KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The mere fact that Joey Baker is still around as a relevant name nationally is an impressive feat in and of itself.
Just three years ago, Baker was a rising eighth grader at Trinity Christian School (Fayetteville, N.C.) just happy to be on the same court with Dennis Smith Jr. as a teammate.
The buzz about Baker was all about his potential to be one of the best players in the 2019 class.
“I didn’t really understand it all at the time,” said Baker, who is running with Team Felton (N.C.) at the AAU Super Showcase this week. “That’s probably a good thing too. I never wanted to be known as the player that ‘could’ve’ been really good.”
Baker’s five-star status and No. 17 overall ranking in the ESPN 60 would certainly suggest that he accomplished that mission, a rarity for players who start out with lofty and unfair expectations in middle school.
How was Baker able to escape the proverbial “too hyped too soon” curse?
“I never listened to people when they said what I could be,” Baker said. “What they would say was limiting. I’ve always had bigger goals for myself. People would say, ‘He could be really good one day,’ but I wanted to be great. I always wanted more, so I only focused on working toward what I wanted.”
Team Felton director Fred Cannon has coached Baker since he was in the eighth grade and said that he strategically put Baker in situations to keep his progression logical.
“He’s never been in a situation where he had to be the guy who averaged 50 points,” Cannon said. “He’s been eased into this moment. He’s always played up and hasn’t the burden of being a bust unless he scores 40. His parents have done a great job of keeping him rooted and grounded and working. Playing with guys like Dennis and Jalek (Felton) and Kwe (Parker) have helped a lot.”
It helped to see Smith live up to and surpass his hype, according to Baker.
Smith went from underrated to superstar to the No. 9 overall pick to the Dallas Mavericks in this year’s NBA Draft.
“Just seeing how he handled his situation was big for me,” Baker said. “The biggest thing I picked up from him was his laser focus. When he’s locked in to things, it’s really intense. People always talk about guys who never take plays off or go hard in practice, but I lived that in practice every day. I knew that if he was doing that I definitely needed to be doing that. That helped me so much.”
This summer, Baker is averaging 17 points a game with Team Felton.
After helping the Crusaders clinch the state title in 2016, he led Trinity Christian School to the state title game last season averaging 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists a game.
As a result everyone from UCLA to Kansas, Louisville, Florida, N.C. State and Texas, among many others, are all in hot pursuit.
Still, don’t expect Baker to view the full-court recruiting press as a sign that he’s somehow arrived.
“I haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Baker said. “Like I said I just have bigger goals for myself. It’s a blessing to be able to have offers from these great schools, but I want offers from everyone. I want to improve. I want to be the best. All that means is I have to get to work.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY