By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Joe Baez knew that this was going to be a crucial year for him as a member of the Kearny High School boys’ varsity basketball team.
As a junior, Baez had to prove he could be more of a vital performer.
As a young man, Baez had to prove to himself that he could remain focused on the matters at hand and stay away from the trouble that plagued him in the past.
“I knew that I had to step it up,” Baez said. “Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, I had problems. I wasn’t disciplined enough to play organized basketball. I was basically playing street ball. I knew I had to be a leader and I had to get better all around.”
Kearny head coach Bob Mc- Donnell realized that fact as well, that if the Kardinals were going to be successful this season, he needed a big season out of Baez.
“Without a doubt, he had to become more of a leader on the team,” McDonnell said. “Even though he’s only a junior, he had to become more of a main focus on the team. I thought the talent was there. He just had to be more mentally prepared. He had to focus on being the leader, be more mature, more responsible both on and off the court.”
Baez admitted that he was a little immature in the past.
“At times, I would go a little crazy,” Baez said. “I would also get into a little bit of trouble. But that’s the past. I focus on doing what I have to do now, staying out of trouble. I can’t afford to get into trouble anymore. I’ve become a better person and a better player.”
Baez is certainly a gifted athlete. He’s a fine shortstop and pitcher on the Kearny baseball team in the spring, but he has all the tools in the world to be a fine basketball player as well.
A year ago, Baez averaged 7.2 points per game as someone who played both the point guard and shooting guard slots.
However, with a new-found focus and attitude, Baez has elevated his game to new heights.
Baez is averaging close to 16 points per game with six assists. He’s a scorer with a playmaker’s mentality. “He’s made a conscious effort to change his focus,” McDonnell said. “He’s learned that everything he does is so important to us.”
“It just clicked for me,” Baez said. “I worked hard and just want to play the game the right way.”
Baez is certainly doing that and more for the Kards these days. Last week, Baez had 14 points in a win over American History of Newark, had 18 points and six assists in a big win against Queen of Peace and topped his week with a 24-point, six-assist outing against Lyndhurst, another win, giving the Kardinals three wins in a row, improving to 6-3 overall in the process.
For his efforts, Baez has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“He just realized his capabilities,” McDonnell said. “Not just as a scorer, but as the team leader. He’s taken on that role and has done well. He’s just taken control of the team, playing either the one (point guard) or two (shooting guard), depending upon the opponent. It’s nice to have a guard who is under control.”
Baez said that his recent performances have helped him to gain faith in his own abilities.
“I definitely have a lot more confidence,” Baez said. “I think this proves to me that I can do it. I’m helping the team with scoring and my passing. It’s good to be consistent, because it helps us win and that’s the biggest goal.”
The Kardinals had eight wins all of last season. They have six already this year.
“He’s accepted his role, even on defense,” McDonnell said. “He’s become a very good scorer. I am surprised how much he’s improved.”
So far this season, Baez is averaging close to 16 points per game, a huge leap from last year’s seven point-per-game average.
“I feel like I’m a better player,” Baez said. “I played a lot of basketball over the summer to get ready for this year. It really is almost like a complete transformation.”
Baez was asked if his success on the hardwood would help him get ready for the baseball diamond.
“They are two totally different sports, but of course, this is going to help my confidence,” Baez said. “What I do in basketball does carry over to the baseball field. I feel like I’m a building block for the future. As long as we keep winning, because I never want to lose. I’m still developing, still growing. I still have to work hard.”
McDonnell believes that Baez is a college basketball player for the future.
“He’s already focusing on getting his grades up,” Mc- Donnell said. “He’s made a concerted effort to get better both on the court and the classroom. We’ve had conversations about college and not just from an athletic standpoint. He realizes he has a bright future.”
It might have taken a little while, but Joe Baez has the world on a string these days.
“I’m just grateful to have the chance,” Baez said. “I just needed a chance.”