Down a point with mere seconds on the clock, Josh Baker drove the lane against top-seeded Sunnyslope on January 26th.
The McClintock boys basketball junior guard dribbled the ball down the right side of the court, burned an on-ball defender and split two more help defenders before draining a heavily-contested layup at the buzzer to give his Chargers a 56-55 home victory.
“It was a big game, and we knew we needed that win. We were 13th in the state and they were first,” he said, describing one of the most important baskets of his career.
The win gave McClintock a significant chance at qualifying for, and even hosting, a first-round game in the AIA 5A basketball playoffs.
“It meant a lot to us,” sophomore forward Armani Williams said, “because it got us so much closer to our goals.”
From his first day with the Chargers, the coaches could tell they had a talented young player in Baker, promising many such plays to come.
Two seasons ago, as merely a freshman, he left his mark on the staff at try-outs.
“When he came to our first open gym that year and made his first eight open threes, we kind of looked at each other and said we’ve got something special here,” coach Samuel Dentz said.
Now, as a junior, Baker is the main scorer on the playoff-bound Chargers, averaging over 20 points a game.
Unlike many young talents, who are thrust into high-level competition against the state’s top performers immediately, Baker could progress along a much more typical timeline.
With a talented group of senior guards on the varsity squad his first year, the burden of scoring and leading the team was taken off his shoulders, and he had the luxury building his skill-set at a lower level to start
“He had a year on J.V. where he dominated and scored a bunch and gained that confidence. We did that instead of saying, ‘Alright, here’s varsity basketball, good luck and now go score for us,’ because that’s not easy for kids that age,” Dentz said.
With room to grow in height, weight and quickness, Dentz said Baker is not yet a physically menacing player, but that he reads the floor and has high-level knowledge of the game.
“He doesn’t jump off the page with speed or strength, but when you watch him play for a couple of games he checks off the boxes. The understanding of the game and how he reads the floor is above most at this level,” he said
But there is one skill, above all, that truly separates Baker: his jumper.
His jump shot, and specifically three-pointers, which he hits at as high of a clip as just about any player in the state, are a dangerous weapon against the Chargers’ opponents.
“It’s an elite skill set to be able to shoot the ball at that level. When he has his feet set and he’s balanced and has time to get it off, it’s almost surprising to us when he misses to us,” Dentz said.
Demanding double teams near the perimeter, with teams forced to respect his shot-making ability, the offense has opened up for Baker’s teammates as well. He can put the ball on the floor and drive, getting to the lane against over-extended defenders, and either score or dump off to the other four players on the floor.
“He just is so effective when he drives, because our team can shoot well. When he drives, everybody sucks in on him because he’s the key player,” Williams said. “So if I’m open he looks for me or the other guys. He believes we can shoot the ball and when he attacks it works out.”
As a junior, Baker is in no rush to choose a potential place to call home in the college game, but he said he has received some interest from coaches at the next level.
Though unsigned to this point, Dentz said that if the young guard puts in extra time in the weight room, and works on his conditioning and ability to be a vocal leader, he should not have a problem finding a place to play come graduation.
“That time’s going to come, no doubt about it. It’s just a matter of when and who,” Dentz said. “When I talk to coaches I tell them to look at him and give him a shot because he’s going to be a steal for someone when they do extend that offer.”
With scouts and coaches coming to games and practices, there is an inherent danger of losing focus on the current season, but Baker said he can compartmentalize the recruiting, separating that distraction from the present day.
The Chargers, moving forward, have one united goal.
“We are chasing the championship, that’s it. We all want it as much as any player in the state, so we just come out and fight against any team we play against,” Baker said.
With just three seniors on the starting roster, McClintock brings a relatively-inexperienced team into postseason play, but if the players can perform how coach Dentz believes they can, the Chargers could prove a tough out in the playoffs.
“We may need to catch lightning in a bottle here, and get hot and stay hot, but they’re definitely capable and they’re starting to realize it,” he said.