The Iowa men’s basketball team had a resurgent season in 2018-19, and the Hawkeyes’ 23-win campaign and admirable performance in the NCAA tournament has many fans excitedly looking ahead to the 2019-2020 season. While reports of Tyler Cook’s intent to depart Iowa City for the NBA draft remain, at this point, unconfirmed, the Hawkeyes are likely to return a number of important contributors next season even if the talented big man does bolt for a shot at the pros. Jordan Bohannon, Luka Garza, and Joe Wieskamp could all challenge for All-league consideration next season, Isaiah Moss seems likely to return for his senior year despite flirting with the NBA draft last spring, and the Hawkeyes will see an influx of talent this spring as two new commits and three redshirts vie for a spot on the regular rotation. Iowa will return most of its minutes from 2018-19, as only one member of the team is a graduating senior.
Unfortunately for Iowa, their newly-departed senior Nicholas Baer was an incredibly important role player whose performance last season was a major impetus for Iowa’s success. The former walk-on turned Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year became the only player in program history to record 750 points, 500 rebounds, 100 assists, 100 steals, 100 blocks, and 100 3-point field goals over the course of his career. While players like Cook, Bohannon, and Garza received far more praise and media attention, Baer’s performance during the 2018-19 season was quietly one of the most important factors behind Iowa’s turnaround, and his absence will leave a significant hole in next year’s team.
One element that heavily contributed to Baer’s strong play this year was his return to the role of sixth man. While the lack of a true small forward forced Baer into the starting lineup during his junior year, the arrival of Joe Wieskamp afforded Baer the luxury of coming off the bench to start the game, a role in which he has absolutely thrived. Baer’s steady yet energetic play regularly allowed him to serve as a spark plug upon entering the game and led to an uptick in his offensive numbers from his junior to senior year (per Sports Reference).
Baer’s Offensive Improvement
While Baer struggled to find his shooting stroke last season after recovering from a broken pinky that forced him to miss six games, he saw a return to form his senior year. Baer’s improved three-point shot was one of the most underrated assets of the Hawkeye offense this season. Primarily a spot-up shooter through most of his career, Baer improved his game by becoming proficient in hitting the three as a trailing man in transition, capitalizing on a number of defensive breakdowns with three-pointers on fast breaks. Baer’s poor three-point shooting last season made him far more one-dimensional and easier to guard, but his strong shooting season from beyond the arc allowed him to stretch the defense and frequently force opposing big men tasked with guarding him on the perimeter and out of their comfort zone.
One of Baer’s greatest attributes was his positional flexibility. Quick enough to cover opposing guards yet tenacious enough to square off against players in the post, Baer floated seamlessly between the three and four spots and provided the Hawkeyes with much needed depth at both positions. With both Cordell Pemsl and Jack Nunge taking redshirt seasons and Tyler Cook and Luka Garza each missing a handful of games due to various medical maladies, Baer’s proficiency at power forward allowed him to play a significant role in relief at this position. Furthermore, Baer’s skill as a rebounder frequently allowed him to punish teams that tasked smaller perimeter players with guarding him, as the wily 6’7 swingman made a number of crucial rebounds over the course of the season when smaller opponents failed to box him out effectively.
Although Baer was certainly an impactful offensive player, his defensive prowess is what truly allowed him to shine this season. Despite coming off the bench, Baer led the team in both steals and blocks per game, the latter of which is particularly impressive considering his competition included the 6’11 Luka Garza, high-flying Tyler Cook, and long-armed Ryan Kriener. Baer proved to be one of Iowa’s most switchable defenders when countering the pick-and-roll in man, and also showed excellent discipline in executing rotations in Iowa’s zone defense. His long arms and tenacious play made him an absolute asset in executing Iowa’s half-court trap, and he had a knack for disrupting passing lanes and getting a hand on the ball.
Iowa’ s defense was hardly the team’s strength this season, but the absence of Nicholas Baer would have made it significantly worse. Baer led the team in both defensive rating (which estimates how many points a player allows in 100 possessions) and defensive plus/minus, and also tied with Tyler Cook in producing the most defensive win shares on the team. Analytics aside, Baer habitually passed the eye test on defense, seemingly exerting maximum effort on every play, regularly contributing in help defense, and overcoming his innate athletic limitations to set the tone for the Hawkeyes on the defensive end. Despite its struggles, Iowa’s defense did take a significant step forward during the 2018-19 season, and it will be important for coach McCaffery to prevent the defense from backsliding next year in Baer’s absence.
While it seems unlikely that a single player can replicate Baer’s impact on the Iowa basketball team next year, there are a number of candidates that appear capable of picking up some of the slack. Cordell Pemsl could be in contention for a starting spot if Tyler Cook leaves early for the NBA, but he seems ideally suited for the role of a sixth man should Cook or Kriener secure the starting nod at power forward. While certainly a very different player than Baer, Pemsl brings a similar level of grit and toughness to the court, as evidenced by his role as a spark plug off the bench in his limited action against Iowa State this season. Furthermore, while Luka Garza is a virtual lock to remain in the starting lineup, he plays with the same undeniable hustle and infectious energy that embodied Baer’s time in the black and gold and could help fill some of the leadership void left by the departing senior. Who knows, maybe Nicholas’ brother Michael can continue the Baer family tradition by becoming an impactful walk-on next season?
Joe Wieskamp is an intriguing candidate to assume the role as the primary defender of opposing swingmen. Wieskamp made his share of freshman mistakes on the defensive end in 2018-19, but also flashed good instincts and impressive body control, and actually finished second to Baer in both blocks and steals per game this season. Wieskamp is far more physically gifted than Baer and is likely to improve on defense as he continues to develop and acclimate to the college game, and hopefully he has internalized much of what he learned from playing next to Baer last season and can apply these lessons to help round out his defensive game.
Nicholas Baer was a leader both on and off the court, and as his heady and tenacious play was a major factor behind Iowa’s surprising run of success this season. His team-leading plus/minus score of +11.4 paints a strong statistical case for Baer’s importance to the Hawkeyes, but even these excellent numbers fail to capture the full impact the former walk-on had on the program. While Nicholas Baer is certainly one of a kind, Hawkeye fans must hope his returning teammates can learn to embody the skills and attributes that made him great.