by: Alex and Colin Chiles
Estimated read time: 7 minutes
As a WSU fan who isn’t very knowledgeable about the NBA, I find myself checking the statistics now and then to see how former Shockers Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are faring in the NBA. Unfortunately, numbers can be cold and not particularly helpful, especially in this case. Now that both of their seasons have come to a close, I thought I’d check in with The Dive 35’s creator and resident NBA expert to get some thoughts on how our hometown boys fared in their first professional seasons. Let’s start with Ron. Tell us… what did you think of Baker’s first year as a Knickerbocker?
First of all, calling me a resident expert is quite the stretch but I’ll allow it because I’m a machine that runs on mainly flattery and donuts. Second, and more to your question, let me recap Ron Baker’s first NBA season as succinctly as I can. You may know some of this already but I think it’s best to start from the beginning to give proper context.
Ron went undrafted in last year’s NBA draft but he quickly signed with the Knicks summer league team. If you’re unfamiliar with summer league, each NBA team has a summer league team where they will send recently drafted players (this can range to just drafted weeks before or drafted within the past few years). They also can sign undrafted players to a summer league contract in order to get a better look at guys they might be interested in, which is exactly what happened with Baker.
It’s not worth talking about how he played in summer league because summer league is a crapshoot. Scott Pollard famously outplayed Tim Duncan in NBA summer league and we know how that turned out. Tons of scouts are there watching but for the casual fan, it’s nearly impossible to glean anything from watching a summer league game or looking at stats. Suffice it to say scouts saw enough in Ron to add him to the team roster.
This was a crucial step for him because of the way contracts work for undrafted players. Essentially when the Knicks signed him to a summer league deal, they gave him an unguaranteed contract for about half a million dollars. It was only guaranteed up to $75,000 (not a bad haul for playing some summer league, but also not what he’s ultimately looking for). The contract becomes guaranteed after about midway through the season, or in this year’s case, January 10.
Cutting a player after summer league is an extremely common occurrence, so for the Knicks to bring him onto the roster for pre-season meant they saw something in him that they liked. You also probably know that he was retained on the roster past January 10, effectively guaranteeing his contract for the year.
As for his actual on the court play for the year, that also requires context. You might think that in order to develop a young player you saw promise in, you’d give him some sort of consistency. Well that’s true with competent organizations but Ron Baker plays for the Knicks. This is a team that has no discernable direction, with a President/GM in Phil Jackson who thinks shooting threes is a “cheap way to score” and that the triangle is still a viable offense in today’s NBA (it is not).
Seriously, go look at his game log here on basketball reference. He has a stretch in late January where his minutes look like this: 19, 0, 4, 0, 16, 27, 5, 2, 1, 0, 20. How are you supposed to get the hang of game flow when you have no idea if you’re going to be playing major minutes or not at all?
Baker did however get pretty consistent minutes starting in March, when the Knicks inexplicably cut their backup point guard, Brandon Jennings. It may surprise Shockers fans to learn that Baker played primarily at point for the Knicks, and in NBA terms it actually makes sense. In today’s NBA, size and shooting is valued at the point guard position above all else and if there’s one thing we know about Baker, is that he’s got size and can shoot.
I know I’ve taken a lot of shots at his organization but all in all, you have to consider Baker’s first season a success. The NBA is the best of the best of the best. These are the top athletes in the world in this sport and for him to not only stay on an NBA team, but to get consistent bench minutes in the last part of the season means something.
Whew, ok. Sounds like overall it was a successful season but he would be better off in the future if he can get far away from the dumpster fire that is the Knicks. Based on what you’ve seen from him in year one, what’s your prediction for him next season and beyond? Does he land somewhere and find some sort of niche or does he fizzle out?
My hope is that some smart team (think the Spurs, Rockets or even 76ers) have been watching him and are able to steal him away from the Knicks for pennies on the dollar. I do think Baker is good, but some of his stats don’t actually back that up. He’s supposed to be a three point shooter but he put up a paltry 22% once he got regular playing time at the end of the year, and 26% on the year as a whole. And it’s not like he was killing it from inside the arc either; he went 37% in his regular playing time and 38% on the year.
It’s pretty hard to defend those numbers but dammit I’m going to try anyway.
As we’ve covered, the Knicks are a tire fire and they aren’t exactly putting their players in the best position to succeed. So is Baker at this point in his early career just not an efficient offensive player? It can be hard to adjust to the size and speed difference of the NBA. Or are the players on that team just not good enough to be a threat themselves or even to be in the right places to provide the right spacing? Or could it be that the offensive game plan just doesn’t work with the personnel they have on the court?
I would argue it’s some combination of all three of these things, but at this point it’s nearly impossible to tell which answer might be the biggest cause for Baker’s poor shooting.
For his part, he did protect the ball fairly well (he had a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio from February 27 on) and had a couple of games back to back where he dished out 7 and then 8 assists.
I’m a huge believer in the idea that the “fit” of a player to his teammates and team philosophy can play a huge role in their success or failure. Of course, super talented players will always rise to the top but for more fringe guys like Baker, fit can be everything.
Take Joe Ingles, who was a big part of the success of the Utah Jazz in the playoffs this year. Earlier in the year he was cut from the Clippers. The Clippers had him on their team, got to look at him every day in practice, and decided “nah, we can’t use this guy”.
The Jazz contacted him hours after he was cut to bring him in for a workout. He played significant bench minutes for the Jazz all year and in the playoffs, he had two games scoring in double digits and in one game he tallied 8 points, 11 assists, and 6 rebounds. Two games of double digit scoring might not sound like much but when you’re a bench player, that’s huge.
Or there’s the more famous instance you might recall of Jeremy Lin and Linsanity. Lin bounced around a number of teams until, oddly enough, the Knicks stumbled into him and found the right way to use him. They, of course, promptly stopped using him that way after finding a semblance of a fun, somewhat successful team.
So what I’m saying is what we hope is that some other team has been keeping an eye on him, waiting for that moment to steal him. However, the longer he stays on the Knicks putting up 37% from the field, you have to think potential suitors are going to dwindle.
I love the idea of Baker on the Spurs! Let’s make that happen, people. Ok, that will wrap us up for part 1 of our 2-part discussion. Tune in next time on Shocks in the NBA where we’ll turn our attention to Fred’s first season.