Moving Nicholas Baer to the bench is the best move Fran McCaffery will make this season
Peter Jok is the only player on Iowa basketball to start all 11 games this season. Tyler Cook likely would have joined him if he didn’t get hurt, but the point is that the Hawkeyes have struggled to find their identity and a reliable starting lineup this season.
Baer was averaging 6.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game as a starter. However, McCaffery opted towards starting sophomore Ahmad Wagner over him, despite there being much bigger issues at hand.
As a starter, Baer still made all the hustle plays Iowa had become accustomed to in 2015-16, made an impact on the glass and now and then he had an outburst on offense. He scored at least eight points four times, including 10 points in Iowa’s season opener against Kennesaw State.
Even with Baer not playing terrible as a starter, Iowa continued to lose and the second unit was struggling mightily. It wasn’t about Baer’s production or impact as a starter, it was more of trying to find something to give the team some energy.
Also, of course Baer didn’t think twice about the move. The former walk-on, who thrived coming off the bench last year, was happy to do whatever worked best for the team, which is a perfect example of why many regard him as one of best team players on Iowa.
Baer doesn’t do anything great on the court, but he does a lot of things very well. His hustle has made all the difference so far in Iowa’s second unit since moving back to the bench.
Since moving Baer back to the bench, Iowa is 3-0 and has given up fewer than 70 points in all three games after only reaching that feat once in their first eight games. To put in perspective Iowa’s recent defensive success, the Hawkeyes held Iowa State and Northern Iowa to a combined 110 points, which is just 10 points fewer than Memphis scored against Iowa in the Emerald Coast Classic.
Part of it is that Iowa simply found a starting lineup that works well together. However, moving Nicholas Baer back to the bench where he’s most comfortable is when real change started to become noticeable.
Even Baer’s personal numbers are significantly better. Here’s a look at Baer’s number as a starter and reserve:
It’s evident that he’s a lot more comfortable coming off the bench because he’s playing the same amount of minutes but giving Iowa better production. Sure, he comes in against second-stringers at times, but it’s not like he never plays with Iowa’s starting lineup against other starters.
Just because he doesn’t start doesn’t mean he doesn’t play important minutes. In fact, Baer’s 28 minutes against Northern Iowa is the second most minutes he’s recorded this season behind 29 minutes in Iowa’s loss to Seton Hall. He also played 20 minutes against Stetson and 17 minutes versus Iowa State, which is more playing time than when he started against Savannah State, Virginia and Memphis.
Baer’s move to the bench is more than just statistics, though. He adds energy to the second unit, which was missing early in the season. The second unit oftentimes came out flat and looked disinterested at times, but Baer’s hustle plays are contagious.
It brings a lot of energy to the game when a player comes in and dives on the floor or rips the ball out of an Iowa State player’s hands at mid-court and finishes a beautiful layup on the other end.
Sure, Baer still hustled and did all the small things as a starter, but Peter Jok’s hot starts usually were the bigger story. Plus, Baer is given more freedom coming off the bench. He took a season-high 11 shots against Northern Iowa, and Baer is actually taking 1.3 more shots per game since coming off the bench — 6.7 per game as starter and 5.4 per game as reserve.
Although, helping raise the games of other reserves is Baer’s biggest impact. The Hawkeyes bench has played significantly better since McCaffery made the move, and it’s not just all Baer.
Here’s a look at Iowa’s bench numbers during their four game losing streak and since Baer returned to the bench:
Keep in mind that on Iowa’s losing streak most of their current starting lineup was coming off the bench. Not to mention taking away Baer’s number, as seen in the second row, is taking away a huge part of Iowa’s current bench, but their numbers still aren’t far off from their old production. They also blow them out of the water when factoring in Baer’s averages.
It’s not all Nicholas Baer, but a big part of Iowa’s recent success is his play off the bench. The Hawkeyes have a reliable option off the bench that they know will always give them solid production, and that is important.
Iowa’s bench will get even stronger once Tyler Cook returns and either Ahmad Wagner, Cordell Pemsl or Isaiah Moss return to the bench. Either way, Baer is the catalyst of this team, and he’s showing a lot more confidence off the bench.
We’ve seen Peter Jok score 42 points against Memphis and Tyler Cook dominate Seton Hall down low, but both efforts came in losses. They’ll be the stars with Pemsl in the background, but Iowa doesn’t stand a chance in conference play without at least a serviceable second unit.