In hindsight, it should have been obvious. Yet, here we are. I wouldn't say we all look like fools, but I think I can say with a certain level of confidence that we didn't expect it to play out like this. Thus far --and I want to stress "thus far", as we still have a tough conference schedule to play - Nicholas Baer has been a revelation for Iowa off the bench. The walk-on played his way into McCaffery's plans a long time ago, but this season he has played his way into the hearts of Iowa fans.
I say it was unexpected because nobody sets the bar much off the ground for college basketball players without a scholarship. We root for them when they get to play in garbage time, otherwise we just like to watch them go crazy on the sideline when the team does something great.
I say that it should have been obvious because Fran McCaffery gushed about the kid every chance he got last season. Not just this season, but last season; when Baer was proving himself in practice. And that talk continued into the offseason, when McCaffery pointed out that everybody was overlooking him. In response to a question about which newcomers would contribute immediately this year, Fran had this to say:
"A couple of days ago I probably would have said Andrew Fleming and Ahmad Wagner," McCaffery said. "The next day I would have said Dale Jones and Isaiah Moss. The two guys that everybody forgets are (red-shirt freshmen) Nicholas Baer and Brady Ellingson. Brady was injured last year, and Nicholas is a walk-on. There's been days when (Baer) was a dominant player, and there's days when he's not. I think that's the issue that we're going through right now. There's not been a consistency from those guys.
Fran tried to warn us before the season that Baer was going to be a big part of the rotation, but we still blew it off. We assumed that it was because Iowa had lost so much depth in the front court last season and they had no alternative but to turn to a walk-on. We assumed that he would probably get lost in the mix of Jarrod Uthoff, Dom Uhl, Dale Jones, and Ahmad Wagner.
We were all wrong. At least, most of us were. Maybe you saw him being a useful bench player. But if you try to tell me you saw this type of production coming, I will call you a liar.
Sure, Baer's playing time has increased since Jones went down with injury. But, again, it's not just because Iowa has no alternative. It's because Baer is a Division I talent and he's showing it in his redshirt freshman season.
We've seen walk-ons who shoot the ball well enough in garbage time, but Baer's game is well-rounded enough on offense and defense that he's not strictly a garbage time player at this level. Not only can he shoot the ball well on offense, but he also rebounds on both ends of the court, and plays defense. He blocks shots, gets steals, always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and just out-hustles everyone on the court.
He brings a lot to the table for McCaffery and Iowa, so let's talk about what he does well and what his future may hold.
Through 15 games, here is Baer's shot selection:
His best quality thus far has been his shot selection. He's shown to be a great three-point shooter and over half of his field goal attempts have come from outside. Additionally, he's attempting more of his twos near the rim and not settling for too many mid-range jumpers that have a lower success rate. Almost 90% of his scoring value comes near the rim or from outside. And he's making both of them at a very high rate.
Before I get too carried away, we should note that Baer plays a limited role on offense. He's only a freshman on a team full of upperclassmen playing at a high level. I mean, there just isn't a lot of opportunity to do more than he's currently doing in about 16 minutes per game. He's only using about 14% of possessions when he's on the court, but he's making them count when he does. His 82% conversion rate near the rim and his 50% on threes is good enough for an eFG% of 67%. He's a threat to knock down an open three, score second chance points off an offensive rebound, and he can even run the court the way Fran McCaffery teaches.
Now, this is a small sample size and likely to regress, but Baer has the highest shooting percentage on the team right now. And we are talking 61 field goal attempts against Division I competition this season, so small sample or not, that is still damn impressive for a walk-on. I'll admit that I was skeptical once Big Ten play started, as some of Baer's most impressive work earlier in the season had come against the likes of Drake and UMKC, but he's put up impressive offensive numbers against Iowa's tougher competition, too.
(screenshot via Kenpom)
In conference play and against Tier A (Kenpom top 50 teams) and Tier B (Kenpom top 100 teams) competition, Baer has had an outstanding offensive rating in the 130s, which would be tops in the country if he played enough minutes to qualify. He is, however, qualified in Big Ten play so far, and his offensive efficiency is a very healthy 9th best in the conference right now. Overall, his eFG% and three-point shooting would also be good enough to crack the top 50 nationally this season. (Again, if he played enough minutes to qualify.) So, yes, these numbers are likely to regress as time goes on and if he were to get enough playing time to qualify, but they are impressive, nonetheless.
As for the rest of his offensive game, the other thing he brings to the table for Iowa is his offensive rebounding. His offensive rebounding rate (the estimated percentage of offensive rebounds a player grabs while on the court) is at 9%, which, for reference, is better than Caleb Swanigan who is currently in the top 400 out of 2,219 qualified players. While Baer isn't the best offensive rebounder in the country, he's certainly above average. But we should note that his offensive rebounding rate against top 50 teams this season has actually been 15%, which would have him ranked in the top 50 nationally if he qualified. Basically, in addition to Adam Woodbury and Ahmad Wagner (who Baer plays more minutes than), Nicholas Baer is one of the best offensive rebounders on the team.
On defense, you would think that Baer would struggle in the post, considering he's 6'7" tall, but only weighs 200 lbs. However, Baer gave Iowa some really good minutes on defense against Purdue's monsters in the post. He has the ability to block shots at the rim, but he's also reminiscent of Jarrod Uthoff in that he blocks a hell of a lot of shots away from the basket.
That's a somewhat unique skill, and Iowa has two guys who do it really well. Baer's blocked shot rate on the defensive end of the court is 7%, which would again qualify him for the top 100 in that category if he played enough minutes. He and Jarrod Uthoff are the reason that Iowa is currently 5th in the country in block rate.
On the defensive glass, Baer hasn't been as good as he has been on the offensive end. But he's still not terrible for a guy who doesn't play strictly in the post. Also playing the small forward position takes him away from the hoop quite often. And what he doesn't provide in the defensive rebounding category, he makes up for with steals.
His steal rate of 2.5% would have him in the top 500 out of 2,219 players this season, and has him on the cusp of breaking into the top 400. He may just be a redshirt freshman, but it's already clear that Baer has bought into Fran McCaffery's philosophy of jumping the passing lane on defense.
He's also very good at playing the top of the 1-2-2 three-quarter court press that McCaffery likes to use.
But one of the best plays I've seen him make this season came against Nebraska, where Tai Webster attempted to take him off the dribble (something he did to Iowa all night long), but Baer's hands were too quick and he poked the ball loose and created the steal. It was a veteran defensive move from a guy who is just a redshirt freshman. (I would have Vined it, but my BTN2Go isn't working, and it didn't make highlights.)
It can be a little difficult to gauge just how good someone is on defense based on stats only -- there are a lot of things that don't show up in the box score. However, defensive rating (the counterpart to offensive rating) attempts as best as it can to quantify how good a player is on that end of the court, and it loves Baer this season. The only person on the team who plays regular minutes on the team that is better by defensive rating is Jarrod Uthoff. And, additionally, Baer also is earning almost half of his 1.2 win shares this season on defense (0.5 win shares compared to 0.7 on offense). No statistic is perfect on defense, of course. But I think these still say a lot about the value this redshirt freshman walk-on is providing Iowa off the bench this season.
Considering Baer has three more years of eligibility remaining, how high should we set our expectations for him? In his limited time this season, he is setting the bar much further off the ground than anybody expected it to be coming into this year. Albeit a small sample size, he's establishing himself as one of the better shooters, rebounders, and defenders on the team. He has given Iowa the same amount of win shares as Anthony Clemmons this season in half the minutes, and is currently behind only Jarrod Uthoff on the roster for win shares produced per 40 minutes. If you like the plus/minus statistic, Sports-Reference also has him behind only Jarrod Uthoff in that area also.
Obviously, we are only halfway through the season and he could hit a slump. (Most guys do.) But, in regards to next year, he's probably in line for more playing time with the graduation of Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury. His playing time may not go up past the low 20s, however, due to returning guys in Dale Jones, Ahmad Wagner, and Dom Uhl. Also, his playing time could depend on which of the new guys Fran plays next year and how many minutes they are ready for (there are a lot of forward types in the pipeline with Moss, Hutton, Cook, Pemsl, and Kriener coming in). But even 20 minutes per game at this level of production, assuming Iowa plays at least 32 games (30 in the regular season, plus at least one Big Ten Tournament game, and one other postseason tournament game), is still good for 3.3 win shares in 2016-2017. And if he keeps playing at this pace this season, he's on track for 2.8 win shares in at least 32 games.
Again, Baer is playing at a really high level in his limited role now, and he may not sustain that going forward. But even if he doesn't he is still probably at least a 2 win player, which is incredible for a walk-on. 80% of 0 star recruits (that's what I'm labeling Baer because I can't find a recruiting profile on him) produce less than 1 win share per season. Most 3 and 4 star recruits don't hit that plateau until their sophomore or junior years and Baer should surpass that as a redshirt freshman. That's pretty incredible when you think about it.
Overall, Nicholas Baer has set the bar awfully high with his play thus far. He's gone from being overlooked by the media and fans in the offseason, to being everybody's favorite walk-on. At this point, I think everybody is in agreement that Baer deserves a scholarship, and McCaffery has already basically promised him one. There are a lot of questions about how good Iowa will be next year, but if Nicholas Baer continues to give Iowa a high-level of production, his level of play makes the future look that much brighter for Iowa basketball.