PULLMAN – As the calendar turns another leaf into a new year, millions of Americans resolve to improve their fitness. Health clubs overflow with the hordes trying to lose a few pounds, tone some muscle, increase cardiovascular health.
In this, those crowds were about nine months behind Aron Baynes.
Washington State’s center made the same resolution last April, after the Cougars’ most successful basketball season of the modern era had ended with a Sweet Sixteen loss to North Carolina.
It wasn’t as if Baynes was a couch potato or anything.
At 6-foot-10 and a well-muscled 270 pounds, he had pounded his way to All-Pac-10 honorable-mention honors as a junior, averaging 10.4 points and six rebounds a game in a league that included first-round NBA draft picks Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Ryan Anderson among its bigs.
But Baynes wasn’t as mobile as he wanted to be.
So, in preparation for his senior year, he spent the summer doing agility drills, improving his footwork and his hand-eye coordination, eating better and shedding fat for muscle.
Baynes version 2.0 showed up for fall practice. He was leaner – at 250 pounds he had dropped 15 to 20 pounds from his junior playing weight – and quicker.
“Losing a bit of weight helps,” he said after practice Tuesday. “I definitely feel the best I have in my four years here.”
“That certainly has helped,” added WSU coach Tony Bennett. “He’s gone to work on his body to get as fit as he can. He’s moving better.”
The tough off-season has paid off in many ways, reaching a peak last weekend when Baynes dominated inside against Oregon State and Oregon. In the trip through the Willamette Valley, Baynes scored 36 points, grabbed 22 rebounds and was credited with four blocks shots.
He’s averaging 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, both career highs. He’s also shooting a career-best 72.7 percent from the free-throw line.
“My fitness definitely does help, especially toward the end of a game,” Baynes said, using free throws as an example. “Instead of having to hunch over on my knees every time, I can stand up, take a couple deep breaths and focus a bit more.”
Caleb Forrest sees the change. He was in the same freshman class with Baynes, and he’s spent the last four years being pushed around at practice.
“He’s a horse. He pushes himself as hard as he can,” the 6-8, 230-pound Forrest said. “You have to get used to getting banged when you go up against him. And I don’t envy the people playing against us.”
The leaner Baynes is also a better shot blocker – his 21 blocks in 17 games are only five shy of last year’s total accumulated in 35 games – teaming with freshman DeAngelo Casto (23 blocks) to build a wall around the basket.
“Aron, the last three games – Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon – has had some key blocks late in the game,” said Bennett, whose Cougars are second in the Pac-10 in blocks. “He’s more vertical than people think. He runs fast and he jumps high. He may not be the quickest guy you see, but as far as explosive, if he can get a bead on it, he can go up and block some shots.”
Not only has the new fitness helped Baynes excel on the court, it’s helped him stay on it as well.
At Oregon State, Baynes played the entire second half and overtime. It was only the second time in his WSU career he had played an entire half without a break.
“It’s not only allowing me to play 30 minutes a game, it’s allowing me to do that in succession,” he said of the fitness and his increased playing time.
With the improved body has come an improved attitude. In his first three years, the Australian had earned a reputation around the Pac-10.
“He’s a matured a lot in that way,” Forrest said. “He’s also learned a lot from the past. Whining and complaining doesn’t do any good. If you talk calmly to the refs, they’re more likely to listen to you than if you’re whining about it.
“That’s how he’s handling it now.”
“Everyone’s going to mature after four years in college,” Baynes said. “I’m a lot more used to the way basketball is over here as well. … And being more fit, it’s helped as well. I don’t get those cheap fouls from being tired.”
All of Baynes’ improvements will be tested the remainder of the Pac-10 season, with UCLA the first quiz tonight. He looks forward to the exam.
“I think everyone was (disappointed) last year, we didn’t play as well as we could against UCLA,” Baynes said of the two losses WSU suffered at the hands of the Bruins last season. “We didn’t get it done to a level we knew we could. That’s the thing this year, we just have to compete.”
No matter which Baynes has been in a Cougars uniform – the raw freshman, the back-from-injury sophomore, the emerging force as a junior or the at-times dominating senior – Bennett is just glad Baynes made the trek to Pullman from Australia.
“He’s a senior and he’s realizing what’s needed from him,” Bennett said. “He’s been challenged and he’s responded.
“He’s still stubborn as an ox, he can be that way. But he’s not letting things get into his mind as much, whether it’s a call or a silly foul or a coach telling him something. He used to get a little surly. But I’ve always known this of Aron – his heart is gold.”