Small-town kid Ron Baker hasn’t exactly conquered New York, but he’s less overwhelmed than he used to be.
“I can drive from White Plains, where I live, to Madison Square Garden without GPS now,” Baker said. “So I feel pretty accomplished.”
Baker, who grew up in Scott City and made the most of his Division I opportunity at Wichita State, is in another battle to prove he belongs. This time, it’s with the New York Knicks, who picked him up as an undrafted free agent, sent him to the summer league and now have some hope that Baker will develop into a productive NBA player.
One thing is for sure — Baker will not go down without a fight.
New York is massive. Baker still calls himself a kid.
Can he make it there?
“Ron’s got the toughness,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said before New York took on Oklahoma City on Wednesday night at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. “He’s not afraid to get hit or to fight over things. And playing the position he does, he’s going to get hit with a lot of screens.”
Hornacek likely sees some of himself in Baker. He was an Iowa State walk-on who made himself into a standout player for the Cyclones from 1982-86. He was taken in the second round of the NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns and spent the next 15 years in the NBA.
Will Baker have that kind of career?
Obviously, it’s far too early to say. He’s had an up-and-down rookie season and admits to being overwhelmed at times.
“Going against big-time guys like (James) Harden and (Russell) Westbrook, that’s a new experience,” Baker said. “I remember the first time I played pick-up with (the Knicks) and I was guarding Derrick Rose. That’s not the easiest thing to do but you’ve got to pinch yourself and try to take advantage of the situation.”
Baker is a beloved former Shocker and quite a few WSU fans were at Wednesday night’s game wearing No. 31 Wichita State and Knicks jerseys. Baker said around 30 family and friends from Scott City were in the stands.
This is one of those stories that doesn’t get old. Baker is from a Class 3A town in western Kansas and now he’s getting a chance in one of the biggest cities in the world. And sometimes it must seem as if all 8.4 million New Yorkers are criticizing the Knicks, who were 23-33 going into the game against the Thunder.
There has been controversy, disenchantment and turmoil. .
“Anything that happens outside the locker room, us players don’t chat much about,” Baker said. “This team is pretty good about keeping each other in line. There’s a lot of media in New York and that’s something I’m not used to. There’s always some sort of distraction and it’s tough to get used to. It puts a lot of pressure on a kid like myself and my teammates and we’re just trying to win games.”
There have been high points in Baker’s season so far. After not playing in the first three quarters at Milwaukee on Jan. 6, he played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter and got credit from Hornacek and that dastardly New York media for helping the Knicks pull off a 116-111 comeback win.
Baker made six of seven shots and had a season-high 13 points at Golden State on Jan. 23.
For the season, he’s averaging nearly 12 minutes per game while shooting 36.8 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from the three-point line.
Baker and fellow Knicks rookies Marshall Plumlee and Mindaugas Kuzminskas were on the floor three hours before Wednesday’s tip working with coaches on shooting and passing. Baker said that’s the routine he’s become used to and he’s determined to find consistency.
“The biggest adjustment, for me, has been not knowing where your minutes are going to come,” Baker said. “You want to make sure you’re still in good shape if you don’t play in a couple of games back-to-back and then play 20 in the next. So that time before the games is important, our time slot to get some shots up in some game-like situations.”
Baker is making the NBA minimum of nearly $530,000, guaranteed money after his impressive showing in the summer league. His former Shocker running mate, Fred VanVleet, did the same thing in Toronto after also being undrafted.
“Neither of us were drafted and we’ve worked our way up from the bottom to getting guaranteed contracts,” Baker said. “We’ve been pushing each other from the first day we met and that’s probably something that’s going to continue as long as we’re playing this game. And probably after we’re through playing, too.”
Baker said he and VanVleet text often but with busy schedules not as much as they would like.
“But we’re also trying to give each other confidence and good thoughts,” Baker said.
Hornacek said he loves Baker’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and his strength.
“One thing that’s really surprised us about Ron is his ability to keep guys in front of him defensively and to keep battling,” Hornacek said. “A guy might get past him a little bit, but he’s able to recover and get back in front and in this game, that’s huge.
“He’s got the strength, the long arms and all the stuff to be a good defensive player. And he’s a good shooter. We’re going to get him to the point where he’s one of those knockdown three-point guys. He’s had games this year where he’s given us a huge lift.”
Baker’s plan is to keep plugging away, to keep churning. There was never going to be instant success at this level. He’s still trying to make his head stop spinning.
A Scott City kid gets to the NBA? That’s a story book ending right there.
Except that Baker, who entered Wednesday’s game midway through the first quarter to the pleasure of his adoring fans, doesn’t want getting to the NBA to be the end of his trail. He wants to keep blazing, continue to persist.
“I’m literally taking this experience day by day,” he said. “When I’m done playing, then it might be time to grade myself on how I did. For now, though, I’m trying to be very attentive and to do things the right way. Be on time, little things like that. If I do those kinds of things, I feel pretty confident I can be around for a long time.”
Don’t bet against him.