Already with a highly regarded recruiting class boosting expectations next season, Arizona improved its long-term future Tuesday when former Kentucky guard Jemarl (‘juh-MALL’) Baker Jr. announced he would transfer to UA.
A 6-foot-4-inch combo guard from Menifee, California, who played a reserve role for Kentucky last season, Baker chose Arizona after visiting Tucson last weekend.
He had taken earlier visits to San Diego State and Fresno State while also considering Marquette.
Baker will have to sit out the required redshirt year as a transfer next season, but he’ll be eligible to play for Arizona in 2020-21 — just as incoming five-star freshman guards Nico Mannion and Josh Green are expected to leave for the NBA draft, while seniors Dylan Smith and Max Hazzard will run out of eligibility.
Baker’s father said potential playing time that season “definitely played a part” in his son’s decision.
“He just wanted to understand his role on the team, the style of play,” Jemarl Baker Sr. said.
Baker Jr. initially signed with Cal as a four-star recruit in 2017, but Cal released him from his letter of intent after Bears coach Cuonzo Martin left for Missouri. Arizona recruited Baker at that point but he chose Kentucky, then sat out his freshman season with a knee injury.
Baker played in just 28 of 37 games last season, averaging 2.3 points and 31.0% 3-point shooting in nine minutes a game, but he had a career-high eight points with a strong defensive effort in UK’s second-round NCAA Tournament win over Wofford.
“His injury in his first year and even the early part of this year set him back a little bit, but I still believe he’s an impact player who can score and defend,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said in a statement upon Baker’s departure.
“He’s a better defender than people give him credit for, and we knew we could play him this season in any situation because we knew he was always going to defend.”
Baker’s competition for time at UK might have been tough next season, with Calipari also bringing in five-star combo guard Tyrese Maxey, among others, to his loaded roster; though Baker said his son left in large part in order to play closer to home.
“The one thing was that Kentucky was family,” Baker said. “The fans were tremendous, the coaches were tremendous. He loves his teammates, loves his coaches. He just wanted to be closer to home, that was really his thing.”
While playing along with UA forward Ira Lee on the Earl Watson Elite (now West Coast Elite) club in 2016, Baker developed a reputation for strong shooting and defense.
“Wonderful kid, high character kid. No BS,” said Ryan Silver, West Coast Elite director. “He’s a 6-4 combo guard who can really knock down shots, has a high release, is very good defensively.”
The Wildcats will have to make room for Baker. They are one over the scholarship maximum of 13 even if draft-testing wing Brandon Randolph stays in the pros.