Wichita State’s Baker brings his walk-on attitude to NBA draft process

Ron Baker helped Wichita State to a 121-24 record over the past four years and worked out for the Pistons this week.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Pressure? Nah, Ron Baker doesn’t feel any pressure making the rounds of NBA teams for predraft workouts. Why would he?

Pressure was walking on at Wichita State as an unranked recruit with scholarship offers from South Dakota State, Arkansas Little Rock and Eastern Illinois and proving he could play a major role in lifting a proverbial “mid-major” to national elite status. Baker started as a redshirt freshman for a team that got to the Final Four and pushed eventual national champion Louisville to the buzzer. As a sophomore, he was a leading man for a team that went 35-0 before losing by two to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.

“I think there’s more pressure when you’re a college kid playing in college games just because you know scouts are watching you and they’re evaluating you. Now you’re actually working out for the teams. You got invited here for a reason,” Baker said this week when he worked out for the Pistons. “So there’s less pressure in this situation. I think the less pressure there is and the more confidence you have coming into these workouts, it makes it a lot easier on yourself.”

Baker might be a difficult projection for NBA teams for the same reasons he was only modestly recruited coming out of Scott City, Kan., five years ago. He doesn’t have great size for a shooting guard and he’s an average athlete. But he’s all basketball player, the kind for whom the game moves in slow motion, the kind who’s always around the ball and a half-step ahead of the play.

There was a time early in Baker’s career, when he flashed onto the radar out of nowhere, when there was buzz about him as a first-round pick. Now he’s fighting to get drafted, perhaps because he’s the victim of “prospect fatigue” – a four-year college player whose statistics pretty much plateaued over his final three years.

“I don’t regret not coming out,” Baker said. “I think if I had to do it all over again with the new rule” – the NCAA now allows underclassmen to attend the combine and a few weeks after that to gauge their draft stock without sacrificing their amateur status – “my sophomore year I would’ve tried and went to the combine and done those things younger guys can do now. The decision I made was for the best. When I made those decisions, I thought it was a win-win.”

Baker, projected as a first-round pick by DraftExpress.com as recently as late 2014, is now rated the 82nd prospect for the 2016 draft. With only 60 draft slots available, there’s a decent chance Baker goes undrafted. If that’s the case, his phone will be buzzing around 11 p.m. June 23 with invitations to join pretty much every NBA team’s Summer League roster.

The Pistons were Baker’s sixth workout and he has eight more already scheduled. Like four-year point guards Yogi Ferrell and Marcus Paige, among the five others at Tuesday’s session, draft workouts aren’t the ideal venue to showcase Baker’s strengths. But he’s comfortable that his work ethic will show through and confident in the evidence of the 124 Wichita State games already on the record. (Baker missed games during his freshman season with a foot injury.)

“It’s pretty simple. You’re hard-working, your effort are things you can bring to the table every day. For four years, I felt like I’ve done that, so they know that and for me to just come here and do those two things and obviously intangibles, as far as taking care of the basketball, making shots are important for this workout. But those scouts from Detroit know what they’re looking at and know what they’re going to get from me. Being here is obviously a pretty cool deal. Just make the most out of it and enjoy it.”

After the lottery, and certainly after the first round, teams are looking for players who have even one outstanding NBA skill. Baker is more the jack-of-all-trades type. That works against him, though he can turn it to his advantage if he finds a fit with the right team. Until then, the way to see the floor is to be a knock-down shooter or an elite defender and … well, there’s no sure-fire NBA tool for Baker that projects as above average.

As a shooting guard, Baker might be a little undersized, though his wing span is nearly 6-foot-10. More than half of his shots at Wichita State came from the 3-point line – he took more twos only as a senior – and while he shot them consistently (four-year averages between .350 and .383) it wasn’t at an elite level.

If teams think he can play point guard, though, then he becomes an intriguing prospect. The Shockers had one of college basketball’s top point guards, Fred Van Vleet, but Baker handled the ball a ton, rarely turned it over and made one good decision on top of another.

What he won’t do is beat his man off the dribble very often or create scoring opportunities at the end of the shot clock – the things that NBA teams are always searching to find from backcourt prospects, whether point guards or shooting guards.

“I don’t get a whole lot of feedback,” Baker said of what he’s hearing from teams after workouts. “I just kind of concentrate on the workouts themselves. They talk about what they think I am behind closed doors. I think I just need to be an efficient player wherever I am, if it’s at the two or at the one. Whatever the team needs, that’s kind of what I’m going to do.”

It’s a philosophy that carried him from walk-on to star at one of America’s most successful college programs over the past four years. It might just carry him next to the NBA, drafted or undrafted.