Leistikow: Opponents love to hate Iowa's tenacious Nicholas Baer
IOWA CITY – Barely a trace of stubble on his chin, blue-eyed Nicholas Baer doesn’t look a day past 17. He’s clean cut, polite and seems like the type of guy that’ll thank you for letting him carry the groceries to your car.
Until you put him on a basketball court.
Then, he becomes the player you love to have on your side, the guy you hate to play against.
That’s been a basketball fact since he arrived on the Iowa campus as a walk-on for Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes in the fall of 2014. While redshirting as a true freshman, he was a scout-team tornado of energy.
Iowa teammate Peter Jok uses a different word.
“I remember him being annoying,” Jok says, “because he was always going super hard. Whoever guarded him really didn’t like him.”
Annoying, of course, is a high compliment to a scout-teamer. It means he's being noticed.
It’s why Jok calls “Baer Cage” – a nickname coined back then by assistant coach Andrew Francis – “one of my favorite players. He plays hard. I want to play with him, not against him,” Jok said.
Baer’s personality and play is infectious.
As Iowa’s Hy-Vee Classic matchup with Northern Iowa at 3:30 p.m. Saturday approaches, it’s a reminder of just how unlikely Baer’s journey to major Hawkeye contributor has been.
It was one year ago at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines that the Bettendorf native's breakout moment occurred.
What happened that mid-December afternoon wasn’t a surprise to McCaffery or Baer's teammates. But to those watching Iowa struggle against Drake with star Jarrod Uthoff in early foul trouble … it was an eye-opening, well-timed revelation.
Here was a walk-on string bean swatting Drake shot attempts into the stands, pumping in three 3-pointers and bringing relentless energy. The 6-foot-7 forward finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots in the Hawkeyes’ 70-64 win. He was named the Big Ten Conference's freshman of the week.
“I didn’t come into the game thinking I have to have a big game,” Baer says now. “… I think I was always comfortable at Wells Fargo Arena. I played there quite a bit in high school, and had some success.”
It was, interestingly, in downtown Des Moines that Baer captured McCaffery’s full attention. Then a senior center for Bettendorf, he was playing against Iowa City West and McCaffery’s oldest son, then-freshman Connor, in the Class 4-A semifinals.
Though Bettendorf lost, Baer pumped in 22 of his team’s 46 points and snagged 13 rebounds to go with three blocked shots.
Several months later, Baer was wearing black and gold again, this time at the Division I level. In his scout-team role, he was asked to impersonate opposing star players -- Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Michigan’s Zac Irvin, Ohio State’s Marc Loving and more.
“It’s interesting,” Baer says. “People think (when) you’re on scout team, it’s a demotion. For me, it was fun.”
Of course it was.
Baer says he “used that year to expand my game and had a lot of fun with our scout-team members” like Kyle Denning and Okey Ukah.
Meantime, he worked on developing a 3-point shot with assistant coach Kirk Speraw so he could transition from high school center to college small forward.
“I'm proud of what he did from the day he got here,” McCaffery says. “His first year he was really impressive. And I said this to you guys before: He would have played on that (2014-15) team if he didn't redshirt. And the redshirt year helped him, gave him a chance to figure everything out, gave him a chance to get a little bit stronger.”
The Hawkeyes are lucky to have him.
Baer, now just 10 games into his redshirt sophomore year, is playing the best basketball of his life.
In Iowa’s upset win over rival Iowa State, he came off the bench to record 10 points, eight rebounds and two steals in 17 minutes.
It was his early steal-and-layup that ignited the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd in the 78-64 win.
Baer is the type of guy that you want on your side in rivalry games.
He proved it a year ago against Drake. He delivered last week against Iowa State.
Now, it's UNI, where one of his best friends attends – and is lobbing some good-natured trash talk.
Baer is exactly the type of guy Iowa needs to beat the Panthers. Why? Because Ben Jacobson’s lineup is comprised of a lot of guys like Baer: Resilient, relentless ... and, of course, talented.
When you talk about Baer, don't forget that part.
He's not only a nice story, he's a legit basketball force. Since he was rewarded with a scholarship in the offseason, his weight (now 205, up 20 pounds since his walk-on days) and contributions have only increased.
Baer (who, despite the boyish looks, will turn 21 in March) leads the Hawkeyes in blocked shots and steals while averaging 7.1 points and 5.5 rebounds in 21.3 minutes a game.
“A lot changes in a year. I don’t think I’ve really changed my mentality since then, though,” Baer says. “Just try to come into the game and impact the game, regardless of being a walk-on or being on scholarship. Just always trying to impact the game with my energy, my effort.”
Hawkeye fans – and McCaffery – are thankful to have this ultimate nice guy on their team.
And he’s primed to annoy opponents for years to come.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.