Men’s Basketball: ‘Something Special’: High school phenom and Northwestern recruit Patrick Baldwin Jr. returns for homecoming game at Welsh-Ryan Arena
February 9, 2020
Just three years ago, Northwestern was in the NCAA Tournament. Now, the Wildcats are the last-place team in the Big Ten and on pace to have their worst season since 2000. Over the next few weeks, The Daily Northwestern will look at the state of Northwestern men’s basketball in a series called “Waiting.” This is the third part of that series.
The most important man in the arena had a game-changing dilemma and none of the coaches knew what to do.
It was right before the second half started at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday night. Patrick Baldwin Jr. – a 6-foot-9 junior forward at Hamilton Sussex High School in Wisconsin and the top high school player in his class – was looking for an answer to stomach cramps.
One coach suggested he take a Tums. Another thought seltzer water would be the way to go. But Hamilton’s coaches didn’t have any of that, so they settled for a lemonade-flavored Vitamin Water. But Baldwin Jr. played through it, and he finished the game with 25 points and 16 rebounds. This was Baldwin Jr.’s self-proclaimed homecoming at Northwestern, so there was no consideration about sitting it out.
Baldwin Jr.’s father, Pat, was a star guard for the Wildcats in the ’90s. Baldwin Jr.’s mother, Shawn, was an NU volleyball player. In 2013, the Baldwin family moved back to Evanston so Baldwin Sr. could be the Cats’ assistant coach, and Baldwin Jr. served as NU’s ballboy as head coach Chris Collins led the team to the NCAA Tournament.
Seven years later, Baldwin Jr. returned to Welsh-Ryan Arena to play Evanston Township High School in a packed arena at the E-Town Shootout on Feb. 8. The game was scheduled to get Baldwin Jr. back on campus. Hamilton ended up losing 70-68 in triple overtime. But after impressing on the court he practiced on as a kid, Baldwin Jr. said this felt like “coming home.”
“Anytime you’ve been around a program that closely, you’re going to grow a love for it,” Baldwin Jr. said. “Just coming back to this gym means the world to me.”
Baldwin Jr. joked that he knew the rims too well to play a poor game at Welsh-Ryan Arena. When he was in middle school, Welsh-Ryan Arena was a ten-minute bike ride away, so this was where he grew into an elite basketball player.
As a ballboy, Baldwin Jr. got an up-close look as Collins turned the team around, and Baldwin Sr. said he loved having his son around for the Cats’ biggest moments.
“The greatest story for me is in 2017 when we beat Michigan to get in the tournament,” Baldwin Sr. told The Daily. “He was underneath the basket. To hug him and have him be a part of that, that was the greatest memory.
Three hours before the game, the stage was set for Baldwin Jr.’s long-awaited return. NU doesn’t have players of Baldwin Jr.’s caliber on campus often, so the Cats wanted him to feel as welcome as possible.
“We all know Patrick has deep roots here,” Hamilton coach Andy Ceronni said. “We wanted for him to come back and show here the kind of player he is and the great kid he is.”
Hamilton’s logo was featured on the scoreboard next to a message saying, “Welcome to Welsh-Ryan Arena.” The best courtside seats were reserved for Collins, assistant coach Brian James and athletic director Jim Phillips.
In 2017, Baldwin Sr. left the Cats to become the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, so Baldwin Jr. hasn’t been on campus much over the last three years. Even though this game wasn’t an official recruiting visit, the Cats tried to make sure Baldwin Jr. felt comfortable.
That process started in pregame warmups, when Hamilton had its shootaround at NU’s state of the art Trienens Performance Center. It continued when Collins, James and Phillips took their seats before tipoff after chatting with the Baldwin family.
The Cats had a game of their own at Rutgers in less than 24 hours, so the rest of the team had already gotten on a plane to New Jersey. But Collins and James scheduled a redeye flight so they could watch the basketball phenom they’ve known for almost a decade.
“How much they’re interested in watching me play,” Baldwin Jr. said, “that just shows how they’re really committed to trying to bring me into this program and change it for the better.”
The hardest thing about being the best 17-year old basketball player in the country is that sometimes it’s difficult to be a kid. After Hamilton’s game Saturday night, Baldwin Jr. took photographs with dozens of fans, did three interviews with the media and accepted the showcase’s MVP award, all before speaking to his parents.
He also has college coaches at almost all of his games. Just last week, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams showed up for a Hamilton game, and the rest of the team was starstruck.
If there’s anyone who understands what Baldwin Jr. is going through, it’s his father. Baldwin Sr. was NU’s top recruiter when he was an assistant, and now he’s head coach at Milwaukee. He’s also recruiting Baldwin Jr., but a bigger priority is helping this process seem normal for his son.
“He has chores he needs to do at home, he has limited time on the Xbox,” Baldwin Sr. said. “We try to shield him away from all that recruiting because it is important that while he’s going through this stuff that he still remains a kid.”
But the average kid isn’t as tall as Blake Griffin with a three-point shot that’s been compared to Klay Thompson’s. Baldwin Jr. is being recruited by Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Northwestern, Milwaukee and basically everybody else. For the first time in NU history, the Cats are aggressively recruiting a player as talented as Baldwin Jr., hoping personal ties lead him to commit to play for the Cats.
NU (6-16, 1-11 Big Ten) is expected to finish in last place in the Big Ten for the second consecutive season, and the Cats’ 2020 recruiting class is ranked 12th in the Big Ten. Baldwin Jr. knows that if he played at NU, he’d be a major piece in turning the program around.
“If I commit, I could really make an impact,” Baldwin Jr. said. “It would be something special if I do decide to commit… When Northwestern turns it around, you’ve seen how they can fill the house against Michigan and against Purdue (in 2017). You’ve seen the immense support.”
If Baldwin Jr. committed to play for the Cats, he likely wouldn’t be coming to Evanston by himself. In 2018, he visited campus with two other highly regarded high school players, five-star guard Max Christie and four-star forward Caleb Furst. Any of them would be the best high school player NU has ever signed. Christie told The Daily in October that he had real interest in playing for the Cats, and Baldwin Jr. said he’s stayed in close touch with him.
“It’s a great connection that we’ve built up,” Baldwin Jr. said. “I played AAU with him for a year, and I play against him all the time. There’s just respect on both sides.”
On Saturday night, Baldwin Jr. lived up to his reputation. He played like a wing, attacking the basket off the dribble and often getting to the rim by Euro stepping around multiple defenders. Baldwin Jr. was also an aggressive three-point shooter, rising above the defense whenever ETHS backed off him.
The only reason Baldwin Jr. didn’t end the game with a buzzer-beating basket was that ETHS double-teamed him on the final possessions of regulation and overtime. Rather than forcing a contested shot, Baldwin Jr. found the open man, but Hamilton didn’t make its open shots down the stretch.
Baldwin Jr. still said the game was a “special” experience, something he would remember the rest of his life.
“I just told my teammates how much the game of basketball means to me and especially this game,” Baldwin Jr. said. “Coming back home, being in front of all my friends and family, that just meant the world to me.”
For Baldwin Jr.’s next visit to Welsh-Ryan Arena, maybe he’ll stick around a little longer.