One of the first people Wichita State’s Ron Baker met at the LeBron James Skills Academy knew all about Baker’s skills.
At the serving line for the opening banquet, Baker saw Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos, an unfortunate witness to Baker’s shooting display in the final minutes of a 2013 NCAA Tournament game. WSU defeated the top-seeded Zags 76-70 and Baker made four three-pointers.
“He’s still pretty bitter from the loss,” Baker said. “He said, ‘My coach is still mad at me — I shouldn’t have let you shoot that three from the corner.’ ”
No real hard feelings, of course. Baker said he and Pangos hit it off, and those friendships are part of what Baker will remember most about the past month. He played and talked with Iowa’s Aaron White, Kansas’ Perry Ellis and Kelly Oubre, Kansas State’s Marcus Foster, Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker and others.
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“Us Kansas kids all kind of stuck together,” Baker said. “Just to get to know the guys and talk about our seasons and get to play against the top college players in the nation on a daily basis was pretty fun.”
Baker, a junior guard, is one of three Shockers with elite camps on his summer plans. He spent last weekend in Las Vegas at the James camp. He will join junior guard Fred VanVleet at Chris Paul’s camp in Winston-Salem, N.C., in August. VanVleet and senior forward Darius Carter attended the Nike Skills Academy in Union, N.J., last month. A few days later, Baker worked out at Kevin Durant’s Nike Skills Academy for wing players in Washington, D.C.
The camps are largely for exposure, allowing players to test themselves against other stars in front of NBA scouts and the national media. They benefit from coaching and tips from the NBA stars and instructors such as former NBA player and coach John Lucas.
It is also a time when the Shockers are allowed to be selfish and work on their skills. With eight newcomers on the roster this summer, WSU coach Gregg Marshall is spending most of his practice time on team concepts.
“It’s good because my role in practice has been more of a teaching role than anything else because of all the young guys and trying to get them ready,” VanVleet said. “Going to these camps is something just for myself. I can work on own my individual skills and my … career aspirations.”
That works for Marshall, who enjoys the exposure for his players and his program. Cleanthony Early, drafted last month by the New York Knicks, attended Durant’s camp last summer. A year later, three Shockers are following his path.
“They’re getting an opportunity to show people on that level, that ultimate level, what they can do and how they work,” Marshall said.
In Las Vegas, Baker said the routine consisted of two-a-day workouts (around 90 minutes each) over four days. After stretching and warmups, players started with 3-on-2 drills and moved to one-on-one before progressing to 4-on-4 and finishing with 30 minutes of 5-on-5 under Lucas’ attention.
James, amid moving from Miami to Cleveland, played one session with the campers. While Baker didn’t talk to him, he said James pulled several players aside for instruction. All the college athletes played with or against James. Baker guarded him for a few minutes and found himself banging against the All-Star in the post.
“I wouldn’t say I held my own or anything; he was going about only 50 percent,” Baker said. “The memory I have of guarding him was enough for me. He plays like a bull. He’s pretty much unguardable. He likes to talk a lot.”
While the exposure and association with the NBA is nice, Baker wants to apply his summer experiences to WSU and not think ahead. His shooting and high basketball IQ make him a worthwhile study for NBA scouts. A strong junior season (his fourth at WSU) will make him the subject of NBA Draft questions next spring.
“A lot of people might think my future is bright, and I hope my future is bright,” he said. “I want to focus on things that are going to make me a better player and help my team. If you focus on things in front of you that are most important, which are my teammates, my coaches, WSU, everything after that is going to take care of itself.”
Baker seems well-equipped to handle this high-profile scenario. As a high school senior at Scott City, he possessed enough maturity and self-awareness to request a redshirt season at WSU to smooth his adjustment from Class 3A to college. While a stress fracture in his left foot abbreviated his 2012-13 season, he starred in postseason play and his sophomore season continued his progression.
Baker’s play in the summer camps taught him he needs to work on his ball-handling and point-guard skills, cutting down on turnovers in the half-court offense, and improving his mid-range scoring.
“They always say you can write a book, but you never start on the last chapter,” he said. “You want to start at the beginning and the rest of the chapters will take care of themselves.”