6-foot-3 guard stuck with Roosevelt, a place he called home. As a senior, he averaged 17.1 points per game, knocked down 94 3-pointers and led the Mustangs to their first state championship in school history.

“I was thinking about leaving Roosevelt, but I never really wanted to leave,” Baker said. “I thought it might have been a better opportunity for me somewhere else, but I knew I wanted to stay home. … And I’m glad because we were able to win a state championship, something that I really wanted to do.”

Baker had flown under the radar for much of his pre-college career. He had great skills, obviously, but was more of an unknown because he didn’t play on the AAU circuit until he was entering his junior year of high school.

He had committed to California as a high school sophomore and signed a letter of intent with the Golden Bears, but when then-head coach Cuonzo Martin left to take the head coaching job at Missouri, Baker reopened his recruitment.

It didn’t take long for Kentucky and Coach Cal to come calling.

“I was star struck when I first saw him, but once he started talking and everything like that, then I just settled down and actually listened to what he had to say and everything,” Baker said of his first visit with Coach Cal in California. “I didn’t commit just because it was Kentucky. Like, I actually loved what he had to say and loved the opportunity as well.”

The Wildcats were in the midst of assembling what would end up being their eighth No. 1-ranked recruiting class in nine years under Calipari, but they needed a shooter. While Baker is just that, he’s also capable of doing much more than just shooting.

A self-described basketball junkie and gym rat, when Baker isn’t playing basketball he loves watching it and dissecting it.

“Whenever I can I study the game,” he said.

He would watch countless hours of his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, not because he wanted to model his game after the future hall of famer, but because he loved his mentality on the court. When it comes to shooting, it’s Stephen Curry who has the best stroke in the game.

Jemarl Baker would wake up at 4 a.m. each day to drive an hour to school and get a workout in before classes started. (photo by UK Athletics)

He didn’t limit his film study to the pros.

“I actually watched a lot of (Kentucky games),” Baker said. “They’re all televised so I’ve actually been a Kentucky fan since probably middle school.”

Baker has played point guard for nearly his entire career and his length gives him the type of defensive potential that Calipari loves to see on his teams. But Baker is known by many as a “shooter,” a label that has a few negative connotations often associated with it, many of which include a lack of defending.

To the contrary, defense is Baker’s top priority.

“In high school, I guarded the best player every game,” he said. “It’s something I take pride in. I hate when people score on me. People say I’m a shooter, but I focus on probably everything else a little bit more.

“I can shoot the ball, but I don’t see myself as a shooter. I just know I can shoot. I don’t see myself as just a shooter.”

Now, after four years at an “underdog” school and playing as an under-the-radar prospect, Baker joins the most widely discussed college basketball program in the country. Additionally, the Associated Press has ranked the Wildcats in the top three of its preseason poll each of the past six years, and in the top five in seven of the past eight years under Coach Cal.

The days of low expectations for Baker’s team have been replaced by having the proverbial target on its back.

“(Defense is) something I take pride in. I hate when people score on me. People say I’m a shooter, but I focus on probably everything else a little bit more. I can shoot the ball, but I don’t see myself as a shooter. I just know I can shoot.” – Jemarl Baker
“This will really be the first time in my life where I’m playing with like a super team,” Baker said.

“It’s just a different mindset where you’re trying to attack the best team instead of being on the best team and everybody attacking you.”

And when it comes to Baker, personally, proving doubters wrong is as much a part of his game as anything else he does on the floor.

“People (have) doubted me my whole life pretty much, saying I’m not good enough to be certain things,” Baker said. “It’s just fuel to the fire, really.

“I’ve honestly been under the radar my whole life, so it’s nothing changed. I’ll continue to prove myself and try to prove myself right every time.”

The key for Calipari’s youngest team to play beyond their age, Baker says, will boil down to how they come together and if they can play unselfishly – to which he believes they both can and will.

For his part, Baker brings an ability to stretch the floor and shoot from just about anywhere. When Calipari called Baker the “knockdown shooter” this class needed, he didn’t shy away from the pressure that comes with that statement.

“I really don’t believe in pressure,” Baker said. “This is what a basketball player wants – to be in this position and have opportunities like this. Of course there’s pressure, but it’s what you want.”

Baker is able to shrug off any outside pressures thanks to that work ethic he’s acquired throughout his youth. He’s put in the hours to trust what he can do. His biggest influence on the court is his family, which includes three older sisters.

“My dad pushes me harder than anybody,” Baker said. “That’s why I’m here.”

And when Baker takes the court, whether it’s at a workout, in a big gym or a small gym, it’s his dad who remains on his mind and in his ear. And that has made all those hour-long car rides worth their latest journey together, from California to Lexington.

“He tried not to show it, but it definitely hurt him,” said Baker about his parents dropping him off in Lexington. “He called me the other day saying how much he missed me and things like that. I just can’t wait to be able to go back home in August to see him.”