Iowa hoops takeaways: Jok's 'our guy,' counting scholarships

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Freshman Tyler Cook got a lot of media-day love Wednesday, but there’s still no doubt who’s the main man on this year’s Iowa basketball team.

“Without a doubt, our guy is Peter Jok, that’s for sure,” sophomore Nicholas Baer said. “We have to do everything we can to get him open shots.”

Jok is the lone returning starter for the young Hawkeyes, and he’ll be asked to do a lot after a second-team All-Big Ten Conference campaign as a junior.

Of course, opponents know that, too, and will defend him accordingly.

Fran McCaffery sounded excited Friday, and with good reason. His star (Peter Jok, left) is returning for 2016-17.

Tyler Cook draws raves from all corners as Iowa freshman

“He's going to see it all,” coach Fran McCaffery said, “so the critical thing for him is going to be keeping the ball moving. And the thing for us is going to be getting him open.”

Yes, McCaffery reiterated that Jok could play some point guard, but not in the traditional sense of getting the Hawkeyes into their offense. That role will be shared by sophomore Christian Williams and freshman Jordan Bohannon.

“We don’t have a true point guard or a true center,” Jok said. “But we don’t really need it. We’re a running team. I think it’s better for our offense.”

After dipping his toe in the NBA waters in May before deciding to return to Iowa, Jok’s importance is obvious. Teammates and McCaffery were complimentary of Jok’s leadership by example; first one to workouts, last to leave, they say.

“I feel like I was made for this,” Jok said. “This is my team. I’m ready to take the lead, and get the season started.”

Quickest first step?

Who has the quickest first step on the Hawkeye team? Sophomore forward Ahmad Wagner pondered the question Wednesday before finally settling on himself. It turns out, he’s right.

“He’s got the quickest first step I’ve ever seen,” Jok said. “Nobody can really stay in front of him when he’s on the perimeter. Whoever is going to guard him, if he just plays and (doesn't) think a lot, I think he’s going to have a lot of mismatches.”

Wagner’s development may be the biggest surprise for Hawkeye fans who saw him attempt only 47 shots while playing in 32 games last season. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound post player admitted he was holding back a bit.

TV, tip times for Iowa's 2016-17 basketball schedule

This offseason, Wagner said he worked so much on his offense that he thinks he can even play on the wing, if needed.

“I was really one-dimensional last year. I was playing defense, rebound, just stick to my role. Be an energy guy and just try to affect the game, just come in and maybe just rile the team up a little bit,” Wagner said. “I have to be more of a vocal leader and leader on the court and stretch my offensive game so that I can be able to score in more different ways.”

As for his surprising speed, Wagner had a simple explanation: It comes from years of playing soccer as a child in Ohio. He carried that over to sports like track, football and now basketball.

If Wagner and Jok are to be believed, fans will see it for themselves sometime this winter.

How does Jones fit?

McCaffery said he expects to find a 10- or 11-man rotation this year. A possibility in that mix remains Dale Jones, a power forward who can shoot and rebound — but is still climbing back from a torn ACL he suffered in December.

At 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, Jones is listed as a fifth-year senior but received clearance for a sixth year via medical hardship. McCaffery hopes to get Jones some minutes in the Nov. 4 exhibition against Regis University and go from there.

Jones has been about a 50 percent participant in practice, which began Saturday.

“As we struggled a little bit offensively down the stretch (last season),” McCaffery said, “that was the guy that we looked at and said, you know, if he was here, he'd go get 25. I mean, he has that capability.”

Don’t forget Baer

Baer is now armed with a scholarship and a more physical-looking frame.

At 6-7, 205, the redshirt sophomore from Bettendorf is up 20 pounds from when he arrived as a walk-on. And with a high metabolism, that weight was tough to gain.

After meeting with a nutritionist and getting cooking tips from his mother, Joy, he had the tools he needed to pack on much-needed pounds even though, at times, “it sucks the fun out of eating.”

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He starts with a big breakfast.

“Four eggs (sunny-side up), three pieces of toast, four (slices) of bacon. Then packing snacks throughout the day,” Baer said. “Lunch, snack, practice, dinner, snack. Just more structure. It’s a lot. But that’s what needs to be done.”

Baer was a bench sparkplug a year ago, but admitted he wore down. Now, he’s ready for more minutes and a bigger role.

“I’m in the best shape of my life now,” he said.

Overbooked scholarships

If everybody except Jok returns next season and all of Iowa’s Class of 2017 commitments sign in November, the Hawkeyes will be at 15 scholarship players for 13 available scholarships.

A conundrum for McCaffery?

“It's not a conundrum until it is,” the seventh-year Hawkeye coach said. “We've got time.”

There’s almost always attrition in college basketball with an average of two transfers per Division I team in 2015. Iowa lost two players off last year’s team. Things happen.

Plus, one of the three incoming recruits is McCaffery’s oldest son, Connor, who could walk on and receive academic aid. Connor also wants to play baseball at Iowa, and he took an official visit for that sport last week.

“He's on board; he gets it,” McCaffery said. “(Baseball), that's a whole other deal. But I'm going to support him either way, whatever he wants to do.”