IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nicholas Baer arrived at Iowa in 2014 as a spindly walk-on who looked as though he might never be more than a practice body.
These days, the Hawkeyes don’t know what they would do without him.
Baer’s 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game last season don’t reflect how truly valuable he was. Baer’s versatility and energy off the bench were crucial as the Hawkeyes reached the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row. There doesn’t appear to be a starting spot for the 6-foot-7 Baer in 2016-17, but coach Fran McCaffery intends to lean on Baer for a boost as much as possible.
“He’ll do a lot of the same things, but he’ll have an expanded role. He’ll play more,” McCaffery said Wednesday at the team’s annual media day.
That Baer blossomed into a Big Ten player in just two years is a testament to his work ethic and feel for the game.
Baer posted an impressive resume in high school, earning first-team all-state honors as a senior for Bettendorf (Iowa) while averaging 15.2 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 1.5 steals and 1.5 assists. But Baer was just 185 pounds, and no school outside of Division II Northwest Missouri State offered him a scholarship.
McCaffery saw something in Baer that few others did, inviting him to join the Hawkeyes with no promise of a scholarship.
Baer redshirted in 2014-15. Last season, Iowa brought in a big freshman class to augment a roster with four senior starters — leaving Baer almost no shot at playing time. Baer had to force his way into the rotation, which he has done in part by putting on 20 pounds since high school.
“It’s been extremely difficult. It’s been a long process for sure,” Baer said. “I feel stronger than ever, and I have more stamina to sustain that effort that’s been successful for me.”
Baer raised some eyebrows in last season’s opener, hitting a pair of garbage-time 3-pointers in a blowout of Gardner-Webb. A few weeks later, he had eight points off the bench in a win over then-No. 20 Wichita State.
Bear’s breakout moment helped save the Hawkeyes from an embarrassing defeat to instate rival Drake. Iowa was sluggish until Baer came off the bench and scored 13 points with seven rebounds and six blocks to help the Hawkeyes escape 70-64.
Baer was a key reserve the rest of the way, scoring 15 points in Iowa’s blowout loss to eventual national champion Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Baer’s efforts were rewarded by the coaching staff this spring with a scholarship.
“It just shows what our program is about. He gives everything he has every time he’s on the court. He has heart,” Iowa forward Ahmad Wagner said.
How much Baer will play for the Hawkeyes is up in the air with the season still a month away.
Wagner and Dom Uhl figure to be the favorites to start in the frontcourt. Junior college transfer Dale Jones and talented freshman Tyler Cook — who McCaffery said Wednesday had the highest ceiling of any recruit he has ever landed — will likely get key minutes as well.
But Iowa’s coaching staff has learned not to underestimate Baer, one of the players they know they don’t have to worry about.
“He makes plays, he makes shots. He rebounds the ball, he defends and he plays both ends. He thinks the game through,” McCaffery said. “I mean, he’s as professional as they come. So he’s going to be a very important part of our team for the next three years.”