Wichita State Shockers

Bob Lutz: Does WSU’s Ron Baker have what the NBA is looking for?

Wichita State junior Ron Baker (31) goes up for a shot between two Seton Hall defenders Tuesday night at Koch Arena during a Shocker victory.
Wichita State junior Ron Baker (31) goes up for a shot between two Seton Hall defenders Tuesday night at Koch Arena during a Shocker victory. Wichita Eagle

Red-shirt junior guard Ron Baker is off to a tremendous start for Wichita State this season. He’s shooting the ball better than ever, has handled his minutes at point guard with aplomb and looks to me like a solid defensive player.

As recently as August, Baker was considered a first-round NBA draft pick by ESPN’s Chad Ford, who presumably gets his information by talking to scouts. Ultimately, though, Baker made what I think was a wise choice to return for another season at Wichita State being coached by Gregg Marshall and his staff.

The benefits are obvious this season. Baker looks like a much-improved player and he was already really good.

In that August mock draft, Ford had Baker going at No. 24 to the Golden State Warriors.

“Baker is another shooter who can play both point guard and shooting guard,” Ford wrote in his assessment. “The Warriors love shooters, and Baker’s toughness should make him an ideal backup for Golden State.”

But when Ford released a revised mock draft Thursday on ESPN.com, his first update since August, Baker’s name was missing from the first round. Wichita State basketball fans are, of course, locked in on Baker’s draft status; they would love for him to return next season.

I’m not a basketball scout and I don’t watch that many NBA games. But judging from what’s been said about Baker on Ford’s ESPN.com site, which I’ll share at the end of this blog, there are concerns about whether Baker can play the point in the NBA and whether he’s athletic enough to be defend at that level.

Baker likes challenges and he said after his outstanding 22-point performance in the Shockers’ 77-68 win over Seton Hall on Tuesday night that he’s been working diligently on ball-handling and quickness.

Can Baker be an effective point guard in the NBA?

That’s a great question and a valid one since Ford seems to believe that’s the position he’s being scouted to play. If the 6-foot-4 Baker – that’s his listed height by Wichita State – were a couple of inches taller, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. He’d be seen as an outstanding shooting guard prospect and that would be that.

But because Baker will be expected to play a lot at the point at the next level, things get a bit muddled.

When Baker first arrived at WSU as a walk-on in 2011, I watched him in several pick-up games. The thing that stood out most to me was his passing ability. I believe that’s one area in which he could shine as a point guard.

Does he handle the ball well enough? Is he quick enough? Does he defend well enough?

For me, he absolutely does. For an NBA general manager, who knows? And it’s the NBA general managers and their scouts who make these determinations.

I noticed Ford has KU freshman forward Kelly Oubre going at No. 15 in the June draft to the Atlanta Hawks. The 6-7 Oubre hasn’t done anything as a Jayhawk yet, but he came to Kansas with a reputation as a one-and-done player. And those reputations are hard to kill.

Baker will leave Wichita State either after this season or next as a seasoned, experienced, hardened veteran. He’ll have played in some of the biggest games in WSU history and in at least two NCAA tournaments (a third seems like a done deal). He’s been a key player on those teams and is playing like an All-American this season.

Flaws? They don’t stand out. I guess you have to have the eyes of an NBA scout to detect them.

For the record, I think Baker is an outstanding NBA prospect. But my checks aren’t signed by an NBA team, so take it for what it’s worth.

Here’s some of what has been said about Baker over the past 15 months or so on Ford’s web page. It’s interesting to peruse and interesting to see how, over time, opinions can gradually change.

Nov. 18 – Grade: B- Baker had 16 points, four rebounds and one assist in the opener for the Shockers (against New Mexico State). However he missed all three of the three-point shots he took and if he's going to continue to get some looks as a point guard in the NBA, he's going to have to average more than one assist per game.

Nov. 14 – Scouts fell in love with Baker during Wichita State's run during his freshman season. He came back down to Earth a bit as a sophomore, but there are still a number of scouts who believe he can have a long career in the NBA. With Fred VanVleet running the show from the point, Baker plays off the ball at Wichita State, but many scouts think he could be a full-time point guard in the pros.

Sept. 9 – Baker can be a polarizing player. Some scouts absolutely love him and think he makes the transition from college 2-guard to NBA point guard. Others see an undersized 2 who lacks the NBA athleticism to make the jump. This will be a critical year to see which camp is right. He was solid at the LeBron camp this summer, but he's going to have to be more than that to maintain this position in our rankings.

July 16 – After a terrific run in the tournament as a freshman, Baker started getting first-round looks as a sophomore, when scouts began to see him as a point guard at the next level. He's a very good shooter with deep range. But scouts are going to want to see him with the ball in his hands more, and he's going to have to improve his defense considerably.

April 4 – Baker will return to Wichita State for his junior season. NBA scouts have been excited about Baker since his terrific play as a freshman in the Shockers' run to the Final Four. He showed improvement as a sophomore in virtually every area and was especially a favorite of the analytics crowd. Scouts project Baker as a point guard at the next level, although as long as Fred Van Vleet is there he's unlikely to get a chance to play the position. He's a potential mid-to-late first-round pick in 2015.

March 25 – Baker showed off his shooting chops against UK, going 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. His defense was borderline terrible, but many NBA scouts think he can be an effective point guard at the next level thanks to his ballhandling skills and shooting touch. Baker is a definite sleeper for the late first round if he declares.

March 17 – Baker is the favorite of most NBA scouts despite the fact that Early and VanVleet get the most media attention. Those scouts fell in love with Baker in the NCAA tournament last year, and the crush continued as they watched him play last fall in practice. NBA teams see Baker being able to make the transition to point guard at the next level, where his shooting touch, toughness and poise appeal to NBA GMs.

Dec. 2, 2013 – Baker might be this year's biggest draft sleeper. His play as a freshman during Wichita State's Sweet 16 run last season turned heads (he handled Louisville's press about as well as a freshman could), but it's been his performance early this season for the Shockers that has many NBA scouts believing he could be a first-round pick in 2014.

Before 2013-14 season – Baker is a terrific shooter, but he's shown this season he's a more versatile scorer than scouting reports have suggested. He's also playing some backup point this season, which is a good thing, as most scouts believe he'll have to be a point guard in the NBA given his relative lack of size (6-3) and length. Thus far, he has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.7-to-1. He'll never be a lockdown defender because of his lack of elite athletic ability, but Baker's skills and high basketball IQ could easily land him in the first round. Think of the Indiana Pacers' George Hill for a comparison.