Penn State picked up a massive transfer portal commitment when Adrian “Ace” Baldwin Jr. announced on Sunday that he was following Mike Rhoades to Happy Valley. The accolades — Atlantic-10 Player of the Year and the Atlantic-10 Defensive Player of the Year — speak for themselves, but let’s take a closer look at what Penn State is getting in Baldwin.
In honor of the great bscaff himself, please...
KILL THE LIGHTS
The Baldwin-to-PSU movement was in motion for almost two weeks now, which gave me plenty of time to go back and watch some different VCU games on YouTube to get a better sense of Baldwin and what he brings to the table. We’ll talk about it more when we get to Baldwin’s passing, but Mike Rhoades, please, recruit some shooting. I appreciate the emphasis on athleticism because it was a recipe that worked at VCU for the last 15-20 years, but there were just too many plays where Baldwin hits an open man behind the arc that didn’t turn into points because of the lack of shooters around him. Fortunately, Rhoades showed a strong penchant for shooting threes at Rice — all three years the Owls were in the top 100 for three-point attempts per game. Hopefully at Penn State, that is more of the case.
Anyway, I think the major thing that jumps out about Baldwin is that he’s an all-around player with a complete game. The two-way ability is obviously there, but even when you break his game down on a more granular level, there’s not a whole lot of things he struggles with. Of course, he needs to take strides with certain aspects of his game, but he checks the boxes as far things you’d want from your point guard.
Offensively, his greatest strength is his passing. Baldwin has averaged over 5.5 assists for the past two seasons now, and is very much a “pass first” point guard. He always has his head up, looking to spray the ball to willing receivers. This is especially true in the half court where he’s patient in the pick and roll, utilizing a hang dribble to buy an extra second to find his rolling big man.
The pick and roll isn’t necessarily about speed or aggressiveness; it’s about timing, and Baldwin has a true understanding of that. He’s able to play the angles game perfectly, and hit his teammates in stride.
Just given VCU’s personnel, Baldwin was largely looking to hit either the rolling big or back cutting wings. Personally, I think Baldwin would be aided by a couple more willing shooters around him. His vision is really outstanding, so giving him a plethora of options all around the court would only help. But like we mentioned above, the Rams just didn’t have the shooting outlets to make this a large part of Baldwin’s game. Passes were occasionally there, but the end result wasn’t up to par.
As a scorer, Baldwin can do a little bit of everything. Just like his passing, his bread-and-butter is in the pick and roll, where he’s apt at pulling up for both long-range jumpers and mid-range jumpers.
Getting to the basket is another big part of Baldwin’s game. While he isn’t an elite athlete, he’s crafty around the rim. He does a really nice job of changing speeds and using his body to create extra space to get his shot off even when around taller, lankier defenders.
Plus, Baldwin gets to the free throw line quite a bit, sporting a 39.4% free throw rate this past season. He’s a fearless driver who isn’t afraid to seek out contact.
His game as a scorer is still coming along though. While in one sense it’s a good thing that his game is versatile enough to score in all different parts of the floor, he lacks that one facet of his game that he can turn to when his team needs a bucket. When you think of Jalen Pickett, you think of booty ball in the high post. When you think of Joel Embiid, you think of him facing up at the nail. Baldwin doesn’t have that and because of it, he’s forced to put up tough shots that he’s not always comfortable with, which in turn affects his efficiency.
I think the swing skill for Baldwin is the three-point shot. As a sophomore, he shot 41.3% from three on 3.1 attempts, and that level efficiency was carrying over into his junior season. He started the year making 48.8% of his three-pointers on 3.9 attempts per game through the first 2 months of the season. That wouldn’t last the rest of the year however, with his three-point shooting percentage dropping to 25% on 3.6 attempts per game during the last 2 months of 2023.
Of course, it’s Captain Obvious to say “become a better three-point shooter” but in Baldwin’s case it’s especially important given his smaller frame and lack of elite athleticism. He’s not a bad athlete by any stretch (he’s a good one, to be clear), but he doesn’t have elite burst nor does he have an elite vertical, which is going to limit where he can take strides as a scorer. The jumper, though, is there. He showed it as a sophomore. He was showing it halfway through his junior season. It’s just a matter of it becoming more consistent, which is certainly a tall task, but one that is realistic. Something like 4.5 attempts per game on 38.5% would do a world of good not only for Baldwin, but Penn State’s offense as a whole.
Let’s talk defense, where Baldwin really shines. When you think of the HAVOC defense, you think of their full court pressure and ability to generate steals before the other team even passes half court. While that still rings true as a hallmark, Baldwin’s steals aren’t just a product of double-team traps 60 feet away from the basket. He does a tremendous job off-the-ball of playing passing lanes, ready to pounce on an errant pass.
To be clear, that aggressive nature can get him — and the rest of the VCU roster — in trouble at times. He can sometimes be too focused on ball watching, and lose track of his man. If a team is aware of it, backdoor cuts can be available.
But by and large, we’re talking about a guard defender that won the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year award for a reason. He moves his feet well, he has quick hands, and his instincts are top notch. While he largely gets used as the point of attack defender, VCU would utilize him on off-ball guards on occasion too. In one game against St. Louis, Rhoades made the decision to put Baldwin on the Billikens’ Gibson Jimerson, after Jimerson started 4-of-5 from 3. With Baldwin mostly on him the rest of the way, Jimerson only went 1-of-4. So there’s some real versatility to Baldwin’s defensive game too.
Baldwin is a really good player, and being he has two years of eligibility left, will be someone who will be hugely important for helping build the program along with Rhoades. I mean, this is a kid who could have landed at “blue blood” schools if he didn’t follow Rhoades to Happy Valley, so Penn State is very fortunate to have Baldwin in year one of this new era.
Like any player, there are steps of improvement he needs to make — scoring being the foremost. But the Nittany Lions have themselves a real point guard, and someone who is a true leader on and off the floor. In the beginning stages of the Rhoades regime, that shouldn’t be overlooked.