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Baylor Basketball

The Adam Flagler Profile: On the Legacy of Baylor's Senior Point Guard

March 18, 2023
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Before becoming Baylor’s all-time leading NCAA Tournament scorer, or the first Baylor starting point guard to earn unanimous First Team All-Big 12 honors, Adam Flagler spent a couple of weeks in July living on a couch. To be precise, Freddie Gillespie and Jared Butler’s couch in Houston.

Despite being a man decidedly focused on his dream of playing in the NBA, Adam Flagler is able to remember the best moments from his summer. “Freddie is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met,” Flagler says. “I had some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had.”

While you might think staying with two NBA players would lead to long discussions about the depths of basketball strategy, expectations aren’t always reality. “Jared and Freddie would probably spend three hours a day arguing back and forth with each other about the simplest topics,” Flagler says. “I’d just look back at them like, ‘you all are crazy’.”

Freddie Gillespie spends a lot of his time in Germany now, as he’s in their professional league. But when I called him to recount his time with Flagler and Butler this summer, it wasn’t necessary to FaceTime to tell how excited Gillespie was to recount those days. “Man, Adam would just look at us like we’re crazy,” Gillespie says. “One time Adam had to get involved when the debate got too heated. But normally he’d stay back and just laugh at us.”

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Those moments in Houston sum up what’s been one of the most underrated Baylor careers ever. Flagler is the man who hit the shot that removed any doubt Baylor would beat Gonzaga for the national championship, but he ended up overshadowed as the sixth man with three other fantastic guards ahead of him. He’s the man who earned unanimous league honors, yet didn’t earn All-American honors.

Across multiple long interviews in Las Vegas, Kansas City (twice) and Denver, I had the chance to talk with the man that may find himself at the center of some heated debates over where exactly he ranks all-time at Baylor.

Before turning to that question — the one that generates intense passion — let’s look at the journey that Flagler’s taken over the last year.

After a good junior season, one where he was Baylor’s best player, Flagler entered his name in the NBA Draft. While a lot of people thought it a foregone conclusion he would return, Flagler came far closer to staying in the NBA Draft than previously reported. “I definitely felt like there were times throughout the process that I was going to work out and take on that risk of going to the NBA,” Flagler says. “I initially was thinking I wanted to go. I took some time and stepped away from working out, and once I had a clear mind, I made the decision to come back.”

With his decision to come back, Flagler focused on developing in a host of ways. When I first saw him at Big 12 Media Days, I couldn’t believe how much Flagler had grown strength-wise. It was like looking at a different man. Flagler focused on the process to develop an NBA body. “During my offseason, I had a chef, and I worked out probably five days out of the week,” he tells me. “Lifting, maintenance, whatever it may be, stretching. Just getting my body right.”

Then in November, Virginia crushed Baylor in the second half to give Baylor its first loss of the season. As the point guard, Adam Flagler needed to bounce back and have the team ready to win. Against a UCLA team that clearly should have been a No. 1 seed over Purdue, Flagler took the ball inside 20 seconds and drained a jumper to win the game:

That moment showed what Flagler could be as a point guard. “We were only six weeks into the experiment of him playing point guard,” John Jakus, Baylor’s Associate Head Coach, says. “You knew he could play off the ball but closing the game on the ball — that kind of responsibility — I was just really happy for him. I just thought that was a special moment.”

Baylor has trusted Flagler on the ball in the biggest moments of the season. Against Gonzaga, the Bears fell down seven points with fewer than two minutes left. And to make matters worse for Baylor, Flagler had the flu. It would have made sense to put the ball in someone else’s hands. But Flagler embraced the moment. “My mindset then was to do whatever I can,” Flagler says. “That’s what I was feeling in that moment. We were down. I knew we had to keep fighting.”

Flagler kept fighting and drilled two big triples to give Baylor its second big win against Gonzaga. And maybe that’s a good transition to revisit that game and shot.

Throughout Baylor’s history, there are plenty of big shots, but none may carry the significance of Flagler’s three that iced the national championship game. When I asked Jakus about big moments he’ll remember with Flagler, he said, “The first moment is the shot he hit in the national championship in the top slot in the game against Gonzaga. Kind of felt like the game was over.”

What happened after that shot means a lot to Baylor Associate Head Coach, Alvin Brooks III (AB). He tells me, “I just remember sitting on the bench, and towards the end, I looked to my left, and he was the guy that was there, and I said, ‘Wow, we’re really about to be national champs.’ That moment I’ll never forget.”

The pressure of being Baylor’s point guard is unique. It requires understanding when someone needs a shot and when to attack. When to be a mentor to some, and when to go on the attack. While Baylor has had excellent point guards, some haven’t fulfilled that challenging role.

To get a better sense of what it means to be Baylor’s starting point guard, I spoke to Tweety Carter, who now serves as Director of Player Development for the Bears. “I think the biggest thing is everyone creates their own path. Adam is creating his own path.”

That path includes him gathering the team when necessary. “He’s a quiet leader,” Brooks says. “That includes organizing players-only meetings to get guys back on the same page.” Graduate assistant Chris Nottingham tells me, “Those players-only meetings I know have been a big deal for our guys this year.”

While it’s easy to say that Baylor needs someone who can be more of a jerk this season, there’s value to that kind of quiet leadership. I spoke to Ty Beard, Baylor’s video coordinator, and he tells me, “I think Adam has this quiet leadership.” He went on, “He has this quiet confidence about himself. He’s always kind to my family and kids. That’s just the kind of guy Adam is in a nutshell.”

I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to Keyonte George this season, so I was happy in Denver when he opened up about how Flagler came through for him in a big moment.

“There was a time I was going through adversity,” George tells me. “I wasn’t playing as much... it was Vegas actually, UCLA. He (Flagler) came over to my house and we talked. He just told me, ‘Even though you’re young, we still need you. At the time, I kind of felt like — not saying I wasn’t needed — I just kind of felt down. He took the time to come to my house and told me what he had gone through. He had similar things, and he told me, ‘We need you. You’re a valuable piece to the team. You bring energy that makes us a lot better.’ That’s coming from the leader of the team, so when you have somebody tell you that, from then on, there were bumps in the road, but from then on, my energy levels, the way I bounced back from things, after that conversation we had, it changed the whole year for me. Even you could see it on the court. After free throws we’ll go to the top of the key, you know just having him communicate with me. He’s older than me, and that moment (the visit) will probably stick with me forever.”



Maria Konnikova is a former New Yorker writer who has a doctorate in psychology. She decided one day that she wanted to write a book about what would happen if she tried to become a professional poker player. As part of that journey, Konnikova recognized she fell victim to the description-experience gap where she knew a lot about poker but hadn’t played the game enough to understand that knowing about poker doesn’t mean actualizing it to actually being good at poker.

Playing point guard features a similar phenomenon. To get where he needed to go, Flagler had to play the position and as Carter recounts, “not be afraid to make mistakes, and not be afraid to live in the moment because you’re ready for the moment. I think he’s done an unbelievable job living in the moment.”

If you went to Baylor’s game in Allen Fieldhouse during the 2021-2022 season, I’m sorry. Kansas blew the Bears out. The Jayhawks did that by forcing Baylor’s guards to become passers. Unfortunately, Flagler and the Baylor guards got too shot happy and reluctant to make passes:

Flagler certainly would have known watching film that he didn’t make the right play there. But as Jakus tells me, “He’s done a lot of work when nobody is working in the gym. He’s not as much of a film guy, he’s more of a feel guy. He’ll have Demond (Parker) and Chris guard him, and one will hedge, and one will pull, they’ll go back and see… once he figured his footwork and vision out, he’s been only growing. And we’re really proud of it. We teach it for sure, but his commitment comes down to his footwork and vision, and we’re really proud of that.”

Watch Flagler this season, and he’s been adept at hitting the roller. He can stop things faster than a man who realizes a waiter is repeating back the wrong order. And he can flip the ball from unique angles:

These plays happen because Flagler is acerbic. When I asked Parker, a Baylor graduate assistant, for what stands out about Flagler, Parker lets me know, “I would say his intellect. He’s a smart dude. He’s probably one of the smartest basketball brain’s I’ve been around. He’s fun to work with because you learn from him.”

With a variety of big men, Flagler has worked to develop chemistry and know when to prod guys. “I’ve raised my voice a couple times with Josh,” Flagler says. “It wasn’t anything crazy, just to make sure we’re on the same page. Instantly, he just reached.” Thanks to those interactions, Flagler has been able to hit the big for buckets:

While passing is important, Flagler also can keep the ball and score. “He knows when and when not to take a shot,” Brooks says. “His assist-to-turnover ratio I think that’s the biggest thing.” Flagler finished with a greater than 2.5 to 1 ratio.

If a team elects to switch on Flagler, he’ll use his craftiness to get to the rim:

Get worried about switching on Flagler, and maybe drop coverage seems like a good idea. But Jerome Tang dubbed Flagler the midrange assassin for what he did during his redshirt season. Those poor Red Raiders learned you can’t give Flagler space to shoot:

Examine it all for Flagler this season, and he’s led an elite offensive unit. The Bears rank No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency. The discussion over whether Flagler is a point guard no longer rages. When Baylor loses a game, nobody blames Flagler for those losses. That makes sense since he’s iced plenty of opponents this year:

There’s an excellent case Flagler has suffered from a ridiculously underrated year. Maybe it’s because Flagler doesn’t go out and do anything crazy. “The worst thing Flagler has done in four years is be five minutes late to a meeting once,” Nottingham says.

By Bart Torviki’s player of the year metric, PPRG!, Flagler was the best player in the Big 12. He led the league in offensive win shares and offensive box plus-minus. He’s hit 41% of his 196 3-point attempts.

 

As important as what happens on the court is for Flagler, he’s cognizant that the end is near. “I mean it’s always in the back of your mind,” Flagler says. “But you just have to stay focused on the task at hand.”

Plenty of members of Baylor’s staff have thought about what the end of the Flagler era means. “I think no matter where Flagler is in the upcoming years, he’s going to be great what he does because he cares, and he makes people around him better,” Baylor graduate assistant Ryan Peterson tells me. “That will go a long way in translating no matter where is down the road.”

When I finished talking with Jakus today, he told me, “You almost have me crying,” thinking about the end of coaching Flagler. “I don’t know that you’ll find a lot of other guys that fit the program better than Adam.”

Whether Flagler can rise into the Butler-Mitchell-Vinnie Johnson-Jonathan Motley tier of all-time Bears is going to be determined by his run this March. If he leads Baylor to another Final Four, it won’t just be contrarians or hot-take artists that throw Flagler out there. He might join cocaine bear as one of the most underrated Bears that finally earned the respect he deserved.

After hours of conversation this season — from a casino ballroom to podiums in Ames, and a table in Kasnas City to a locker room in Denver — I ask my final question of him before what could be his final game in a Baylor uniform.

What does he want his legacy at Baylor to be?

“Just a person that impacted the culture and impacted winning and was about the right things. Was a God-fearing man that wanted to glorify Him in everything I did and put the team first. That’s the biggest thing I want everyone to remember me for. A guy who could do a lot of things but wanted to be there for his teammates most of all.”

Jack Mackenzie - SicEm365

 

 
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