RALEIGH, N.C. – Joey Baker always knew his time would come, he just never envisioned that time would be now.
Baker, a 6-foot-7 freshman wing at Trinity Christian School (Fayetteville, N.C.), thrived last year while taking cues from Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 1 point guard in the ESPN 100.
But when Smith tore his ACL at adidas Nations in early August, which forced him to miss his senior season, Baker went from role player to one of the Crusaders go-to players.
“It’s a big jump because I thought I’d have a little more time to get ready for this role,” Baker said. “But I’m just trying to step up and get better as I go.”
The on-the-fly approach worked well for Baker in Trinity Christian’s 63-57 loss to Robinson (Concord, N.C.) Tuesday at the High School OT Holiday Invitational. He scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
“The original plan was for Junior (Dennis Smith) to play with this freshman group,” Trinity Christian coach Heath Vandevender said. “But unfortunately he got hurt and we’re in a situation where Joey is stepping up and taking the challenge. We need our seniors to be seniors. We have seven freshmen on our roster. Joey shouldn’t have to be the guy as a freshman, but it’s the situation we’re in sometimes and he’s handling it well.”
Baker got a taste of his new role this summer playing with Team Felton on the AAU circuit where he averaged 17 points a game.
He said going from “the young guy on the team who didn’t wanna disappoint Dennis” to “having no pressure and just focusing on how to win games” has been an unreal transition.
Smith will enroll early at North Carolina State next week while he rehabs from his injury.
“When I first heard about Junior I felt bad for my friend,” Baker said. “This new role has made me grow up a lot on the court. I think the biggest thing I’ve leaned this season is to stay patient and remember that it’s just basketball.
“Sometimes people overthink it, but I try and make everything really simple on the court. I’m in a role that I didn’t know I’d be in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do everything I can to make it work.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY