WICHITA, Kan. — Four years ago, Ron Baker was driving through the plains of Kansas with his mother, going home to Scott City after a visit to Fort Hays State, a Division II program in the western part of the state. He listened to his mother as she talked it through. Ranae Baker liked the school—and the idea of her son playing close to home.
But he had already moved on.
Mom, I don't want to go there. I'm better than that.
Two years later, Baker would prove prophetic as he was draining threes in a program-defining win for Wichita State over Gonzaga on the way to a Final Four. This year, several outlets list Baker on their preseason All-American teams. ESPN.com's Chad Ford has Baker as the No. 25 player on his NBA draft big board (subscription required).
Last we saw Baker, he was scoring 20 points against Kentucky in an NCAA tournament classic. Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison was so impressed he told Baker in the handshake line that he was "a bad, bad dude."
So why was a future NBA prospect even visiting Hays? How did almost every Division I school in the country look past Ron Baker?
Baker was born in Utica, Kansas, a town of about 200, a town so small that the Bakers had to go into nearby Scott City to get in rec games.
Both of Baker’s parents have always been coaches, and that’s kept them in small towns. Neil Baker is the baseball coach at Scott Community High School. Ranae is the softball coach and has coached basketball in the past.
Ron was off the grid when it came to recruiting because he hadn’t played any AAU ball, and Scott City isn't exactly on the GPS of any college coaches. It also didn’t help that Ron was a late bloomer.
"He was 5'6", if that (as a freshman)," his mom says. "He was pretty puny when he was younger."
Baker grew to 6'3" by the end of his junior year, and that year, he had emerged as Scott City’s star and got the attention of an AAU program in Wichita, Kansas Select.
At Baker's first game with his new team, which he had never practiced with, the three coaches realized they had something special.
"We kind of just look at each other and went, ‘Ron Baker is f-----g good. He's unbelievable,' " says Bryan Miller, one of the coaches.
Miller also ran a recruiting service called Next Level Recruiting. That summer he sent a Baker highlight package to almost every Division I school in the country. Miller only got two real bites: South Dakota State and Arkansas-Little Rock.
"The biggest thing everyone was saying was they just weren't sure he was athletic enough to guard," Miller said. "They liked his game. They just weren't sure if he was athletic enough to play at their level."
The Wichita State coaches were first introduced to Baker at the program’s Elite camp in the summer after his junior year. Their eyes gravitated toward him at first, not because of his game, but because of his hair. He had a perm.
"I kept telling my staff, there's something about that kid with the curly hair that intrigues me," head coach Gregg Marshall said.
But Marshall wasn't impressed enough to offer Baker anything at that point. Wichita State would go on to sign two other high school shooting guards that year. Baker was just good enough that then-assistant coach Chris Jans kept tabs on him.
Baker led Scott City to the state tournament his senior year, and that's where Wichita State reconnected.
Miller got word to Jans that it would be worth his time to go check out Baker, so he made the hour drive to Hutchinson for the state semifinals.
By the end of the first quarter, Jans said, he knew he had stumbled into something special.
"I remember sitting up in my seat to see if there were any other Division I coaches there," said Jans, who is now the head coach at Bowling Green.
On the way back to Wichita, Jans called Marshall.
Coach, you've got to go see this kid.
So the next night, Marshall took his father-in-law to Hutchinson to watch this Baker kid.
Baker scored 26 points and had nine rebounds. On the final possession with the game tied, his coach put the ball in his hands and told him to go make a play. Baker drew the defense, kicked it out to an open teammate in the corner, and when the shot was missed, he was there for the putback to win the game.
Marshall had seen a show. All he needed was a quarter. Midway through the first, the coach had turned to his father-in-law: We've got to get him. We've got to find a way.
"He's like an old-school throwback three-sport athlete," Marshall said of what impressed him. "He's got good hands. He knows how to play. He's tough. He's skilled. All of those things. He could score from the three. He could score off the bounce. He could dunk it. He could post up. He played good defense. He talked. Everything."
A month after the state tournament, the Bakers set out to see if Ron could impress another program in the state.
Ron grew up a Kansas fan and dreamed of playing for the Jayhawks, and Neil was able to get Ron a chance to scrimmage with the team in front of the coaching staff. But the weekend before the scrimmage, Ron took an official visit to South Dakota State and played poorly in pickup games while he was there. He was rusty because it was the middle of baseball season and he hadn't been on the court at all.
The next day after Ron got home, he told his dad that he didn't want to go to the KU scrimmage.
I'm not going to go and embarrass myself.
So instead, the Bakers used the opening as a chance to go visit Wichita the day the scrimmage was supposed to take place.
The Wichita State coaches made it clear to the family that they wanted Ron, but they really had no way of getting him as a freshman, so they started suggesting alternatives. Ron could either go to prep school or junior college and then sign with Wichita State the next year.
"Coach Jans and Coach Marshall were great with my parents and very good people face-to-face," Baker said. "It wasn't like just 'come here and be a practice dummy' for four years."
The Bakers came up with a better alternative. Baker could redshirt as a freshman, and the family would pay his own way his first year.
The summer Baker showed up to campus, former point guard Malcolm Armstead, who had just transferred from Oregon, came to the basketball office one day with a message for the coaches.
Hey, Baker doesn't need to redshirt, Armstead told them. He needs to play.
The Shockers went on a trip that summer to Brazil, and in the final game, the coaches saw what Armstead was talking about. Marshall had decided to play all of his freshmen. The group had every spot but point guard covered, so Marshall put Baker at point guard.
"He played it beautifully," the coach said, "and proved to be one of the best, if not the best, freshman in that group. But we had to redshirt him, because we couldn't play him because he wanted to redshirt."
It was obvious to everyone else that Baker was a player, but he still had his doubts. In the practices leading up to that Brazil trip, Baker said that he and another newcomer, former WSU big man Carl Hall, were in the locker room dog-tired.
Man Bake, I don't know if this is for me, Hall told Baker.
"There's no limit on these practices, and Marshall was working us to the bone, four-hour practices," Baker said. "That does some crazy things to your mind and your body going that hard and that long.
"I was like, 'I don't know if I'm going to make it.' "
But Baker kept getting stronger and better, and the coaches worked on his confidence. During practice, Jans would tell Baker to play like he was "back in Scott City."
Baker started believing in himself when he held his own against Wichita State’s veteran guards in practice. The Shockers, a fifth seed in the NCAA tournament that year, had three future pros in the backcourt. Toure' Murry opened this season on the Utah Jazz, and both Joe Ragland and David Kyles play overseas in Europe.
"I have visions of having a really good day, and those days kind of stuck with me and gave me confidence," Baker said. "I just remember guarding Toure' and keeping him in front of me and thinking that was a really big accomplishment. I started thinking, 'Man, I'm coming along.' "
Baker introduced himself to the nation in the same game everyone took notice of Wichita State.
When the Shockers knocked off No. 1 Gonzaga to advance to the Sweet 16 in 2013, they had a moment that sounds like it was written in a movie script.
Trailing by five at the under-eight-minute timeout of the second half, the Shockers walked to their huddle with their heads down, and Marshall quickly dreamed up some kind of speech to inspire something.
If I would have said to you on October 15 when we started practice, you're down five against the No. 1 team in the country with seven and change to play for the right to go to the Sweet 16, would you have taken it?
No Wichita State player had been through more that year than Baker. He started his redshirt freshman year by leading the Shockers in scoring with 18 points in the season opener against North Carolina Central.
Baker played the first 10 games, starting every one, and the Shockers got out to a 9-1 record. Then he suffered a stress fracture in his foot and had to watch for 21 games, returning for the Missouri Valley tournament.
In WSU's first NCAA tourney game against Pittsburgh, he'd missed all five of his threes.
Before Baker took the floor that day against Gonzaga, Jans gave him one of his pep talks: Simple plays. Hunt shots. Play like you're the best mf'er on the court. Play like you're in Scott City.
The threes started dropping against Gonzaga, and when Marshall made his speech, Baker had faith his team could come back.
"He looked at me, I'm telling ya, and there was something about the way he looked in my eye," Marshall said. "He didn't say it, because that's not who he is, but he basically said, 'OK, I gotcha. I got this.' "
"After that TV timeout," Baker remembers, "(Jans) looked at me and I looked at him, and I pulled the Colt .45s out and started firing away."
Baker made two threes and two free throws during a 22-9 run that won the game. He finished with four three-pointers and 16 points.
"It's scary to think once you set your mind to something and be confident about it, it's amazing what you can accomplish," Baker said.
He was on his way to becoming a star.
One day last month, Wichita State's marketing department was recording an intro video for home games. Koch Arena was dark with a big strobe light on one of the goals, which had been lowered to about eight feet.
Baker's teammates were all gathered around the goal, joking around and showing off what kind of trick or dunk they were going to do.
Baker was sitting in a chair feet way. Stone-faced staring ahead.
“He's always locked in,” assistant coach Greg Heiar said. “You can just tell in his eyes. He is just a competitor.”
Wichita State is 50-4 in games that Baker has played. Jans spent seven years with Marshall at Wichita State, and he says Baker is the only player to play four positions.
The first time he played power forward was during the Final Four run. In the Elite Eight as Ohio State was chipping away at a 20-point deficit with a full-court press, Marshall put Baker there because he needed a fourth ball-handler to alleviate the pressure. Baker had maybe practiced a few possessions at power forward all year.
"He could probably draw up all our plays," Heiar said. "He knows our system just like a coach."
In the preseason last year when backup point guard D.J. Bowles had to quit basketball because of a heart condition, Baker took on backup point guard duties.
This has changed the book on Baker. He wasn't much more than just a spot-up shooter in Marshall's offense as a redshirt freshman, but the year he sat out gave him experience handling the ball, and he showed what he could be in the Final Four against Louisville.
Marshall's plan to beat Rick Pitino's patented pressure was to get the ball to one of his guards and clear out. Baker ended up being the guy most of the game, and he had no problem with Russ Smith and Peyton's Siva's full-court pressure.
If I can bring the ball up when they're on me, I can be a point guard whenever, Baker says he remembers thinking.
"That was probably one of the biggest games I gained confidence in," he said.
Last season, the confidence and everything Baker could do fully materialized. Baker and point guard Fred VanVleet became Wichita State's primary playmakers.
Marshall gives his guards a lot of responsibility in his offense. Late in the shot clock, the Shockers usually give the ball to VanVleet or Baker and set a ball screen.
Baker is masterful in this role. He is difficult to guard in these situations due to his ability to shoot the ball off the dribble. He had an adjusted field-goal percentage of 50.7 percent on shots off the dribble last season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
"He's great at running his man into screens," Heiar said. "And as soon as you go under, here it's an automatic."
Baker can also slash to the basket—off screens or his own creation—and he’s improved at setting up his teammates. He averaged 3.1 assists last season.
"Ron's a player," Marshall said. "He's not a protoypical shooter—a 2-guard who shoots it. He makes plays."
When South Dakota State was recruiting Baker, assistant coach Rob Klinkefus told Miller that Baker was a future pro.
"I kept saying over and over again, 'You think?' " Miller said.
"Yeah, he's a pro," Klinkefus would tell him.
Everything seems to be pointing in that direction.
Baker's body has also developed into a pro's body. He measured this summer at 6'4.5" with shoes—he's been listed at 6'3" in the past—and his wingspan measured at 6'8". He has also put on 30 pounds since the start of college and was at 221 pounds last month.
Earlier this preseason, he got up 21 reps on the 185-pound bench press. Between 2009 and 2013 at the NBA draft combine, only four players surpassed that mark and none were perimeter guys, per DraftExpress.com.
Baker has also improved his foot speed, which combined with his feel on the defensive end has turned him into one of the best defenders in the country. The advanced statistics also back that up. Baker ranked 12th nationally in points per possession allowed (minimum 100 possessions) last season, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Out of the guards drafted in the first round this past June, only Marcus Smart came close to matching Baker.
|Ron Baker's on-the-ball defense vs. 2014 first-round picks|
"He's long, he's smart. He's tough. He knows how to play and makes the right plays," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "Then he's a guy who really defends well—really with his length and great anticipation."
One thing that often translates from college to the pros is how good a guard is using ball screens. That's what impressed Portland about Damian Lillard when he was at Weber State. Lillard scored 1.039 points per possession his senior season using ball screens, according to Synergy. Baker scored 1.046 points per possession using ball screens last year.
"I think he is best suited to try to be a point guard, and you haven't got to see him do a ton of that at Wichita State," the NBA scout said. "I think the assumption by most league executives is that he does have enough skill and enough IQ to translate, especially now that most teams are going with a non-traditional point guard. He has the ball-handling and he has the IQ to serve as a point guard on the next level."
Baker will be an even bigger part of Wichita State's offense now that Cleanthony Early is gone. Marshall's teams are always balanced, but he made a point of getting Early extra scoring possessions, often in the mid-post area.
Baker didn't get many post-up opportunities last year, but Heiar says he's a good post-up player.
"You'll see more of that this year," Heiar said. "That's a new part of the system nobody knows about this year."
It’s hard to believe that Wichita State’s coaches could have known how good Baker was going to be, but they definitely had an idea because they were using him as part of a recruiting pitch before he ever played a game.
"All I heard about was this 6'4" white dude who could play ball," VanVleet says, "And they sold me on him."
Baker is now living the life of a McDonald’s All-American and future pro. This past summer he was at the gym at 6:30 a.m. with Tekele Cotton and VanVleet to get in an extra workout when they were in Wichita. Baker also spent time at the camps of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, where NBA scouts and executives watched.
Back in Wichita, Baker might as well be the president. He's had mothers hand their babies over for pictures.
"No joke," Baker says. "It's not like you can just toss a baby back to someone."
And ladies—young and old—sneak kisses.
"The Great White Hope," VanVleet calls him. "You've got to see it to put a grasp on it. You can't describe it. He's from Kansas, obviously, and he's a white dude who can play ball really good. Those people really latch on to him."
All this for a guy whose own mom thought he might just end up a Division II player. Baker knew he was better than that, but even he had no idea.
"I just wanted to go to college, have a good career, get my degree and get on with my life," he says. "Obviously all the attention I've been getting is really cool, but I would not have expected this."
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.