- Thomas Jones American-Statesman Staff
Westlake junior Will Baker, one of the most-touted high school basketball recruits in the country, took a pass in the paint and immediately went to work against another highly regarded player. Baker slammed his body into the defender’s to establish his position on the block, then spun toward the basket for a layup and yelled in triumph as the ball fell through the net.
But this particular play didn’t happen during Westlake’s convincing 76-60 victory over Lake Travis on Saturday for the Class 6A, Region II championship. No, it occurred this week against teammate Brock Cunningham during another intense practice for the Chaparrals. Or maybe last month. Perhaps last season.
In any case, over the past two seasons the competition during practices often has surpassed what the Chaps have faced in games, especially when it comes to one-on-one matchups between the 6-foot-11 Baker and the 6-6 Cunningham, a Texas Longhorns signee. These battles down low have helped Westlake reach the UIL state tournament for the first time in school history, and they’ve helped make Baker perhaps the most-coveted big man to ever come out of a high school that has a history of developing elite recruits in the post.
“Brock has always challenged Will, ever since he got here (as a sophomore),” Westlake coach Robert Lucero said Monday inside the school’s gymnasium. “Brock’s pretty tough, and he’s wanted to push him (Baker) every day. It’s not the easiest thing to understand why someone is going at you so hard when you’re a young kid, but Will has really embraced the challenge. It’s made them both better.”
Baker, who attended Bowie as a freshman, has grown taller and grown better since he first arrived at Westlake before his sophomore season. He had little choice if he wanted playing time; Westlake’s roster over the past two seasons has included four current seniors — Cunningham, Matthew Mayer (Baylor), Keonte Kennedy (Xavier) and Luke Pluymen (St. Edward’s) — who have all signed to play college basketball next season.
The competition during practice has helped Baker blossom. He leads Westlake in scoring at 19.7 points per game, and he’s shooting 67 percent from the field, including 31 percent from three-point range. Rebounds aren’t easy to accumulate when a teammate like Cunningham averages more than 10 a game, but Baker still averages almost nine boards per contest.
“Will has always had a good offensive game; he’s had a bunch of moves and a soft touch,” Lucero said. “But he’s getting stronger as he gets older and can now really run the floor and finish above the rim. He gets more rebounds outside his zone, and he’s become a better defender.”
Both Lucero and Baker credit Cunningham for helping to hasten Baker’s development. The gritty Cunningham, who was named the All-Central Texas player of the year last season by the American-Statesman, brings a heightened intensity to each drill and practice, and he has the bruises and floor burns to prove it.
“I’ve learned a lot from Brock,” Baker said. “He’s just as physical in practice as he is in a game. You have to give to him what he gives to you, because he’s not going to let up.”
For his part, Cunningham is just passing on some lessons he learned at St. Stephen’s, where he played before enrolling at Westlake as a sophomore. Cunningham went against former Longhorn and current Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen and several other future collegians at St. Stephen’s, and he said their no-quarter attitude in practice helped him develop into a major-college recruit.
“He (Baker) wasn’t going to get better if I was babying him,” Cunningham said. “When he got here, he was a big body, and I really didn’t know what to expect from him. Every practice, I tried to score on him and show him everything I can. He’s become a really good player, not that I’ve been a part of that. I’ve just given him my best shot.”
College coaches from blue-blood programs across the country are busy taking their best shots at landing Baker in their next recruiting classes. Shaka Smart of Texas, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Bill Self of Kansas all have visited Westlake’s gym this year, and Baker holds scholarship offers from all three schools — and virtually every other program getting ready for the coming NCAA tournament.
For his part, Baker said his college choice can wait. This weekend, the Chaparrals will have a chance at make history since no Austin-area team has ever won a boys basketball championship in the University Interscholastic League’s highest classification.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to play at state, but it’s unfinished business,” Baker said.