NORTH LIBERTY, Ia. — Nicholas Baer had missed five of his first six 3-pointers Thursday and was more than a little miffed. So on the final one, he sprinted in from the corner as soon as the ball left his hand, slapped the rebound out of Tyler Cook’s grip and made a layup to at least salvage two points for his Prime Time League team.
It was a quintessential Baer moment. There was another one after the game, when Baer walked out to talk to reporters wearing a black shirt that read: “Straight Outta Cookies,” a picture of the Cookie Monster on the front.
“He’s definitely a nerd, there’s no getting around that,” Cook said with a smile when speaking of his Iowa teammate. “But also he has the game to kind of excuse it a little bit, so you can’t give him too much trouble.”
No one gave Baer trouble after his initial errant shooting at the North Liberty Community Center. He dominated the game from that point on in a manner that Hawkeye fans have seen for two seasons — with rebounds and putbacks, perfectly placed bounce passes, steals to initiate fast breaks, and every manner of scoring from the arc to the lane.
This nerd’s got game, and it’s growing.
“Scoring the ball for him has gotten so much better this offseason. The way he’s scoring the ball now is incredible,” Cook said. “We’re seeing hang-dribble pull-up deep 3s, and he’s knocking them down. He’s getting to the rack finishing over guys, finishing around guys. He’s putting it on the floor more. It’s going to surprise people this year.”
Baer, a junior forward, has long been known as Iowa’s “energy guy,” the sixth man who can come in and turn games around when the starters are sluggish. He’s still proud of that and counts it as his best skill.
But Baer said he’s also aware that his team needs more scoring out of him and so he’s working on that. He also knows that he needs to develop more strength and stamina to play effectively for longer stretches of time this coming season and he’s working on that, too.
“I’ve been working on my handles, trying to be a more aggressive one-on-one player, too,” Baer said.
The results have been evident in the PTL, where statistics are typically misleading. But hustle and court awareness translate. And that’s where no one can touch Baer, a one-time walk-on from Bettendorf.
Cook, a sophomore forward and the Hawkeyes’ leading returning scorer at 12.3 points per game, said it’s Baer’s knack for getting the basketball that he envies the most.
“I think that’s different from being a good rebounder. I think offensively and defensively, he just knows where the ball is going to be at. So he’s able to get a lot of deflections, a lot of steals,” Cook said. “He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not going to jump the highest, but he’s always around the ball, making a play, getting a hand on the ball.
"I think if I could take one thing from him it would be that. And I’m learning from him so hopefully I’ll be able to emulate it.”
That skill was in evidence when Baer picked Cook’s pocket after that missed 3-pointer Thursday.
Cook called it a “ridiculous” moment.
“He follows his shot, which a lot of people don’t do anymore,” Cook said, shaking his head.
Cook scored 35 points Thursday only to be one-upped by Baer. Afterward, Cook joined a group of reporters around Baer and asked him why he didn’t deliver on his promise to dunk in traffic.
“For my 40th point, I decided I’d just lay it in,” Baer deadpanned. “I didn’t think it would be great to try to catch a body in traffic. So I just thought it’d be nice and courteous to lay it in to ice the game. There’s a few games of Prime Time left. I’ll try to dunk on somebody.”
It’s the only thing missing from Baer’s game, Cook acknowledged.
As for the T-shirt, Baer was ready to own it. He was wearing it because of a bet, he said. A bet that he won.
“I played a seven-game series of Mario baseball and these were my pajamas for about a month,” Baer said, embracing his nerd status.
“It’s helped me out so far. Academic all-Big Ten,” Baer said. “If being a nerd’s the worst thing, then I’ll take it.”
He’ll take the basketball from you, too. Just ask Cook.