Wichita State Shockers

Basketball all over: Baker, VanVleet travel the NBA to state their case

Fred VanVleet celebrates during the second half of Wichita State’s 70-50 win over Vanderbilt on March 15.
Fred VanVleet celebrates during the second half of Wichita State’s 70-50 win over Vanderbilt on March 15. The Wichita Eagle

In city after city, wearing practice jersey after practice jersey, Fred VanVleet says the same thing when asked about his future. Like in high school and college, he believes – even if few others do.

“I feel confident that I’m an NBA player,” he said in Oakland in May after a workout with the Golden State Warriors. “It’s about the right opportunity and the right fit and, hopefully, somebody will give me a chance. I’m aiming for the stars.”

VanVleet and Ron Baker, the former Wichita State stars, are in the midst of a nationwide tour to display their skills for NBA teams. The weeks leading up to the June 23 NBA Draft are, for draft-eligible athletes, filled with workouts.

They gather in small groups, usually six athletes, to interview, play one-on-one and three-on-three and perform drills in front of team executives, coaches and scouts. Scouts are looking for athletic ability, the toughness to play through fatigue and the ability to shoot from the NBA’s longer three-point range of 22 feet (corners) to 23-9 (top of key).

“It’s hard work,” VanVleet said in Oakland. “A guy like me, I’m not privileged to be a top four or five pick, so I’m going to have to do 12 to 15, on the high side 20, workouts. To be able to get your body ready for that has been a grueling process.”

These sessions are crucial for players such as Baker and VanVleet. Baker is a possible second-round pick and participated in last month’s NBA Combine. No team is likely to spend a pick on VanVleet, despite his college accomplishments and well-regarded skills as a point guard. NBA scouts visited Koch Arena regularly in recent seasons to watch both, so the skills and work ethic of the former Shockers are documented, researched and double-checked by numerous NBA teams.

“I’ve had six workouts in … about two weeks,” Baker told reporters earlier this week in Detroit. “From here, though, I’ve got eight workouts in 18 days.”

To varying degrees, both are in prove-it mode. These workouts offer an opportunity to show their shooting and ball-handling skills, competitive spirit, intelligence and ability to handle travel and fatigue.

That is especially true for VanVleet, who must overcome questions about his height and quickness. At most of his stops, he’s answered questions about those issues and — again — dealing with doubters.

“I don’t think I have any more room on my shoulders for more chips,” he said in Indianapolis. “I’m pretty booked when it comes to that. That’s the way my story has always been.”

VanVleet leaned on former Shocker Cleanthony Early, a second-round pick of the New York Knicks in 2014, to prepare for the demands.

“Three cities in a week,” VanVleet said. “He did a bunch of workouts, too, with the the traveling and the grueling process of going week to week, city to city.”

Baker, a 6-foot-4 guard from Scott City, started his workouts with the Lakers in Los Angeles and also stopped in Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Denver, Cleveland and Detroit. On Thursday, the New York Knicks took a look.

Denver owns five picks, two late in the second round. Milwaukee has two picks early in the second round. Cleveland and the Knicks, which don’t possess a draft pick, may be evaluating for a spot on its summer team.

VanVleet, a 6-foot guard from Rockford, Ill., joined Baker with the Lakers and also practiced for Indiana, Brooklyn, Minnesota, Atlanta, Washington Philadelphia, Golden State and Houston.

Of particular interest might be Houston, which has two second-round picks.

Both Baker and VanVleet may have worked out for other teams; not all teams publicize their workouts. Sometimes schedules change as players and agents change strategies to get the most out of their situation. Sometimes, teams group players by position; sometimes by likely draft round. They’ve joined players such as Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, Maryland’s Robert Carter and Winston Shephard of San Diego State.

In between workouts, Baker is training in Los Angeles; VanVleet in Indianapolis.

“Your hard work and your effort are definitely two things you can bring to the table every day,” Baker said in Detroit. “For four years, I felt like I’ve done that. They know that. They know what they’re going to get from me.”

While some mock drafts place Baker as a second-round pick, he said his agents (Creative Artists Agency) are advising him to ignore that chatter. After watching him at the NBA Combine in Chicago, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla judged Baker a likely second-round selection.

“I don’t really want to know,” Baker told reporters in Denver. “These workouts are important for me, because I feel like I can play at this level. I think a lot of teams are really appreciative of how hard I play and the defense I play. They like my scrappiness and my work ethic.”

Both regularly answer questions about their run at Wichita State, which included the 2013 Final Four.

“My four years in college was a movie,” VanVleet said in Oakland. “It’s weird to talk about it now that it’s over. Going through it for those many years, it felt like it was never going to end. It was an amazing ride.”

On June 23, neither player is assured of anything. These workouts are their chance to stick in the mind of that coach or executive who may get them on a roster. Former Shocker Toure Murry always believed he possessed an advocate in former Knicks coach Mike Woodson and that relationship helped put on him on a roster.

“All it takes is one team to fall in love,” VanVleet said.

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop

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