Archdeacon: Newest Flyer ‘just scratching the surface’

Georgia basketball player Tyrone Baker (35) during a game against South Carolina State in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)

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Georgia basketball player Tyrone Baker (35) during a game against South Carolina State in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)

Sitting there in a padded easy chair, wearing a gray hoodie and black shorts, his long, thin legs stretched out in front of him, he said he felt “great.”

Tyrone “T.J.” Baker said he felt comfortable, like this is where he was supposed to be.

The 6-foot-10 power forward who just transferred into the University of Dayton from Georgia, wasn’t talking about the break he took Wednesday afternoon as he sat in a lounge overlooking the Flyers’ practice court in the Cronin Center.

He meant the overall UD basketball program.

“When I think about it, this is where I should have come last year,” he said. “Back even before I got any college offers, I had a friend telling me all about Dayton, saying it was this and saying it was that.

“My coach said it, too. He told me about Coach Grant, but I really didn’t understand what Dayton was.”

After growing up in “the country” as he put it – initially living in the Charleston Park (population 235) area of Lee County, Florida, between LaBelle, home of the Swamp Cabbage Festival, and Fort Myers – he then moved into Fort Myers and as a senior went on to Highlands High School, 15 minutes south of Houston, Texas.

“I liked that way better,” he said. “Man, I’m from the country. We don’t have no cities like that. It looked so good at nighttime and stuff.”

If Houston’s bright lights caught his attention, so did the interest from college teams like UD, Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky, Central Florida and especially Georgia.

It was a chance to play in the SEC and, he said, play for Tom Crean, who previously had taken Marquette to the Final Four and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year after rebuilding the Indiana Hoosiers.

Baker signed with the Bulldogs in April of 2021 in front of some 50 people who gathered at the community basketball court in Charleston Park, a place where he told a local reporter he’d shot “thousands of baskets” growing up.

People wore Georgia shirts with his name on the back and there was a Good Luck cake and he signed autographs for the kids who followed him around as if he were the Pied Piper.

“This whole community loves him to death,” his dad, Tyrone Sr., told the Fort Myers reporter that day. “He’s come from a little kid to a big dog.”

Baker became a Bulldog, he said the other day, “because I thought I was going to get to play right away…But I learned how college is, how the older people are more likely to play than you.”

A couple of things derailed his initial Bulldog season last year.

He played a total of 10 minutes in three games in November and December – scored two points and grabbed two rebounds – and then he broke his right hand in practice on January 18. He ended up in a cast and did not dress again for the rest of the season.

But it wasn’t just the break and an early illness that sidelined him.

Last year Crean was desperately trying to hang onto his job. He hadn’t had a winning season in his first three years with the Bulldogs and the 2021-22 campaign began to unravel when Georgia lost at home to East Tennessee State and Gardner Webb in late December.

The Bulldogs would lose 20 of their final 21 games and go 1-17 in the SEC.

As he was trying to right the ship, Crean went with older, more experienced players and some untested youngsters, like Baker, fell by the wayside.

Crean was fired in March and three weeks later Baker entered the transfer portal.

Suddenly the Flyers found themselves back in the hunt and when Baker visited the UD campus, one player he talked to was Toumani Camara, who had transferred in from Georgia a year earlier.

“He told me he wished he had known about Dayton before he signed (with the Bulldogs) too,” Baker said. “He said coming to Dayton was good for him.”

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Georgia basketball player Tyrone Baker (35) during a game against FIU at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Georgia basketball player Tyrone Baker (35) during a game against FIU at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

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Georgia basketball player Tyrone Baker (35) during a game against FIU at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Growth spurt

Shannon Young said she and Tyrone Baker Sr. were ‘high school sweethearts,” but never married.

She did much of the heavy lifting when it came to raising their son and his three sisters, one who is older and two who are younger.

“He wasn’t long when he was born and didn’t really start growing until he was 12,” Shannon said. “For a long time my girls were taller than him.

“He’s very quiet. Just a mannerable, helpful, loving guy who doesn’t like confrontation. But my girls! Oh no. They’re sassy and loud, completely different than him.”

“They nagged at me,” he said with a laugh. “They were tough.”

Shannon said T.J. started to grow, he struggled with it:

“He couldn’t deal with it at first. He was having so many pains. He’d complain all the time how his knees and elbows hurt, For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out what was going on.

“Finally, the doctor said he didn’t really see anything wrong. No broken bones or anything like. He said he thought it was growing pains and, sure enough, overnight T.J. just shot up!

“And I was like ‘Dang! He’s really getting big!’”

After his freshman year, he grew almost seven inches,

Years before, Shannon had bought a home in Fort Myers and moved the family there.

T.J. – who said he hadn’t played organized basketball until eighth grade – became a standout on Riverdale High varsity as a sophomore and junior and also with the Team Parsons AAU team sponsored by former University of Florida and NBA player Chandler Parsons, who was a Gator when Dayton assistant Darren Hertz was on the UF staff.

Hertz and UD head coach Anthony Grant first saw Baker play in an AAU game in the summer of 2020 when he was matched up against Jabari Smith, who starred at Auburn last season and could very well be the No 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft later this month.

For his senior season of high school, Baker moved to Texas to live with an uncle.

“It was just a better living situation for me,” he explained. “It’s the best move I ever made.”

He had a stellar season at Hightower High in Missouri City, Texas, and finished his three years of varsity basketball in Florida and Texas with 1,090 points and 735 rebounds and a double-double average (15.7 points, 10.8 rebounds) while shooting 63.1 percent from the floor.

‘I love it here’

Because of the way the transfer portal now works in college basketball, if a school doesn’t get a player in its first recruiting attempt, it may have a shot at him again just a year later

That’s what happened with UD and Baker.

When he was first recruited by the Flyers, he wasn’t able to visit campus because of the COVID pandemic.

This time he visited in late April and six days later he signed with Dayton.

He and 6-foot-8 freshman Mike Sharavjamts, a Top 100 recruit, will be the only two additions to a team that returns all five starters and seven of the eight top players from last year’s 24-11 squad.

Baker does need to gain weight though. Wednesday he said he weighed 203.

But as Hertz said: “He’s just scratching the surface, He’s a very young 19-year old and he’s got a big upside. He’s extremely athletic. He plays hard and he’s really competitive.”

“With the way we play our bigs – setting pick and rolls, rim running (running rim to rim), lob (plays) and his ability to shoot from the floor – he’ll fit into our system well.’

Asked what Flyers fans could expect from him, Baker shrugged, then grinned: “Well. I can jump high. I know they like it when players dunk. I think I can add excitement in the crowd.”

As Hertz put it: “I think the future is really bright for him.”

And the present isn’t looking bad either, Baker said:

“When I call my people, they say, ‘You sound happy. It sounds like everything’s good.’

“And I tell them it is.

“I love it here.”

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