Nicholas Baer is ready for his basketball world to open wider once the time again comes when it can.
Many young pros try to use basketball overseas to show NBA teams they’re viable players. Former Iowa Hawkeye forward Baer chose to spend a year in the NBA’s G League to show foreign teams he’s worth having on a team.
“In the summer I thought overseas was the best route available,” Baer said by phone Wednesday from his Bettendorf home, “but I didn’t get the offers I wanted. I did get one from a team in Austria, but the G League is one of the best leagues in the world.
“I just wanted to be able to prove I could play at a high level professionally, and for the most part I did that pretty well.”
After beginning his college career as a walk-on, Baer wasted little time becoming a rotation player for Iowa over four years. In the 2018-19 season, he was a key to the Hawkeyes going 23-12 and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. He averaged 6.7 points, made 45 3-pointers, and led the Hawkeyes in blocked shots and steals despite playing just 19.1 minutes per game.
Last fall, Baer advanced from an open tryout to the training camp roster of the Toronto Raptors’ G League affiliate, Raptors 905 in Mississauga, a Toronto suburb. He then earned a spot on the opening-night roster.
As impressively if not perhaps more, he stayed on the team all the way through its 43rd and final game of the season, on March 11. That was no small feat given the constant shuffling of G League rosters. Baer had 21 different teammates, few of whom were with him from November to March.
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He played in 39 games, averaging 16.8 minutes, 4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds. He made 33 3-pointers, and had 51 assists to just 17 turnovers.
“I tried to do similar things to what I did at Iowa,” Baer said. “I tried to find ways to be valuable on the court.”
At one stretch, 905 had a Friday-Sunday-Wednesday stretch with games at Fort Wayne, Ind., Uniondale, N.Y., and suburban Chicago.
In January, it played five games in eight days on the road, going from Oklahoma City to Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to games on consecutive days in Canton, Ohio. It flew home on the day after the second Canton game and played at home the next afternoon.
“That’s kind of how the league works,” Baer said. “On that five-game trip you spent every day playing or traveling. You’ve got to be able to adapt.”
That includes assuming nothing about any given day.
“We had a game at Grand Rapids (on Jan. 4) and I played real well,” Baer said. “I went 4-for-4 in 3s. I was getting some rhythm.
“We came home (for a game two days later) and the Raptors sent down three players to play with us. I didn’t play that day.”
One of the three was Toronto guard Matt Thomas, an NBA rookie from Iowa State. Thomas had 18 points and 10 rebounds in his only G League game of the season.
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A little more than a week later, Baer had 13 points and 10 rebounds in a game. Pro basketball takes strange bounces.
Nothing was stranger, though, than what happened earlier this month. After 905’s home game on March 11, they learned the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus and the NBA had suspended play.
Toronto had sent forward Stanley Johnson to 905 for its game that night. Johnson had been with the Raptors when they played at Utah two days earlier.
“We had to stay in our apartments until there were more definitive answers,” Baer said.
Everyone in the Raptors’ traveling party to Utah tested negative for the virus, so 905’s players were deemed safe to leave. The G League’s regular season ended two weeks ahead of schedule. Baer flew from Toronto to the Quad Cities on March 16.
“I’m trying to find creative ways to stay in shape,” he said. “Nothing can replicate the up-and-down of playing.
“My goal is to play overseas next season. We’ll see how the whole coronavirus thing plays out with that. In the long term I think that’s where I’ll have the most success and is the best move for me financially as well.”
Baer wanted to play at Iowa, so he walked on and did it. He wanted to make a G League roster, so he tried out and did it. The foreign team that signs him will be lucky and its fans will be happy.
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