March 10, 2023
Janiah Barker is Texas A&M’s difference maker
Barker and Coach Taylor's bond holds this young team together
With just seven regular season wins and two in SEC play, it looked like Texas A&M’s season had little to no hope until the No. 13 Aggies doubled their SEC wins in the SEC Tournament, upsetting No. 12 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Mississippi State, and fighting until the end in their eventual semifinal loss to No. 4 Mississippi. And a crucial part of this regular season to postseason transformation was the team’s leading scorer: All-SEC Freshman Team member Janiah Barker.
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Last March, when Coach Joni Taylor made her surprising transfer across the SEC from the helm at Georgia to Texas A&M, several players followed Taylor, including Barker.
The No. 3 recruit in the nation, who played her high school ball in Florida but whose hometown is the suburbs of Atlanta, committed initially to UGA. In a now-deleted Instagram post just a day after Taylor’s news, Barker announced her de-commitment away from her home state. By late April, she had announced she was following Taylor to Texas A&M.
“I was going to Georgia because of Joni and I followed her because I trust her and I know that her abilities as a coach are so amazing,” Barker told The Next. “I told her my goals and what I wanted to do coming here, my professional goals, I want [to be] a draft pick. She believes in me as much as I believe in myself. She was the coach that I needed to be with to complete those goals.”
Taylor said that the bond between her and Barker is truly special.
“There is a trust between Janiah and not just me but our entire staff. We recruited her since the 7th grade, and when we decided to make the transition to College Station, she didn’t flinch,” Taylor said to media. “I could tell Janiah to go stand on top of a building and jump, and she would say, ‘what time?'”
Barker told The Next that she’s staying at Texas A&M next year and she and Taylor plan for her to spend just three years in College Station before declaring for the WNBA draft a year early.
But Barker broke some hearts along the way.
“There are only a few players that break my heart in the recruiting process, and Ms. Barker was one of them,” Mississippi head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said at the SEC Tournament. “Obviously I have a lot of respect for her, and I’m really glad she found a home with Joni.”
And despite Barker’s faithfulness to Taylor, this A&M season was met with plenty of challenges and clocked in far fewer wins than Georgia did (21 to nine). The team’s inexperience as the second-youngest squad in the SEC was met with a slew of injuries, leaving them with just seven available for the majority of January and just eight for far longer. One of these injuries included Barker, who was out for ten games due to what the team called a “wrist injury,” but she referred to as “breaking [her] hand.”
Barker said that fighting back from the injury was particularly mentally challenging but made her accolades even sweeter.
“It’s surreal knowing where I came from. I broke my hand,” Barker said to media about her All-SEC Freshman Team designation. “Coming back from a journey and having the opportunity to get that. I am truly blessed.”
Over the season, Barker averaged 12.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals and one block a game. She led her team in average points per game. And her SEC Tournament performance only compounded on this success. Although she didn’t start any of the Aggies’ three games, she averaged 12 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. In their semifinals loss, Barker clocked in a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
But beyond just the stats, Barker brought an intensity to the floor her team needed.
“Joni Taylor said because of our youth that this is our tournament. We don’t have an NCAA tournament, this is our tournament right here,” Barker said. “We also see this as a revenge tour. It’s hard to lose against teams two times or three times. So we just went out there and believed in each other. We played for each other these last two days.”
Barker told The Next the win over Mississippi State was sweet, where Barker showed off a cinematic block, but the loss to Mississippi was a heartbreaker.
“I wanted this one really bad,” Barker said.
And although Barker can stuff a stat sheet, her best traits as a ball player may be her intuition and personality. Taylor noted that her coachability is what truly makes her unique.
“You take a player like Janiah Barker, and she has the personality to match her game, and that right there sells tickets. She is gracious and humble and has a big personality and is a lot of fun to be around, but wants to win and compete and cares about other people,” Taylor told media after their SEC Tournament loss. “When you have that type of combination and when your best player is your hardest worker, it makes it really, really easy to coach her, coach her hard, and to coach the players and the people around her.”
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Barker’s intuition and non-tangible assets are clear from an eye test. She always knows where to be and where to go, which is rare, especially for a freshman. Her 6’4 frame sets her apart; her footwork inside is impressive and she protects the rim with confidence and ease. Additionally, her fundamentals are solid: she’s a good passer, a decent field goal shooter and a hard worker.
This season Barker recorded a 4.3% block percentage and a 2.7% steal percentage and is the first SEC freshman to record over a 4% block percentage and a 2% steal percentage since Aliyah Boston’s first season.
Since Barker’s late-January return from injury, Texas A&M either won or were within just ten points of a win in nine of their twelve games, and Barker was the leading scorer in five of those games. For a team that struggled throughout the season but began to pick up steam in its final games, it appears Barker may be the difference maker.
And during the tournament, this was apparent to the competition. Mississippi’s Coach Yo said it was like “playing a brand new team,” Mississippi State head coach Purcell echoed those sentiments.
“When you have freshmen that gets punched and they get a lot of playing time, guess what? Those freshmen get better,” Purcell told media after his team’s SEC Tournament loss. “Janiah Barker was one of the top players to come out of the country in high school last year. I thought she was the difference maker, because that stretch when they were losing games early they didn’t have her. … Unfortunately we had to face them tonight.”
And although the Aggies’ season was disappointing overall, their upward trajectory signifies the hope for years to come. Many agree that this now more experienced team, with Barker and freshman Syndey Bowles at the core, will be an entirely different threat next season.
And the person most sure of next year’s bright future? Janiah Barker.
“We’re not ever going to win two games in the SEC ever again. It’s going to be a whole different team next year and years to come,” Barker said. “I’m excited for what’s about to happen. And I’m ready for the journey and I’m going to stick right beside Joni Taylor the whole time.”
Written by Gabriella Lewis
Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.
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