Patrick Baldwin Jr. fell from a top NBA Draft prospect. Now he’s trying to build himself back up

CHICAGO — Patrick Baldwin Jr.’s spot in the 2022 NBA Draft was supposed to be secure well before he came to the combine. If things went according to plan during his one-and-done season in college, Baldwin wouldn’t have had to test his athleticism or get held up to a tape measure or state his case for why he believes he’s one of the best players in the class. The prospects sitting atop this draft — Jabari Smith Jr., Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, and Jaden Ivey — didn’t have to do any of that as certain top-five picks. Baldwin was supposed to be the same company.

Baldwin has been seen as a can’t-miss prospect from the time he entered high school. As a huge forward with a sweet shooting stroke and flashes of scoring versatility, his skill set seemed like a perfect fit for the modern game. Despite missing nearly his entire senior season because of a left ankle injury, Baldwin was still considered the No. 5 overall player in the final class of 2022 rankings, with only Smith, Holmgren, Banchero, and Jaden Hardy ahead of him.

Baldwin likely would have been a top-10 pick if he didn’t play a college game like Shaedon Sharpe. He may have been a top-10 pick if he had taken an offer from Duke and played alongside Banchero on a Final Four team in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s ultimate season. Instead, Baldwin opted to play for his father, who was the head coach at Milwaukee. He was the highest ranked recruit in the history of the Horizon League the moment he made his commitment.

A player of Baldwin’s stature should have dominated a mid-major conference, but it didn’t happen. His freshman year can aptly be described as a disaster. He played only 11 games after reaggravating his injured ankle, put up shockingly poor shooting and scoring numbers when he was on the floor, and watched his father get fired at the end of a 10-22 season.

Along the way, Baldwin’s draft stock fell from a lottery lock to someone who could slip out of the first round entirely.

“When you start and stop the season the way I did, it’s tough to find a rhythm,” Baldwin told SB Nation at the combine when asked make sense of his rough freshman year. “It’s tough to find your footing anywhere. Rhythm is a word I’ve used consistently throughout this process, as long as I have that rhythm I know I’m a good player. But when I’m on the court I still have to produce.”

Baldwin came to the combine hoping to show teams he was healthy and still capable of being the big, versatile scoring forward he was always touted as. His measurements were an undeniable success — 6’10.25 in shoes with 7’1.75 wingspan, a 9’2.5 standing reach, and a 230-pound frame — but his athletic testing was disappointing. His 26.5” max vertical leap was one of the worst in combine history, and he also ranked in the bottom-five of lane agility testing and the three-quarter court sprint.

At the center of Baldwin’s polarizing draft stock is a simple question: is his high school sample or his 11-game college career more indicative of his true talent level? To begin parsing out the answer, you need to go back to why Baldwin was ever considered a top prospect in the first place.

Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Baldwin Jr. was already being called the best long-term prospect in the state of Illinois before he entered high school. He was set to attend Loyola Academy in north suburban Wilmette, with dreams of being the next great player to come out of the Chicagoland area.

Then Northwestern men’s basketball made its first NCAA tournament appearance in program history as Baldwin finished eighth grade in 2017. Wildcats assistant Patrick Baldwin Sr. suddenly became a hot name in head coaching circles, and when LaVall Jordan took the Butler job, Milwaukee hired Baldwin to replace him. The Baldwins rushed to set up a new life 90 minutes north of Evanston.

Andy Ceronni remembered hearing the new Panthers coach had a kid who could really play. He just never thought he’d actually have a chance to get him. At Baldwin Sr.’s introductory press conference with Milwaukee, hordes of private school high school coaches showed up trying to make a connection with the family that could land ‘PBJ’ at their school. How he ended up with Ceronni at Hamilton High School was purely by chance.

The Baldwins decided they wanted to buy a home in Sussex, and Hamilton was the public school in district. Ceronni remembers Baldwin Jr. and his mother touring the school, and his young sisters asking about the volleyball program. With the start of school only days away, Ceronni hadn’t heard from the family in weeks, and figured Pat Jr. was headed somewhere else. Then he got a call from Mrs. Baldwin while watching the Hamilton’s JV football team coached by his son. She told him Pat was enrolling in school, and was excited to join the basketball program.

“That’s changed everything about the landscape of our program,” Ceronni said. “We were going to be a good team, but with him we were a great team.”

Baldwin’s intersection of size and shooting made him special even as a 15-year-old. In his freshman season at Hamilton, the program made its first state tournament appearance since 1987 before losing to Tyrese Haliburton’s Oshkosh North team in the state semis. As he went to play on the Nike EYBL circuit with Phenom University the next summer, Baldwin shot up to the No. 1 player in his class.

Such a lofty national ranking brought a new set of pressures. Baldwin now had to maintain his elite level as every opponent he faced looked to prove themselves against the purported top prospect in the country. He was excellent again as a sophomore, earning first-team all-state honors and powering Hamilton to the sectional finals before an overtime loss despite 38 points from Baldwin. He headed back to the EYBL to team up with top recruits Jalen Johnson, Jaemyn Brakefield, and Reece Beekman. On a team loaded with talent, Baldwin continued to standout in an off-ball role that leveraged his scoring versatility from the outside.

Back at Hamilton, Ceronni readied the team for Baldwin’s junior year with state title aspirations. Hamilton was rolling into the state playoffs with a 22-3 record with Baldwin averaging 24.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game while earning Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Wisconsin. As the team prepared for its run in the state playoffs, they got news the season was canceled because of Covid. His final EYBL season was off, too.

With the entire world on hold because of the pandemic, Baldwin and his father turned the family’s home into a training facility and prepared furiously for his senior year. Unfortunately, that came to an abrupt end, too.

In the first game of his senior year at Hamilton, Baldwin dropped 43 points in a win. In the next game, his career changed immeasurably in a split second: Baldwin drove the basket, landed awkwardly, and dislocated his left ankle against Menomonee Falls. He wouldn’t play again the rest of the year.

Basketball had already been taken away from Baldwin with the start of the pandemic, and now it happened again. This time he would have endure a grueling rehab process with no immediate end in sight.

“The ankle injury took a lot longer to recover than I thought it would,” Baldwin told SB Nation. “It took a toll on me mentally being away from basketball for a while and away from my teammates. Really being stripped of my senior year in one play. That was tough for me to fathom early. Later it was tough for me to see a lot guys playing well in my class and proving a ton while I was sitting around doing rehab and praying I’d get my chance to play again.”

Syndication: Journal Sentinel

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While Baldwin rehabbed from the injury, speculation continued on his college decision. Duke was seen as the front-runner with Coach K’s final season looming. The Blue Devils already had commitments from top recruits Banchero and A.J. Griffin and had veterans Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams set to return. There was a spot waiting for Baldwin in the starting lineup if he wanted it. That was never what he had his heart set on, though.

Baldwin walked into the family home one day and told his father he had some news for him. He was going to play for Milwaukee. The Panthers had never even landed a four-star recruit in program history. Now they had a top-five recruit in the country coming their way.

Baldwin said his parents never pressured him in any direction, but it was easy for some to see his decision as a way to save his father’s job. Baldwin Sr. had a 47-70 record with Milwaukee in his first four seasons, and knew he’d be on the hot seat if he didn’t deliver in the upcoming year.

“I only have one life,” Baldwin told SB Nation on his decision to go to Milwaukee. “Playing for my father is something I only got one time, so I had to take advantage of that.”

Baldwin continued to rehab his ankle, and admitted to having some setbacks during the process. That didn’t stop from him from accepting an invitation to try out for USA Basketball’s U19 World Cup roster only about seven months after the injury. Baldwin made the team, and flew off to Latvia where he would team up with Chet Holmgren, Johnny Davis, Jaden Ivey, and other top prospects on a loaded roster led by TCU coach Jaime Dixon.

Baldwin wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but he was still able to give the USA good minutes off the bench, averaging 7.7 points, five rebounds, and nearly two assists per game for the tournament. In the gold medal matchup against France and mega-prospect Victor Wembanyama, Baldwin went 2-for-3 from deep and helped the Americans capture another gold.

When he arrived back in the states, Baldwin was set for his freshman year at Milwaukee. We had Baldwin ranked as the No. 4 overall player on our initial preseason NBA Draft board back in July. SB Nation caught up with Baldwin at the start of the season and asked him what he hoped to accomplish as a superstar recruit playing in a mid-major league. Here’s what he told us:

“Milwaukee was a place where I thought I could make aggressive mistakes and learn from them throughout the season,” Baldwin told us in Nov. “Whether that’s scoring, defending, toughness, leadership, whatever. I think this is the perfect place for me to spread my wings and indulge some of those areas while having a coach who believes in me no matter what.”

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 06 Milwaukee at Cleveland State

Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Baldwin had dreams of winning the conference, making the NCAA tournament, and being one of the most dominant players in the country regardless of class when he came to Milwaukee. Maybe that’s what a top-five recruit should have done in a conference that ranked as the 26th strongest out of 32 in DI by KenPom. It just wasn’t meant to be.

Milwaukee opened the year with a win over North Dakota, with Baldwin going for 21 points and 11 rebounds on 6-of-14 shooting. Four days later, they lost to Eastern Kentucky as Baldwin put up 19 points and 11 rebounds on 7-of-20 shooting. Next, Milwaukee got smacked on the road to Florida by 36 points in their one premier non-conference game, with Baldwin finishing with 13 points on 6-of-15 shooting.

Then his ankle gave out. Baldwin sprained his left ankle in the fourth game of the year against Bowling Green. He was never healthy after that. Outside of one excellent game against Robert Morris — where he went off for 26 points on 6-of-6 shooting from three — Baldwin never looked like the top NBA prospect he was supposed to be.

He was finally shut down at the start of Feb. with Milwaukee floundering and his draft stock plummeting. On the year, Baldwin played in just 11 games, averaging 12.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per night while shooting 34.4 percent from the field, 26.6 percent shooting from three, and 74.3 percent from the foul line. He finished with more field goal attempts than points in eight of his 11 games, and had another game where he had two points on two shot attempts against Green Bay before exiting after just 11 minutes.

At the end of the season, Patrick Baldwin Sr. was fired, and PBJ declared for the draft.

There are so many reasons why things went wrong for Baldwin. Start with his health, first and foremost, and the injured left ankle that never fully recovered. Point to severe lack of spacing around him — the Panthers shot below 32 percent from three as a team. Milwaukee was constantly giving away the ball, finishing No. 258 in the country in turnover rate. There was really nothing the Panthers did well.

Maybe Baldwin’s individual greatness could have rescued Milwaukee from disaster if his shots fell and his left ankle held up. It didn’t happen. Instead, he’s trying to use one of the most disappointing freshman years from a top recruit in recent memory to fuel his journey for the place he was always destined to be: the NBA.

“It was frustrating going through it in a lot of ways,” Baldwin told SB Nation at the combine. “You wanted it be a big year, you’re winning a lot of games you’re making the tournament, you’re doing it with your dad. So it was a tough year all around but I learned a lot of things.”

It’s easy to second guess his college decision now, but Baldwin shows no regrets. He fully believes things would have been different if he stayed healthy. He says he doesn’t have any concerns about his ankle long-term. He knows how quickly his disappointing season in college will be forgotten if he has the pro career he’s always envisioned for himself.

At the same time, Baldwin knows his limited tape at Milwaukee isn’t pretty.

“There were times where I missed a box out, missed a rotation, typically as a coach’s son you want to know i’m supposed to here on this possession,” Baldwin told SB Nation. “I think conditioning was a big part, with the injuries and Covid it was difficult to maintain, but that’s no excuse. I didn’t shoot the ball too well. At the end of the day there were some shots that didn’t go in. You can’t put your head down and think the next shot is the end of the world. I know I’m still a great shooter.”

Even after such a dismal college season, it isn’t hard to see how Baldwin’s game translates to the league. He will still be huge for NBA power forward. He believes he can be one of the better 6’10+ shooters in the world. He has shown the ability to shoot off movement, whether he’s running around screens near the baseline, relocating behind the arc, finding an open shot as a trailer on the break, or being utilized in pick-and-pops. He has a solid midrange scoring package, where he can leverage his size to get smaller defenders on his back and shoot over the top of them. He believes he’s a quick processor and smart passer who can consistently move the ball to the open man.

The athletic concerns for Baldwin are real. He went only 14-for-27 at the rim all season, struggling to get to and finish inside with his limited vertical pop. He’s not going to generate a ton of free throws on offense. His size will play defensively in the paint, but he’s typically had trouble moving around screens and staying attached to his man.

None of this will matter if Baldwin can’t stay healthy. The team that drafts him should take a long-term view of getting his body and skill set. Pushing himself too hard in his rehab may have put him in this position. He doesn’t turn 20 years old until mid-Nov. His body shouldn’t be breaking down yet as long as an organization has the patience to allow him to fully heal before expecting him to produce.

Was every high school evaluator flatly wrong about Baldwin? It’s happened before, but rarely with someone this big and this skilled as an outside shooter. The tools that once made Baldwin a can’t-miss prospect are still there in abundance. His wait on draft day will be longer than anyone originally anticipated, but going to a more successful organization who doesn’t need to push him to contribute immediately could be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Progression is supposed to be linear for top basketball prospects, but there’s years of history that show it’s rarely that easy. Baldwin’s experienced more hardship in his short time as a top prospect than most to wear that status. His story didn’t go as planned in college, but there is still plenty of optimism for a happy ending.

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