Ron Baker knows people think he cost himself money that day in St. Louis in March 2014. What if he had walked off the court at the Scottrade Center, accepted his “You’re a bad, bad boy” props from Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison and popped for the NBA Draft that moment?
At that point, Baker was all 20 points on 4-of-6 from three-point range — against Kentucky and its lineup of at least five draft picks — and all potential and mystery to the NBA. And the NBA loves potential, often more than production. There’s a chance Baker walks off that court after Wichita State’s 78-76 NCAA Tournament loss and into the first round of the NBA Draft.
Two years later, Baker is tired of that question, one he gets after most of his NBA workouts. Two years later, Baker won’t be a first-round pick. Two year later, the NBA knows exactly what it’s getting in Baker, and that can still be a good thing that turns into a long career.
“I do think about that,” Baker said. “It would have been interesting.”
Baker’s standard replay, however, is that he will happily take the experiences of the past two seasons — two NCAA Tournaments, playing with close friends Fred VanVleet and Evan Wessel — as compensation for a “What if?” from 2014.
“There’s been a lot of weird questions in interviews,” he said. “I always say, ‘Don’t you wish you could go to the Sweet 16 and play with the best point guard in the country?’ The correct answer, obviously, was a win-win for me, regardless of what I did. I was around great people for two more years, so you can’t complain too much about it.”
Four days before the NBA Draft, Baker was in another airport and in the dark regarding how Thursday might unfold for him.
He is tired of the travel, although appreciative of the frequent-flier miles he’s building up on United and American Airlines. After Tuesday’s workout at Oklahoma City, he will have completed 15 sessions for NBA teams since early May.
“You lose track of days. You lose track of where you’re at,” he said. “It’s been pretty tough to get to bed on time, get some rest. The buildup is starting to get to me a little bit more and more as the day gets nearer. The mental side of it is a challenge now.”
He is avoiding information about the draft on purpose, preferring to focus on basketball and let his agents worry about communication with teams.
“I wanted him to keep a lot of things to himself during these workouts,” Baker said. “I didn’t really want to know what teams are thinking. I wanted to focus in on the workouts. A lot of teams will tell you: ‘You’re a great player, great career. … We like you, we think you’d be a good fit in the league.’ As far as major details, I’ve kept that with my agent’s side of things.”
As Thursday’s draft nears, Baker and his agent from Creative Artists Agency will speak in more detail. That’s where things get complicated.
Baker knows he is a possible second-round pick. That’s a wide range, and Thursday could end with him drafted or not, and it might not matter much to his NBA future. Regardless of how he gets there, his summer will almost certainly include a trip to one or more of the NBA’s summer leagues and, perhaps, an invitation to an NBA training camp. By the early fall, his future in the NBA, overseas or in the NBA Development League should become clear.
There are scenarios in which he is better off drafted — proof a team sees a fit for his talents — and scenarios where he is better off overlooked on Thursday, allowing him to choose his team. A team could draft him in the second round and ask him to play a year overseas. Baker will watch Thursday’s draft in Kansas City with his family.
“You want to make sure you put yourself in the best fit for you,” Baker said. “Everybody’s got their own route as far as making it to the NBA. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not going straight from college to the NBA.”
Baker said he feels good about his workouts, particularly in Dallas (pick No. 46) and Detroit (No. 49) and two with Milwaukee (the Bucks own picks No. 36 and No. 38). The hectic pace of travel and workouts allowed him to showcase his fitness level. He said he believes he showcased his defensive abilities and smarts in the workouts and the NBA Combine in Chicago in May.
“I definitely felt like I was in better shape than most kids,” he said. “Most of these workouts are in 3-on-3 settings, so being a vocal defensive player and knowing positioning on the court is very important.”
Neither NBADraft.net nor DraftExpress lists Baker in their mock drafts. Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com slots him No. 56 to Denver. Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com compares him to former Kansas star Kirk Hinrich, who finished his 13th NBA season with Atlanta.
“When you think of Ron in college, you think of him a lot as a (shooting guard), next to Fred VanVleet,” Vecenie said. “In the NBA, I kind of see him a little bit more as a defensive-minded (point guard) who can really shoot the ball, who can move the ball well and maybe play next to a more dominant, ball-handling (shooting guard). He’s a great, long, rangy defender.”
Vecenie sees Baker as a player coaches will covet for his hard work in practice and his team-first approach to basketball. His shooting ability — judged good by college standards after he made 36.9 percent of his three-pointers in four season at WSU — will determine the trajectory of his professional career. If he can adjust to the longer NBA line (NBA range of 22 feet in the corners) to 23-9 at the top of the key), his worth grows.
“He’s a kid coaches will particularly want to get their hands on and have on their roster because of his intelligence level and toughness,” Vecenie said. “Once you get into that ninth man, 10th man … I think that’s tremendously valuable.”