BY AVI ZALEON
BEAUMONT, Texas —
The who is clear.
He is Darryl Baker, arguably the most highly-touted high school recruit Pat Knight has had as Lamar University’s men’s basketball coach.
The why is less apparent.
Baker, a senior guard at Jeffersonville High School, was at one point scouted by the top college programs in the state. His caliber of talent was destined for teams that play in Final Fours.
Yet he decided last month to give a verbal non-binding commitment to the Cardinals. (Wednesday is the earliest recruits can sign a binding letter of intent with a school.)
Baker’s surprising commitment delves into the academic pitfalls student-athletes experience in the transition from high school to college.
Baker’s college basketball potential was well-known in Jeffersonville even before he started high school. But the 6-foot-3 guard did not hit his stride until his senior year, when he averaged 23.4 points a game, broke his school’s record for most points in a season (655) and earned a spot on the Associated Press’ Indiana All-State second team. He also was named the News and Tribune Area Player of the Year.
Of the five players on that second team, one is going to Purdue and another to Indiana University.
Baker was on the path to joining them, playing for teams that get broadcast on national television. But his transcript raised red flags.
“My grades,” Baker said. “I’m pretty sure that’s the key reason why they backed off.”
In Baker’s sophomore year, the Indiana basketball website, insidethehall.com, asked him what schools were “actively involved in his recruitment,” to which Baker answered, “mainly Indiana, Purdue and Xavier are the ones I talk to the most. Ohio State and Michigan State, too.”
Last December, the News and Tribune asked what schools he had “been hearing from lately,” and Baker responded, “I have a lot of junior colleges looking at me now.”
Lamar assistant coach Clif Carroll said there is a lemming-like mentality in the recruiting world, where if one program backs off or pursues a player, others will do the same.
Carroll said making the grades to get into better schools “ultimately falls on the kid,” but he said coaches have a role in getting players from high school to college campuses.
Carroll said that sometimes a high school coach will take players out of difficult core classes necessary for college in favor of courses the student is sure to pass.
Baker’s mother, Tuesday Moore, said a broken leg in her son’s freshman year was a factor in derailing his grades.
“I knew where my son was and I just know every kid can make a mistake and within his education he did,” she said. “But I believe he was probably not mentally ready to go straight to a big school, and I think he’s kind of glad it did go this way.”
Those hoping to see Baker in a Lamar uniform next season will have to wait.
The NCAA has standards for high school seniors wanting to play college sports, basing those requirements on their grade-point average in a set of core classes.
Baker has not met those standards. As a result, he will have to enroll at Lamar like a regular student without an athletic scholarship or spot on the basketball team. Per NCAA rules, he is not even allowed to practice with the team.
If Baker completes a year at Lamar, which includes earning the necessary grades to stay in school, he will become eligible to be a member of Knight’s squad for the 2014-15 season.
Lamar forward Rhon Mitchell went through the same process. He also was deemed academically ineligible his freshman year and had to sit out until competing this past season.
Many in Baker’s or Mitchell’s position often choose to go to a junior college right out of high school and then transfer into a four-year school after their sophomore year instead of waiting — and paying — for a year.
“He had lots of junior college guys coming in,” said Chad Gilbert, Baker’s high school coach. “And all along he had that connection with [Lamar University assistant coach and former Jeff High star] Sherron [Wilkerson] and that was something he wanted to stick to.”
The ties between Baker and Wilkerson predate Baker’s career in high school and Wilkerson’s tenure at Lamar, which began last season.
“[Baker’s] uncle and Sherron are best friends going back to high school,” Gilbert said. “I think Sherron has been a part of Darryl’s life for many years growing up and when you have someone like family around you that makes it awful comfortable.”
Wilkerson, who was a local legend at Jeffersonville 20 years ago, was Baker’s coach in Indianapolis summer leagues and became his legal guardian in the summer of 2011. The guardianship is permitted under NCAA regulations because Wilkerson is an actual coach.
Baker said it feels like having a family member on the coaching staff.
“It makes me feel comfortable,” he said.
The who is Darryl Baker.
The when is the 2014 season.