More than six months removed from hitting a three that extinguished any hope Gonzaga would beat Baylor in the national title game, Adam Flagler is preparing for what will probably be his final season in Waco.
He’s no longer the sixth man that Five Guys wanted, as Baylor’s overwhelming quartet of guards left him coming off the bench during the Bear’s championship campaign. Instead he figures to be one of the two best players on a team that thinks it can finish in the same spot it did a year prior.
To understand Flagler—a man so nice and complimentary that you’d feel terrible for him if he were your boss having to fire you—let’s start with how a Georgian at Presbyterian ended up at a Baptist school in Texas.
Flagler tells me he left Presbyterian because, “The new coach that was coming in. He was a newer guy, first time being a head coach. I felt like it was the perfect opportunity for me to find a new school and elevate.”
With Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Devonte Bandoo slated to play in 2019-2020, the Bears needed a guard that could sit a year and be an impact player to replace Bandoo for the 2020-2021 season. John Jakus, an assistant coach at Baylor, “called and asked for all the research you can do from (Flagler’s) time at Presbyterian,” Peyton Prudhomme says. Prudhomme was a graduate assistant at Baylor and is now the Direct of Video Operations at Grand Canyon. After that examination by the staff, they realized Flagler would fit in perfectly at Baylor.
During his redshirt season, Flagler, “wanted to be in the gym a lot,” Rem Bakamus tells me. Bakamus was a graduate assistant and is now the Director of Player Development at Arizona. He played so well that Bakamus says, “Jared Nunes (Baylor’s Special Assistant and Director of Player Development) was already starting an All-American campaign. ‘This kid is going to be an All-American one day.”
In a top five tilt against Illinois, Flagler showed he can take and make deep threes:
“Adam and LJ (Cryer) can shoot as deep as they want, and we won’t take that away...we won’t shy away from that,” Jakus says.
Flagler adds, “extending further and further helped my game, and when the game comes, it helped me out.”
Those shots make everything easier for Baylor’s offense. Illinois elected to play off Flagler when he stood so far beyond the arc, which opened the shot for him. Per CBB-Analytics data, he hit 45.1% of his threes from 25-30 feet, which ranked in the 89th percentile. And when teams respect that shot, suddenly driving lanes open up for teammates. That combination should help the Bears, especially if the guards aren’t quite as explosive off the bounce as the departing trio.
Basketball’s unique because everyone’s game’s a little different. Flagler has a unique shot where the ball he releases the ball well above his head. He says, “It might be because I’m not the tallest guy and trying to always get my shot off and find ways to get it off even with people who are taller.” It worked well, as Flagler shot 69% from deep in Baylor’s five NCAA Tournament games against top 50 level competition.
After the Bears started 17-0. the program went on a 21 day COVID pause. Mitchell, Butler, Mayer and Flagler were finally able to practice after a week of contact tracing. The remainder of the team had to largely wait to practice until just days before a dual with Iowa State. “The coaches talked to the guys who were available; they were going to depend on us coming back from COVID,” Flagler says.
The 2020-2021 Iowa State Cyclones went 0-18 in Big 12 play. And if not for Flagler, the Cyclones would have gone 1-17. The Bears fell behind 26-13. But thanks to Flagler’s 22 points, Baylor escaped with a 77-72 victory. “We were playing, but we needed that extra boost my first year coming off the bench,” Flagler says. Jakus says, “If we don’t get his 22 points, if he didn’t hit those four threes, exchange baskets, we have no chance.” His quick triples—and that high release—meant that when players wanted to stop Mitchell from getting to the hoop, they were doomed leaving Flagler in the corner:
In his final three games before the NCAA Tournament, Flagler wasn’t playing well. He finished with just three total points and went scoreless in two games. Whether he could return to his previous level of play remained a major question for Baylor heading into the NCAA Tournament. When I ask Flagler about that, he says, “I had a rough game stretch. All of us just had to reset. I was trying not to focus too much on myself.”
After losing to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semifinals, the Bears tried to decompress and practice to fix their defensive malaise. The group seemed relaxed as they celebrated the program’s first No. 1 seed in program history at a private space inside Johnny’s in downtown Kansas City. With a bracket that featured five KenPom top 15 teams on the way to a national title, the Bears had a daunting task to claim a championship.
About to head into the locker room up 10 points against Wisconsin, Flagler says, “We have certain plays. It definitely wasn’t a play. Davion’s ultra quick. I kind of knew he’d get the ball and get going. My goal was to just get down the court. Even if I didn’t get it, Matt was down the court. So if I didn’t get it, I was going to drag the defenders. Once Davion passed it, I kind of knew the time situation and I had to get it up. It was far, it was far in my opinion. It felt good coming off my hand. And I thought, ‘Thank you, we can go into halftime with that momentum.”
The following week at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Baylor faced a Villanova squad that pushed Baylor to its limit. Baylor led 18-11. Villanova went on a 19-5 run to end the half. Flagler scored all five of Baylor’s points. He hit a triple coming off an offensive rebound during that stretch. He made 72.2% of shots after an offensive rebound, which ranked in the 92nd percentile. “That’s a Scott Drew thing and constant: top five ever year (in offensive rebounding)…send three to the glass at all times...Adam gets at those two spots we have predetermined for him.”
This summer, Mayer told me that at halftime of the Sweet 16, Drew had each player walk by Vital and Teague—the team’s seniors—and promise the pair it wouldn’t be their last game. “It was needed looking them in the eyes and not letting them down. We came out a different team.” “It was definitely needed and Coach Drew knew what buttons to press to get us going.” Bakamus says, “That was a good moment to fight through adversity. I think his (Drew’s) speech was a good rally cry.”
The speech must have resonated with Flagler. Down 35-29, Flagler explains the play, “We called Iverson circle. That’s what we call it. I was a little hesitant. I was trying to get my defender off the screen. Jared was like, ‘go, go Adam.’ So I ran off, and my guy was trailing me. So I curled it. Jeremiah Robinson-(Earl) stepped up. They had someone at the rim so I thought about passing to Flo, but I decided to shoot a quick floater.”
Down by four as the game neared its final 10 minutes, Flagler collected the ball on the left wing. He says, “Growing up, I was a point guard...I kind of knew that if I went baseline, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was going to step up, if I got it around his arm. I knew Jon (Tchamwa Tchatchoua) was going to finish. He made the job easy. I knew I got him the ball in the right spot, he was going to finish.”
Behind Flagler’s 16 points, Baylor knocked off Villanova by 11. Even though Baylor finished the regular season as the country’s No. 1 team from three, the Bears went just 3-of-19 from deep. To win that contest, Jakus says, “We needed some ball movement and to punch gaps and move our guys into action. You can’t drive yourself into gaps like you can against others (when playing Villanova). Adam got it done.”
After blowing out Houston in the Final Four, the Bears prepared to face undefeated Gonzaga on the final day of the season. As I reported in my book, “How They Drew It Up” the Bears thought they had to play an aggressive defensive style to make Gonzaga—a team Baylor thought was at least the best passing team since 2015 Duke and quite possibly better than those champion Blue Devils—passes as tough as possible and live fronting Drew Timme.
The Bears had their defensive game plan, but they needed to figure out how to punish Gonzaga’s decision to switch ball screens. And if the Bulldogs elected to only have two men defend ball screens, Baylor worked to make it impossible to defend them without sending help.
Early in the second half, Flagler put Gonzaga in that dire spot: how to defend Baylor with just two men coming off a dribble hand-off. “Once I came off, I knew nobody hit or messed up Jon's stride. Once I saw that, even if the guy (defending big man, Anton Watson) didn’t come up, Jon’s so athletic, I can literally throw it anywhere. Jon can go get it. When Anton stepped up, Jon finished the lobbed. The coaches made sure to emphasize where I’m looking and to make the pass possible.”
With so many talented guards, Flagler didn’t have to pass much. Yet, like in the above play, the Bears could rely upon him to hit open shots set up by his now NBA teammates. Jakus says, “There’s this high-level passer in him. We got 1.33 points per possession when he passed. He’s a good lob passer.”
When you win it all, you have plenty of top plays to chose from on the season. Vital’s save for Teague’s three against Texas Tech. Butler’s dunk against Oklahoma State. Mayer’s dunk against Auburn. Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s throwdowns against Illinois. Mitchell’s three before halftime against Houston. All are spectacular selections.
In the biggest game of the season, one play stands out though. And given the stakes, this sequence is probably the one that best highlights how dominant the Bears were at their apex.
Baylor led 64-51. Flagler says, “When Mark got that block, usually I’m like, ‘oh it’s a good block.’ Once he gets the block my immediate mindset is just to sprint down the court. Jared’s such a high-level guard, and you can see that in the NBA right now, Jared is dribbling up and gains a lot of attention. I was screaming like, ‘woo Jared.’ He zipped it over to me. I was locked in on the goal. Drew Timme just crossed my face so I couldn’t see the goal well. I was like, ‘Get it off. He might have blocked it.’ Once I saw it go in the air, it looked good. If you watched the video, you can Davion screaming when I touched the ball. He knew it was a good shot.”
The play is especially funny because it’s Flagler with the yelp before the shot. All season Mitchell made that sound when he was open. When I asked Mitchell about his screech, he never knew he made it. And in the biggest moment, Flagler copied that scream and made the shot that, “felt like a dagger though, for real...that whole sequence and that three, it just showed that it took the air out of the game. You saw them hang their heads after that,” Obim Okeke says. Okeke was a graduate assistant and is now with the Indiana Pacers. Bakamus says, “That shot’s supposed to go in. Flag took that bench role and bought into it all year and earned that way before that.”
In the postgame celebration, the players saw someone other than themselves for the first time in a month. Flagler says, “The moment that stuck out to me was when we all gathered back up and prayed. It was truly a blessing from God to be in that position. The year before we weren’t able to play. Being in that position and the NCAA making it possible. We had to stop and acknowledge it from then.”
On Wednesday, the Big 12 coaches released their preseason team. Flagler did not make it. When comparing the other three non-Matt Mayer wings and guards to make the team, Flagler’s efficiency stands out, per data from CBB-Analytics:
Even though Baylor fans are apoplectic at the omission, Flagler is focused on developing as a leader. With the core four gone, Flagler, Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Mayer and Flo Thamba are the returning rotation players from the tournament. Flagler and Mayer are the returning players that will be responsible for playmaking responsibilities. That makes their leadership imperative.
When you talk with Flagler, he’s deeply contemplative. Basketball questions allow the interviewee to rally back to a few packaged and cliched answers. That’s a safer bet in the era of bulletin board material. Flagler isn’t going to be the quote used by Texas or Kansas to feign disrespect and motivate them in the Big 12’s biggest clashes. Instead Flagler finds a way to work every answer back to crediting his teammates or coaches.
That style helps him be “a different kind of leader,” Jakus says. “He has as good a pulse on our basketball team as anyone. Jon and him live together. That apartment is like a hub.” Prudhomme says, “He’s wise beyond his years. He’s calculated and concise. He’s like MaCio. He thinks about what he’s going to say and in his workout. Everything is planned.” That planning helped, and Okeke says Flagler’s the “consummate team player. He should have played more minutes last year, but he didn’t complain. When he first came in, he knew how good he was. He was trying to be too nice in the system. He’s a real character guy. He works his butt off.”
Flagler is also hyping up his teammates. He goes through the list and tells me about the gains others have made. He’s deeply complimentary of Mayer, and tells me that Mayer has deferred to others and is clapping way less in practices. That’s a strong leadership move as the duo could each claim they should be viewed as the top man on the team. With how well Butler and Mitchell navigated and respected the other without insult—avoiding a possible Stringer and Avon situation from “The Wire”—Flagler and Mayer have a framework to follow. Chemistry isn’t tested in October, but it can be forged there; the pair appear to be in the spot that will allow their immense talent to flourish.
Maybe that leadership and intelligence shouldn’t be surprising. Flagler plans to attend medical school after playing in the NBA. He’s majoring in health science. If he achieves his goals this season, this should be his final year in Waco.
Despite his diligent work and calm demeanor, he’s capable of making mistakes. In high school, he says, “I was driving to school. I was outside the district and lived outside the bus stop. I had to go to school and drive. It was a rough day. It was snowing. And it rarely snows in Georgia. We’re leaving. We have this big hill that we have to get up to get out of our campus. I’m driving, and the car is rolling backwards. Everyone is slipping and sliding. I almost get to the light, and my car is rolling. I end up hitting my favorite teacher in the rear of her car.”
That situation should leave anyone in a rough spot. How many of us make lifelong friends exchanging insurance information? But most of us aren’t going to play in the NBA, and if we were, we would spend our early retirement traveling as millionaires, not going to medical school. So it’s comprehensible when Flagler says, “We grew a great relationship. She remembered me as the student who hit my car. That was something funny that anytime she sees me, she brings it up.”
Teams don’t tend to repeat in college basketball. The thrill of March Madness is built on the mercurial possibilities from a single elimination bracket. But championship teams don’t usually bring back someone like Flagler. Most don’t have one like him to begin with. Running it back with him—and the combination of players and coaches they have—gives them a chance to do it.