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Shaka Smart explains why Kamaka Hepa and Will Baker didn’t play against UTRGV

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Both players want to take the season to focus on their development.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Oklahoma Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Junior guard Andrew Jones wasn’t the only Texas Longhorns player who didn’t make an appearance against the UTRGV Vaqueros in Wednesday’s 91-55 victory at the Erwin Center.

Conspicuous by their absences from the blowout were junior forward Kamaka Hepa and sophomore center Will Baker, the only available scholarship players who did not appear in the game.

During the post-game press conference, Texas head coach Shaka Smart explained why.

Since the NCAA recently passed legislation not to count the 2020-21 season against the five years to play four seasons that every player receives, any appearance this season won’t count against a player’s eligibility. But even prior to that decision, Hepa and Smart discussed redshirting.

The addition of freshman forward Greg Brown III meant that Hepa was competing for playing time in an increasingly crowded frontcourt. He’d also spent much of the pandemic in quarantine at the top of the world in his hometown of Utqiagvik, Alaska, where he didn’t have access to a gym for several months.

Smart said that he did consider playing the 6’9, 220-pounder at several points in game when UTRGV used a zone defense that the outside shooting of Hepa could help unlock. Ultimately, however, Smart opted to give other players the chance to show what they could do.

The luxury for Smart is that he knows even if Hepa doesn’t play much this season, he’ll remain connected with his teammates. In fact, reporters could hear Hepa exhorting his teammates from the bench — in the absence of the Minister of Culture, Hepa is inarguably the best hype man for Texas.

Junior guard Courtney Ramey graded Hepa out at an A-plus for his vocal support during the game.

“You should see him in practice — sometimes I’ve got to tell him to shut up because it’s like, ‘Bro, come on,’” Ramey joked. “But no, he’s a great guy, he bought into his role. We wish he was playing, but he made the best decision for him and he’s doing his job every day in practice. He’s there on the bench and we can always count on his voice and his leadership.”

A top-60 player nationally in the 2017 class as a consensus four-star prospect, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Hepa hasn’t lived up to expectations so far, but his willingness to be a team leader from the bench this season speaks to his character.

And there is still some upside for Hepa, who communicates as well when he’s on the court as he does when he’s off the court — with Brown and senior forward Jericho Sims likely off to the NBA next season, Hepa will have an opportunity for more playing time.

Hepa has shot around 30 percent from three-point range in his career so far with the form and touch to improve with more time on the floor and he’s a willing passer with a good motor defensively.

Texas will be better this season for his work in practice and his vocal leadership from the bench and will almost certainly be better next season for the growth that he can unlock with dedication in practice.

Baker had similar conversations with Smart, expressing his desire to focus on his growth and improvement in practice. Last season, Baker’s struggles likely made that more difficult, as he hit only one of his first 25 three-point attempts. A 20-point performance against TCU that included 8-of-12 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range provided a flash of his upside last season, but it was ultimately an outlier.

Now he’ll have the chance to get better behind the scenes.

“Will’s made a ton of progress and we just want to help him continue his growth,” Smart said.

An attribute that makes Baker unique among his teammates is his thoughtfulness.

“When I say thoughtful, I just mean self reflective — looking inward, thinking about how he can grow, how he can develop,” Smart said on Monday. “What is the next best thing to do, whether it’s on the court off the court.”

Given Baker’s shooting struggles last season, those are attributes that aren’t always completely compatible with maintaining confidence unless there is a level of maturity to act as a buttress against those difficulties.

The 6’11, 240-pounder also needed to improve his level of fitness. Baker isn’t a plus athlete in his vertical explosiveness or lateral quickness, so spending more time with a high-level strength and conditioning coach like Andrea Hudy will only improve his margin for error on the court against quicker players.

“He’s made a lot of progress since he got back in the summer with getting his body back in good shape or in even better shape than last year,” Smart said.

Like Hepa, Baker’s presence in practice will help the team, and Smart did consider playing the Austin Westlake product at times, so expect both to see the court this season, especially if there are injuries or COVID-related absences.

The biggest upside for Texas is that Smart doesn’t have to worry about playing them just to ensure that they stay connected with the team and remain in the program — they’ve already expressed their willingness to get better behind the scenes and then help the team however they can.

Given the challenges of having 12 returning players and a star freshman playing for a coach who has admitted to his own struggles managing rotations, the fact that Baker and Hepa are both locked in to doing their best to position themselves to contribute next season is a positive sign for the immediate future of the 2020-21 Texas basketball team and for the longer-term future of next year’s team as well.