Bob Lutz: Baker back to being another Shocker scoring weapon

01/09/2014 3:43 PM

01/09/2014 3:44 PM

Ron Baker made the longest three-point shot he’s ever taken Wednesday night during Wichita State’s 66-47 win over Illinois State. His feet were planted a good five feet behind the line as time on the shot clock ran low. Baker had no choice, really, other than to hoist a shot.

And it was the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen. The basketball spun perfectly off his hand. He gave the shot a perfect rotation. And the ball rippled the net.

The best shooter the Shockers have had made the prettiest shot of his season. And while a 3-for-6 night from the field might not sound like much, it did get Baker back on track after a series of games in which he struggled to make shots.

Some of the problem, certainly, has been a sprained left ankle that Baker hurt in practice two days before the Shockers’ game against Tennessee on Dec. 14.

Ankle sprains are like reputations, hard to recover from. And for Baker, the recovery has been an ordeal.

“It’s getting better but still kind of sore,” the 6-foot-3 Baker said after scoring 11 points, all in the first half, against Illinois State. “It’s not 100 percent yet, but it’s definitely more tolerable than it has been. Right now, I’m just trying to get back into my rhythm and play basketball.”

But every time Baker tries to cut or jump, his ankle causes a ruckus. He had the ankle wrapped with ice after Wednesday night’s game and can’t even guess when he’ll be at full speed again.

And a full-speed Baker is something. In the Shockers’ first seven games, he averaged 16.1 points and shot better than 55 percent from the field. In the next eight games, he averaged 9.7 points and shot 31.5 percent.

So you can see why his shooting against the Redbirds is cause for optimism as Wichita State prepares for a Missouri Valley Conference game Saturday night at Missouri State.

Even with a bum ankle, Baker has been playing a bunch of minutes. He’s as valuable as any of the Shockers, even when shots aren’t falling.

“Doesn’t miss time,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said of Baker. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a guy do that with the kind of ankle sprain he’s had. Because I saw the ankle after he hurt it and it was bad. He’s able to just ignore the pain, I guess.”

Baker had three assists, three steals, three rebounds and a blocked shot against Illinois State. He stats line is always full. He’s had at least one rebound, assists and steal in all but one game this season.

But shooting is at the top of Baker’s skills. So the game doesn’t feel exactly right when his shots are bouncing away.

“I think it bugs just about everybody when they’re not making shots,” Baker said. “But when that’s what you do best and you’re letting your teammates down by not dropping shots, it’s kind of frustrating. But it’s something that you’ve got to overcome. That’s what shooters do — they think about the next one.

“I felt (Wednesday) night was a pretty big stride for myself.”

And for Wichita State.

Imagine getting Baker back into shooting form with a hot Cleanthony Early and a steady Fred VanVleet. Not to mention junior guard Tekele Cotton and whatever Shocker big man has it going at the moment.

It’s a team that can do a lot of things, but one that is most dangerous when Baker is stroking shots.

“He’s been a little down the past few games,” VanVleet said of his fellow sophomore guard. “With his ankle issues, obviously, any player would be. It was good to see him get his confidence back. He shot that one pretty deep and I love it when he’s aggressive. I think he’s one of the best shooters in the country.”

Baker has limitless range, so the long three-pointer shouldn’t surprise anyone. When he’s going good and one of his ankles isn’t throbbing with pain, he’s able to score in various ways. He’s one of those players who figures things out. He wants to be a factor in every game, so he is.

Baker wasn’t recruited heavily out of Scott City, so he relishes this opportunity to get to prove himself. He takes nothing for granted.

All anyone wants for Baker is good health.

He missed a big chunk of the 2012-13 season with an injured foot before returning for the Valley Tournament in St. Louis. He was as big as anyone in the Shockers’ Final Four run. And now in a 16-0 start to this season.

“I never lost confidence in my shooting,” Baker said. “We have good coaches and one thing they want you to do is play with confidence. If you’re open, shoot it. If it goes in, it goes in. If it doesn’t, be ready for the next shot and make it.”

Baker made some shots against Illinois State. When shooters start making shots, watch out.

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