From high school to pros, Wichita State's Baker falls under radar
POSTED: May 14, 2016 7:06 PM ET
Defying expectations is nothing new for shooting guard prospect Ron Baker of Wichita State.
In this age of advanced analytics, YouTube videos, social media and recruiting gurus parked on every street corner of the Internet, it isn't often that a player capable of college basketball stardom who also has the potential to play in the NBA eludes the attention of recruiters.
But every now and then, a Ron Baker comes along.
It's safe to surmise that college basketball history would have been drastically altered had not Wichita State assistant coach Chris Jans showed up for the semifinals of the Kansas state high school tournament in the winter of 2011. Baker came from tiny Scott City, Kan., had barely played AAU basketball, and was a good enough quarterback to have received power conference recruiting attention, each a good enough reason he could have eluded serious attention from Division I basketball coaches.
But the Shocker coaches knew Baker, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, because he participated in one of their camps the summer before his senior season at Scott City High School. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall recalls being "intrigued" by Baker, but not so much that he offered a scholarship. Still, Jans decided to keep an eye on Baker, thus his trip to Hutchinson, Kan. and the state tournament.
Led by Baker, Scott City won its class 3A semifinal game, so Jans drove back to Wichita and told Marshall they had to return to Hutch the next day for the finals. Baker didn't disappoint, scoring the game-winning basket at the buzzer and finishing with 26 points and nine rebounds. Marshall's level of intrigue rose several notches.
"You could tell he really knew how to play," Marshall said. "He was very unselfish, sneaky athletic, and he scored at all levels."
Having already given scholarships to a couple of other shooting guards, Wichita State was fresh out of financial aid. But here's where Baker's relative anonymity changed the course of college hoops history. His mother Ranae wanted him to play for nearby Division II power Fort Hays State. And D-I coaches weren't beating down Baker's door. Only two of them showed any serious interest, South Dakota State and Little Rock, and then only because of a concerted effort by one of Baker's AAU coaches, Bryan Miller, who also runs a recruiting service.
Baker resisted the urge to please his mom and go to Fort Hays, because he thought he could play at a higher level. So when Marshall and his staff offered Baker the chance to redshirt the 2011-12 season and then be placed on scholarship in 2012-13, he jumped on it.
"Never even took an official visit there," Baker said. "My parents and I drove up and stayed at a family friend's house. The next day we met coach Marshall and coach Jans. They spoke highly of me and got along with my folks. It just felt like the place to go."
Baker was right. And Marshall's first instincts about Baker, dating all the way back to the first time he laid eyes on him at summer camp, were dead on. That was quickly apparent when Baker showed up on campus in the summer of 2011. Pickup games have a way of separating the men from the boys, so when Wichita State point guard Malcolm Armstead, who had transferred from Oregon and seen plenty of high-level talent, told his coaches Baker shouldn't redshirt, they took notice. That summer, during an exhibition trip to Brazil, Marshall threw his freshmen into the fire, even trying Baker at point guard, where he excelled.
If Wichita State coaches were convinced of Baker's readiness, he wasn't. He insisted on a redshirt year.
"At the time, I didn't really have the confidence I felt like I needed to have to play for the team that we had," Baker said. "We had a lot of seniors that were in my position. I started getting that confidence toward the middle of the year on the scout team, playing against those guys, but by then it was too late.
"Our coaches respected my decision. I recall having meetings with them asking me if I wanted to play. I felt like my confidence could grow even more."
Again, Baker's assessment of his game was accurate. His first year of eligibility in 2012-13 produced an NCAA tournament run for the ages. Teaming with freshman point guard Fred VanVleet, Baker helped lead the Shockers all the way to the Final Four.
A foot injury cost Baker 10 games of his redshirt freshman year, but he returned in time for postseason play. He came off the bench during the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, then moved into the starting lineup for the NCAAs, where he averaged 11 points and shot 43 percent from 3 and 88 percent from the free-throw line in five games. Along the way, the Shockers eliminated Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed, and Ohio State. How many of those teams would have loved to have Baker in their lineup?
"That Final Four run was where I got most of my confidence," Baker said. "I found out I could play against anyone in college basketball. And throughout the years, we played some really great teams in the [NCAA] tournament. That really helped my game. I learned a ton."
The Final Four was no fluke. The next year, Wichita State ran through the regular season and Missouri Valley tournament undefeated and won a first-round game in the NCAA tournament to get to 35-0 before finally losing, to Kentucky. Baker, battling a serious ankle injury most of the year, nevertheless averaged 13 points and led the team in made 3-pointers.
One of Marshall's fondest recollections of Baker comes from that season. He tells a story that illustrates Baker's toughness.
"It was just before a big game versus Tennessee," Marshall said. "His ankle was swollen like a baseball—black and blue—but instead of sitting on the sidelines during our shoot-around, he's listening intently. Somehow he played in the game, and played well with no noticeable limp. It's still hard to believe he even attempted to play."
Baker, and the Shockers, weren't finished. In his junior season, they knocked two more powerhouses from the NCAA tournament. The first was Indiana. The second was No. 2-seeded Kansas, which hadn't played Wichita State in 22 years. Even the vanquished coach, Bill Self, said the game could have been the most talked-about in state history.
Baker led that team in scoring and earned All-America honors.
Baker closed out his career in typical fashion, once again helping lead the Shockers to the NCAA tournament, where, as usual, they were a tough out. After a First Four victory over Vanderbilt, Marshall told another story about Baker, one that illustrated how far the player had come during his time in Wichita.
"Ron took what I thought was a poor shot with about three minutes to go," Marshall said. "We're probably up 14, and he takes a left-handed running lay-up over their big guy that didn't draw iron, and I kind of yelled at him; that was a bad shot. Time and score, you've got to do better than that. Then I looked at the video, and he got hit pretty good. I thought there could have been a foul, and he was probably thinking he was going to get two free throws. He doesn't say anything, he just goes on with it."
The Shockers upset Arizona in their next NCAA game. Two days later, Miami beat Wichita State in the round of 32 and Baker's career was over. Or at least, his college career was over. Those who know Baker best think the NBA is his next destination.
"Without question," said former Wichita State assistant Steve Forbes, now the head coach at East Tennessee State. Pressed for reasons, Forbes offered several.
"One, I think he's a really good player," Forbes said. "Two, he's ultra competitive. Three, I can't ever remember him having a bad practice, not going hard every play, every possession, every drill. I never walked out of the gym saying Ron Baker had a bad day today.
"You need to have a Ron Baker on your team to win. The intangibles, the little things ... all the stuff that adds up to winning, he's got it all."
Baker is still hard at work proving himself, just like he did in high school. He had a great forum to showcase his skills this week at the NBA's Chicago Draft Combine, but long before that, he'd been busy.
"Just trying to become more efficient," Baker said. "I need to shoot the NBA 3 with a lot more confidence and a higher percentage. I need to take care of the basketball a little bit better. Just be a reliable source at all times on both ends."
Forbes was at Wichita State for Baker's sophomore and junior seasons, plenty of time to judge his talent, but more important, his character.
"I've had a lot of NBA guys call me," Forbes said. "And I tell them all, there are no negatives to Ron Baker. I've coached several guys who played in the NBA, I know their strengths and weaknesses. And I'm telling you, there are no negatives to Ron Baker. He's one of those once-in-a-lifetime players, and persons."
Between workouts as he prepares for the Draft, Baker took time out to reflect on his career, from little-known and under-recruited high school player to All-American, to all those wins over power conference teams and now, the chance to play at the highest level.
"It was a storybook [college] career," Baker said. "I've been a part of a lot of special teams. The hard work I put in, we all put in, paid off in ways I can't explain or put into words. I think things happen for a reason, whether you like them or not. And there was a reason I ended up at Wichita State."
As for his next destination, Baker is bound to hear this question often in the weeks leading up to the Draft: "What makes you think you can play in the NBA?" Baker will have a ready answer.
"I feel like I'm very coachable," he said. "Whatever you tell me to do or need me to do, I'm going to try and accomplish it. It may take me a year to get good, or even great at it, but I'm willing to put in the work to get there."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.