IOWA CITY, Iowa — When asked what his role is for the Iowa basketball team Nicholas Baer takes a second before responding.
He plays with effort and hits 3-point shots, but it’s more than that. He mentions leadership and influencing teammates before bringing up energy and finding subtle ways to change the flow of a contest.
Baer is Iowa’s Mr. Fix-It and guiding hand morphed into one, a player tasked with turning a contest around when things go wrong and keeping the Hawkeyes on course when moving in the right direction.
How he became the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year becomes obvious as Baer gives his explanation. Sitting at the start of the game is really the ideal spot for him.
“That is a possibility,” the forward said. “That’s a good assessment, knowing that certain things, coming off the bench, that you are going to have to be cognizant of.”
Baer pays attention to everything, taking mental notes from the opening tip. If leading scorer Peter Jok has yet to get a shot, Baer knows to set a screen to get Jok open. If forward Tyler Cook is scoring inside he’ll look to pass it in the post. If defensive rebounding is an issue he’ll make that his top priority.
“I kind of get a feel for the game a little bit,” Baer said.
No task is too small. He’s more than prepared to come in to improve help-side defense or communication.
He’s also not shy about firing up a key shot if needed. His willingness to do anything is why the Hawkeyes hold him in high regard.
“Baer is the heart of this team,” Jok said.
The stats don’t jump off the page. Baer, a redshirt sophomore, averages 7.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks.
His talent isn’t in doing one thing great. It’s in doing a little bit of everything. He’s the only player in Division I with at least 235 points, 35 blocks, 45 steals and 40 3-pointers. The only other Big Ten player to accomplish the feat in the last 20 years is Michigan State’s Draymond Green in 2012.
“He’s one of the best players in our league,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Happens to come off the bench for us, and I’m glad he plays for us.”
Baer is all effort, all the time. It’s why his teammates love him and rally around his play, but it also caused problems for him in the past. He would tire out quickly, limiting how long McCaffery could play him.
He spent the offseason increasing his stamina and strength, allowing Baer to go from 14.5 minutes a game last season to 23.8 this year.
“Last year he tired easy,” Jok said, “but this year he’s a different player, physically and mentally.”
Cook, a freshman, first noticed Baer last year when watching Iowa on TV. He would always be in the right spot to deflect a pass or grab an offensive rebound.
“It’s crazy the things he can do,” Cook said.
Teammates marvel at Baer’s basketball IQ and ability to consistently do the correct thing at the correct time.
Now, they are starting to take notice of his big-play ability. He’s in the best stretch of his career. He’s averaged 13.8 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 68.4 percent from the 3-point line over his final four regular-season games.
“Sometimes when our starting five comes out flat, having a guy like Baer coming off the bench provides that spark,” Cook said. “Without Baer, sometimes, we might not have won some of those games.”
— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 6, 2017
Like with most of his basketball decisions, Baer’s recent improvement is steeped in observation. When his 3-point mark hovered around 28 percent in mid-February he studied film.
Two things stood out. He was off-balance too often and firing up attempts that were a little too deep.
“It’s just taking better shots at the right time type of thing,” Baer said.
So much success for the walk-on is tied into his ability to read and react. He’s comfortable doing it as a sixth man. It feels natural.
Starting could be in his future. Only three teammates play more minutes. Baer would prefer coming off the bench, but did start 10 games this season.
It’s a conversation for the offseason. Right now, he’s too busy trying to secure a trip to the NIT Final Four in Madison Square Garden by sitting on the bench and figuring out what must be done when he checks in.