The question has been a common one for Jemarl Baker.
“When are you going to play?” everyone wants to know.
The UK redshirt freshman hasn’t played in a basketball game in more than 18 months. He’s been hearing that question for most of that time.
“Almost every day,” Baker replied when asked how often it gets asked.
“All the time,” his father, Jemarl Baker Sr., said about the frequency of the query.
Their hope is, a few weeks from now, they won’t have to hear it again.
Baker — a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Menifee, Calif. — came to UK last season as a much-needed late addition to the Wildcats’ recruiting class of 2017. He was a Top 100 national prospect who could do a lot of things on the court. One of his best traits — and one that UK team would sorely need — was his ability to hit outside shots.
Instead, he watched the Wildcats from the bench.
Baker also came to Lexington with a lingering knee injury originally suffered in the California state title game. He was setting a screen when an opponent tried to run through it, and the two players knocked knees. Baker played through the pain and won a state championship that day. He then waited through the swelling and eventually found out the injury was not a simple bone bruise — as originally thought — but a torn meniscus.
He ultimately had surgery last fall and was expected to return to the court later in the season. Baker was making good progress with his rehab, and then he hit a wall.
“He got to about 80 percent, and it just stayed at 80 percent,” said his father. The family and UK consulted with the surgeons, and they said it could take another few months to cover that final 20 percent to full health. So Baker was shut down for the season.
“It took us all by surprise,” Baker Sr. said.
It certainly wasn’t the way his son wanted to start his college career. Understandably, he was upset. His father noticed it on his television screen from the other side of the country.
“I could see him on the sideline sometimes, and he didn’t look very good,” Baker Sr. recalled.
Father gave son a phone call. “C’mon, man. You have to be supporting your teammates. You can’t be out there looking like that,” he told him.
Jemarl agreed, and he made the best of it.
He now looks back on his first year in college as a learning experience.
“First of all, it was just fun to be able to watch it that close. I had never been able to be that close before,” he said. “But just learning from the greatest coach in college basketball history, in my opinion, it was fun. Being able to watch practice every day. Watch how they compete. Watch the little details that go into it, it’s been great. And it’s been helping for the practices that I’ve been able to be a part of.”
Baker was expected to make his debut in a UK uniform during the team’s four-game trip to the Bahamas over the summer. He was again ruled out with knee soreness, re-fueling speculation on his future and more questions about if he would ever play for the Wildcats.
He said it was a minor flare-up that came as the result of weight room workouts. He also said he’s been back on the practice court since the team returned to Lexington.
“It’s been great. I feel good now,” Baker said. “My knee feels really good. My body feels good. I’m just trying to get back in the rhythm of things.”
That means lots of competition in a backcourt that includes returning guard Quade Green, and highly touted freshmen Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro.
That’s what Baker has been waiting for, and that’s what he spent the early part of his summer back home in California thinking about.
“He loves Kentucky. He loves his teammates, he loves his coaches, he loves the school,” said Baker Sr. “When he came back here — you know, he missed us. He hadn’t seen us for a while. California, you know. But he was so ready to go back. He was so ready to go back and get with his teammates and go do what they want to do, which is win a national championship.”
About this series
This is the fourth in a series of 13 stories featuring members of the 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Watch for all 13 in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.