Bob Lutz

Scott City's Baker may prove to be steal for WSU

Ron Baker is an All-American kid with an All-American name and even an All-American lock of curly blonde hair.

He's small town through and through, born in Utica and a three-sport standout at Scott City. Those are towns you have to look up on a map and Baker is thankful for the open spaces of his youth.

But, soon, Baker will be coming to a basketball arena near you, Koch Arena, where he will be a Wichita State Shocker after a redshirt season agreed upon by him and WSU coach Gregg Marshall, who fully expects there will be times when he wishes he'd never heard the term "redshirt" because of almost certain temptation to put the 6-foot-3 combo guard out there.

A quick profile of Baker: He averaged 20.4 points in 2010-11 and led the Beavers to the Class 3A state championship by making the winning shot, a putback at the buzzer against Minneapolis. He has long arms, great quickness and basketball instincts you're either born with or spend the rest of your life praying for.

He was the quarterback for Scott City's football team and the pitcher and shortstop for the baseball team. He probably dated the prettiest girl in the school and drove the fastest car.

"We have great athletic tradition in Scott,'' Baker said. "Sports is almost a religion there. It's definitely in the DNA to play sports in Scott City.''

Because he's such a well-rounded athlete, Baker only played in a few AAU basketball tournaments, limiting his visibility. There are schools who knew about him, for sure, but if there's such a thing as falling through the cracks in this age of year-round hoops and the Internet, then that's what Baker did.

Wichita State assistant coach Chris Jans followed Baker. And Marshall saw him play in the 3A title game, one of Baker's best performances of the season.

"Obviously,'' Marshall said, "he was the best player on the team. But with the game on the line, he drives and gets double-teamed and kicks the ball to a wide-open shooter. Then Ron follows the kid's miss and lays it in at the buzzer to win the game. He was so unselfish.''

Baker is one of those players who grows on you. He might not wow you with a single attribute, but when you add together everything he can do it makes for an impressive list.

He's a good shooter, an outstanding passer and a tough rebounder. Some of his matchups against 3A-caliber players this season were unfair.

His head could have swelled to the size of the Scott City water tower, but Baker maintained his humility through all of his athletic success.

"Coming from a 3A school, there are kids who see a 6-3 kid like me who can dunk and think that's really something,'' Baker said. "It was challenging at times not to get big-headed when you walk into a gym and a lot of eyes are on you.''

Baker, though, is unassuming. He doesn't pound his chest or raise his arms. He quietly goes about his business and acknowledges the jump to Division I college basketball is daunting.

But also exciting.

"If I wasn't at Wichita State, I would have ended up probably going to Coffeyville Community College,'' Baker said. "That's a very good program, but this is Division I. I kind of knew Division I offers might be an issue coming from western Kansas.''

Baker had two, from South Dakota State and Arkansas-Little Rock. He visited both schools, but couldn't shake the belief he was capable of playing somewhere bigger.

The biggest Baker fan out there might be a coach who felt the sting of a semifinal loss to Scott City in this season's 3A state tournament.

"Listen, what a special kid he is,'' said Wichita Collegiate coach Mitch Fiegel, whose Spartans had won two straight titles and three of four before having hopes of another ended by the Beavers. "We knew there was one team out there this year that could really give us a go, so we started watching Scott City in December. I watched their championship game in (the Dodge City Tournament of Champions) and Baker was so special that night. I told our coaches, 'Boy, we have a very formidable task in front of us.' "

With so much preparation time, Collegiate made things difficult for Baker. He had an off night shooting. But he still scored 20 points, grabbed nine rebounds and made eight of nine free throws in the fourth quarter when the Spartans were forced to foul.

"When we were watching him play, he made a couple of plays I didn't show my players but re-wound for my coaches three or four times,'' Fiegel said. "One was a steal he made near the sideline and as he was falling out of bounds he made a left-handed pass on a rope about 40 yards. Believe me, this guy can play. There are athletic guys and guys with basketball IQ. And then there are athletic guys with basketball IQ, like (Baker), and those are the guys you've got to have.''

WSU basketball fans who are reading this praise no doubt are excited about the prospect of Baker as a Shocker.

Remember, though, he won't play this season. WSU is loaded with veteran guards and it's a wise decision to let him get used to the surroundings.

The key is that Baker and his family agreed to pay for college for one year, until he goes on scholarship. Not every player would have done that, especially one with two Division I offers and junior college and small-college coaches practically falling all over themselves to entice him.

"I want to improve everything about my game,'' Baker said. "The one thing you have to do at this level is defend and in high school I defended when I wanted to defend. It's a lot about desire. You just have to put in the time to make yourself a better defensive player. I just want to be a humble player who can be relied on to do anything at any given time.''

Wichita State, it turns out, had Baker at "hello," even without a scholarship to offer right away. Though he has never been to a Shocker game, he has seen WSU play on television, seen Koch Arena rocking.

"I view a redshirt season as a confidence booster,'' Baker said. "I know we have a ton of upperclassmen guards I can learn from. I'll sit out this year and soak in what Wichita State basketball is like. It's a learning experience. If all freshmen could redshirt, I think that would be recommended. Plus, jumping from a 3A high school program to Division I is pretty tough for most people, I would think.''

It might not be difficult for Baker.

In a pick-up game the other night, he looked at ease while knocking down shots and, more noticeably, making difficult but on-target passes.

"He has great court sense,'' veteran Scott City coach Glenn O'Neill said. "He had it as a younger player and then as his body matured he shot up from 5-9 to 6-3 in a very short time. He works real hard in the weight room and he has the quickness and jumping ability to match his body. He has great length in his arm span. You put all those things together and you have a really good basketball player.''

Baker, who is spending the summer in Wichita while taking three summer school classes, expects to start missing home soon. He will forever cherish his days at Scott City, where he lived a dream athletic life.

"Being able to play three sports in high school and then being able to play Division I basketball, you have to be thankful for that,'' he said. "I see a lot of athletes who just play basketball in high school and year around. I wouldn't trade my experience for anything. To have the experience of playing three sports. I'm very proud — very proud — I did that.''

Now Baker is playing one sport. How good could he be?