NEW YORK (TNS) — Statistics have never been able to fully explain what Ron Baker can bring to a basketball team.
Baker's mere presence instilled confidence in his teammates at Wichita State, then his hustle and determination have made him a fan favorite as an undrafted free agent with the New York Knicks and ultimately earned him a two-year, $8.9 million contract.
But a shoulder injury derailed last season for Baker and he has yet to catch on quite the same way under a new coach in David Fizdale. In fact, when Baker checked in for the final five minutes of a blowout loss to the Orlando Magic on Sunday, it was just the third time he got off the bench in the last nine games.
For a player who was the star, first at Scott City, then at Wichita State, how tough is it to transition to an end-of-the-bench player? Not hard, apparently, when you have the mentality of Baker.
"Waking up and knowing you're an NBA player, that's what gives me the drive each and every day," Baker told The Eagle. "There's a lot of guys who could be in my position and be upset or pout about not playing. For me, I wake up and realize that this has been my dream, so let's win this day and make the most out of it regardless of your situation, regardless of your minutes."
It turns out, making an impact on the NBA level doesn't always correlate with minutes played. His Knicks teammates raved about the value of what Baker brings to a team trying to get back to winning (the Knicks fell to 4-10 after the loss to Orlando).
"He's a true professional. He shows up every single day, gives 100 percent effort and goes hard," said 10-year NBA veteran Courtney Lee. "Every single day Ron is pushing the first unit in practices. He's a competitor and we need guys like that around here to continue to get better. We need to challenge each other and Ron does that every day."
"Ron Baker is one of the greatest teammates you'll ever have," Knicks guard Trey Burke said. "His minutes are kind of slim right now, but he handles himself like a professional. You can learn a lot from a guy like that. He shows a lot of character in the way he carries himself and the way he handles adversity. He's going to give you 110 percent effort every time he gets on the court and that's all you can ask."
Baker said he first learned about being a good teammate when his mother, Ranae, was his basketball coach as a child. He also learned the importance of sharing the ball from her too, another trait that he says has served him well in the NBA. "There's always a role," Baker remembered his mother telling him.
At Scott City and Wichita State, his teammates looked to him to shoulder a large scoring load. Surrounded by superior scorers, that's not Baker's role in the NBA. He wants to bring stability to his team when he's on the floor and make his the players around him better on top of playing pesky defense. And, of course, chasing loose balls that no one else is willing to chase.
"Honestly, it's kind of better like this," Baker said. "You don't have to press as much since people aren't coming at you wanting you to score 15 a night. For me, all I have to focus on are the little things I've learned throughout the years at Wichita State and in high school.
"Everything you learn from when you're in kindergarten to high school to college, it's still basketball. Obviously the guys are bigger and have better skills in the NBA, but the fundamental things you learn growing up playing this game really do translate to the NBA."
Baker credits a lot of his development to his time with WSU coach Gregg Marshall.
It's not a coincidence, Baker said, Marshall has produced two other NBA guards (Fred VanVleet with the Toronto Raptors and Landry Shamet with the Philadelphia 76ers).
"There was no taking plays off, every possession mattered," Baker said. "People always complain about there being no defense in the NBA. Well, that's just not how Fred and I and Landry were taught at Wichita. There's always some place you need to be. It used to get annoying in college because it was the same thing over and over, but looking back it really taught us to be coachable and listen to his words, not always his reactions. You can really translate the things he was saying to this game we're playing now."
Baker said it was "sad" to reminiscence about WSU now because it feels like "we were just there yesterday." He still follows the Shockers as much as he can, even though Markis McDuffie is the only current player that was his teammate. Three years later, Baker is flattered that new recruits are saying they want to be the next Ron Baker at WSU and using his story as motivation.
It reminds him of how far he's come the last three years.
From a walk-on from Scott City to an undrafted free agent to now a three-year NBA veteran, it's been quite the chapter in Baker's life.
"I've grown up so much coming to New York City when I was 23 and living by myself," Baker said. "Once you get away from basketball, you're kind of on your own. I've made friends throughout the city and done a lot of growing up these past three years. I've learned so much off the court, which has been just as enjoyable as it has been on the court."