Young athletes sometimes grapple with what they want versus what they need. Such conflict has derailed promising careers before they ever got on track.
Morgan State senior forward Troy Baxter fought that battle, and after four years and three different schools, it certainly appears he is winning. The 6-foot-9, 200-pound Floridian has traveled far and wide to find a hoops home, and Baltimore is the beneficiary. The talented forward has embraced Morgan State and his last, best chance to map out his basketball future, and the future is now.
“Now from my freshman year, I’m a totally different person,” Baxter said. “Everybody goes through stuff. … For me, it was needing something different. I needed a coach that could take me out of my element as far as playing ability, could push me, even if it [ticks] me off or gets on my nerves. There’s a greater good.”
Baxter went from a top-100 recruit to having a chip on his shoulder at previous stops to happy camper in East Baltimore. The light has come on for the well-traveled talent — from Oldsmar Christian Academy in Tallahassee, Fla., to UNLV to Florida Gulf Coast and now Morgan State — and Baxter is optimistic about the Bears and head coach Kevin Broadus.
“Coach Broadus, he keeps it simple: You do what he says and what he asks of you, you come in and work hard, then you know for sure you’ll play and start,” Baxter said. “If you don’t, you sit and watch. He doesn’t promise things. There’s no favoritism, it’s strictly about working hard.”
Those simple precepts are a little bit of a departure for Baxter. He has been much coveted since earning a four-star ranking from ESPN and Rivals back in 2015 at Oldsmar. In 2016, he won a national slam dunk contest and led his team to a national top-25 ranking.
Soon, he was enrolled at UNLV, where he averaged 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds but wasn’t getting the playing time he thought he had earned. Baxter transferred closer to home to FGCU. He sat out a year per NCAA rules and then averaged 7.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 30 games (16 starts) in 2018-19, including a 20-point game against Michigan State.
Baxter believed he had arrived, and he declared for the NBA Draft in 2019. What he learned during pro camps was that he still had much to learn. And he desperately wanted to discover it all.
“That whole experience was new for me, and I paid attention to parts of the game and skills I needed to develop,” he said. “It was about mastering those skills, seeing how the pros work. Not only basketball, but also the mental part. That’s what I had to learn. You see guys that have great longevity in the game not just because of their physical ability, but knowing how the small things work.”
Baxter was back in the hunt for another hoops home where he could get to those basics. Schools all over were interested and told him things players love to hear. Enter Broadus and the Bears — even though the veteran coach didn’t have a clue about Baxter.
“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know the kid,” Broadus said. “One of my assistants, Brian Merritt, knew him from way back. He talked about him, got some information and we just rolled on from there.”
Merritt was formerly the director of scouting/recruiting for John Lucas Enterprises — the former Terp and NBA star’s foundation to help promising athletes achieve their dreams — and he had ranked Baxter in high school as one of the nation’s top prospects in 2015-16. He remembered his game well.
Once Merritt opened the line of communication, Baxter liked what he heard. Morgan coaches told him what he needed to hear, not necessarily what would feed his ego.
“I was just giving him everyday tough love,” Broadus said. “But I was showing him that I cared. I tell him and all the guys, no one is going to be giving you anything. I tell them all the time to look out that window. It’s a tough world out there.”
Baxter was learning that on his own, but Broadus was helping him build his game and beyond. The 24-year-old has excelled in the classroom at Morgan State and shown a maturity befitting his time in the college game. He has extra incentive now as the father of a daughter, Navaeh Cataleya Baxter, born in June.
Baxter worked hard for Broadus last year, and he started 26 games, averaging 10.2 points and 5.1 rebounds and finishing second in the MEAC with 1.9 blocked shots. The Bears went 15-16 overall and 9-7 in the conference. Morgan State, which returned four starters, was tabbed second in the Northern Division in the MEAC’s preseason poll this fall.
Junior guards Sherwyn Devonish and Isaiah Burke, both Maryland natives, should play key roles, as will Wake Forest transfer Sharone Wright Jr. But Baxter is the player to watch. Last year, before a nagging groin strain slowed him down, Baxter had a 30-point game against Evansville and led the team’s defense as a rim protector.
“He’s an exciting player that can hit a big three, block a shot or get a dunk to get you going,” Merritt said.
“He blocks shots and rebounds at a high clip,” Broadus added. “We can’t wait to get him back and totally healthy because we think he can take us a long way.”
And that’s the beauty of Baxter at Morgan State. His future success is likely directly linked to lifting the Bears.
“I’ve been working hard all summer,” Baxter said. “Just shooting, repetition, and working on my handle. I don’t need to dribble like Kyrie Irving, but I’ll be able to put it on the floor. Everyone will see a different player from what they saw last year. I’m healthy. I’ve had a year from when everything was new to me — new team, new system. I’m in a different place mentally and I want to shock people.”
Broadus thinks Baxter has a chance to do just that and impress pro scouts. And this is from a guy who has coached and recruited 12 NBA players.
As for Morgan State, Baxter has seen the program up the ante across the board, including enhanced academic support from a grant secured by athletic director Dr. Edward Scott. This year, the Bears hope to awaken from hibernation — 11 years since the last conference crown — in Broadus’ second year.
“The staff has just stepped up in a bunch of ways and Morgan State is more like a big mid-major now,” Baxter said. “We’re the best team in the MEAC, but we have the talent to beat more than just MEAC teams.”
Photo Credit: Lawrence Johnson