NBA Daily: Baker’s Unconventional Rise

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Most of the players in the NBA came up through the system in one of two ways: either they dominated AAU ball for their entire adolescent lives, garnering the attention and praise of endless college and pro scouts, or they came up through international leagues as teenagers and gained attention by showing promise amid bigger, stronger, adult international players.

New York Knicks guard Ron Baker was neither of those things. He did play AAU, but only a small handful of colleges every showed an ounce of interest in him, none of them particularly notable. Like a lot of up-and-coming prep stars, Baker, who was from Kansas, wanted to play at the University of Kansas, but as a high school junior Baker only received interest from a couple of Division I programs: South Dakota State and Arkansas-Little Rock.

For the record, Nate Wolters is the only SDSU player and Derek Fisher is the only guy from Arkansas-Little Rock to have played in the NBA since the 1980s. These aren’t farms for big basketball stars.

Baker gets this, which is part of why he was so grateful to see more diverse options after a more promising senior year of high school.

“The summer before my senior year was when I started pursuing basketball a little bit more heavily. I played all tree sports in high school, so that’s the timeframe where I decided basketball was going to be my future,” Baker told Basketball Insiders. “I had a really good AAU summer that year, started drawing some attention, and then my senior year of high school, had a great season, ended up winning state, and obviously that’s when Wichita State came in late.”

That Wichita State recruitment proved to be a godsend. In 2012-2013, the Shockers shocked their way into the Final Four, and in 2013-2014, Baker’s team finished the regular season undefeated, which broke a slew of NCAA records at the time and earned him and his team a ton of positive press. Wichita State made it back to the Sweet 16 again the following season.

Those three seasons put Baker on the NBA map in a huge way, helping him go from unrecruited middling high school player to unheralded middling college star to, eventually, a member of the New York Knicks.

“I think the biggest thing that those tournaments gave me was confidence,” Baker said. “When you get deep in the NCAA tournament, you get to go against a lot of great players, and when you realize as a person you can play against the best, it really helps your confidence, and it helps you work that much harder in the offseason. Obviously the next seasons that came from that Final Four, were big seasons for me because that taste of making it there was very satisfying.”

The next step, naturally, was gearing up for the possibility of the NBA Draft. Baker tried really hard to avoid looking at mock drafts online, but he kept checking anyway, even though his name just wasn’t showing up on any of them.

“Just listening to columnists, looking at DraftExpress, and things like that, those are distractions,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of college athletes would say it’s not a distraction. Obviously making it to the highest level of basketball is the goal, so as a college player you listen to all these insiders talk about your game, and that can be incredibly distracting. With social media now, and all those outlets where information is, it’s very easy to kind of get lost in all that.”

Baker said talking to Cleanthony Early, a former teammate at Wichita State that had been drafted by the Knicks a couple years before, helped keep him sane throughout the whole process.

“I remember talking to him my junior year when he came back after his first year in the NBA, and his biggest thing was just not to focus on that, but I guarantee you every college athlete focuses on trying to get to the NBA when they’re in college. That’s just how it is,” Baker said. “But he just told me, people at the highest level know what you’re capable of. Don’t try and get out of your comfort zone and show people things that you’re not good at because that’s when things start getting off the tracks. and things start going in the wrong direction for you.”

It was hard for Baker to know just how much he had impressed those league people by the time the 2016 NBA Draft rolled around. Some guys have a sense they’ll be drafted. Others hope they will. Baker just had no idea what to expect.

“There’s 60 names about to be called, and I knew there was maybe one team that was potentially interested in me, as far as getting drafted. I think it was OKC, and I was told they were thinking about trading in to get me in the late 50s.

“Going into that night I knew I probably wasn’t going to get drafted, but we still had a little family get-together because my agent said you’ll most likely get signed with a team on draft night. Honestly, it was a bigger day than just the draft itself, being around the important people who have helped you get to that moment and join an NBA team. That was the celebration.”

Those 60 names came and went, and Ron Baker wasn’t one of them. But he found that he didn’t really care.

“If you get drafted in the late 2nd round, it’s not necessarily saying you’re going to be on an NBA team,” Baker admitted. “Going undrafted, you have more freedom to negotiate and go to teams and try out, and you have a little bit more freedom as far as what you can do if you don’t make the NBA roster.”

Baker ended up with the Knicks’ Summer League team in 2016 and showed enough there to get signed to the team’s actual regular season roster by opening night. He’s been up and down between New York and the team’s G-League affiliate in Westchester, but the experience hasn’t stopped being a dream come true.

“Every day is a pretty overwhelming moment,” he said. “There are a lot of great players on this team, and it’s only my 2nd year, which is where all my motivation is. I feel like I have so much to learn, so while I’m not playing a whole lot right now, I still learn a ton by watching. That’s all I can do is show up and just work hard. Being here is a blessing, and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”

That’s the story of his life, though, making the most of things. When big college programs didn’t recruit him, he stepped up his game and garnered more interested. When Kansas didn’t want him, he made the most of Wichita State. Now, in New York, he’s doing everything he can to make the most of this most recent opportunity. With no idea where things are headed long-term, that’s all he can do, but considering there was a time just six or seven years ago when this young man could only dream about the NBA, not playing a whole lot for the Knicks is a learning experience just about any young ball player in the world would happily suffer through.