Ron Baker admittedly was timid earlier this season, but the undrafted rookie guard grew more comfortable and confident with each practice and video session with Knicks coaches.
Baker is getting more minutes now and showing he can contribute and help an NBA team.
The Knicks likely will be that team going forward, but with the way he plays hard, defends and competes, Baker is putting himself on some coach’s wish list and executive’s radar. The Knicks probably won’t be the only team looking to sign Baker when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
“You’re always trying to prove yourself regardless of your situation,” Baker said. “I was undrafted and everyone knows that. But I had similar situations out of high school and getting to college. I’m kind of used to the unknown type of feel. So getting to this point, it’s been very satisfying. But I want more and I want to keep improving and see where my ceiling is.”
Baker, 24, isn’t your classic guard — or player, for that matter. He’s 6-4 and played mostly shooting guard in four years at Wichita State. But he has played both backcourt positions as well as some small forward for the Knicks.
When they were without Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose on Friday night in Miami, Baker stepped up while playing multiple positions. He scored 10 points and had a season-high six assists in a 98-94 win over the Heat. He played tough, physical defense and never got rattled, which have become stand-out traits of his.
“He’s got the size,” coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Sometimes guys get rattled if a team gets physical and they start knocking you around and you’re falling over and doing that driving to the basket and they’re not calling fouls. Ron’s strong enough. He plays through that. He can finish through fouls and grabs. That’s a great skill to have.”
Hornacek likes Baker’s attitude and versatility, saying “guys like that are valuable in this league.” But it took some time for Baker, who is averaging 3.7 points and 1.7 assists in 46 games, to feel entirely comfortable.
He got some spot minutes behind Rose and Brandon Jennings and was shuttled up and down from the D-League earlier this season. Baker didn’t become a regular rotation player until Jennings — who helped mentor him — was waived Feb. 27. Now Baker starts when Rose is out and closes games, and Hornacek believes in him.
“I was pretty timid coming in, early in my career, so to say,” Baker said. “It was tough for me to get going confidence-wise. Once you can see yourself on film and get coached in the classroom, it makes the game a little easier. We got good vets that are motivating me to push myself each and every day.”
Baker still needs to improve his shooting. He’s making 36.3 percent of his overall attempts and 28.6 percent from three-point range. But he will continue to work on that and all parts of his game in an attempt to build on his strong rookie season.
“Seeing him doing well, playing hard every game, using his minutes to prove that he can play, I love to see that,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “He kind of reminds me of myself my first year and even now, a guy that’s earning his minutes.”
Porzingis didn’t know Baker before watching him play for the Knicks’ summer league team. He said he was instantly impressed.
“All I heard was he’s a shooter,” Porzingis said. “Once I saw him play, there were a lot more things that I saw from him: his defense, for example. Nobody told me he’s that type of defender. He’s tough. He will guard anybody. He will fight hard with the bigs. That’s the type of guy you want on your team that plays hard on every possession.”
Baker will be a restricted free agent, so the Knicks can match any offers. They will need backcourt players, as Courtney Lee is the only one with a fully guaranteed deal for next season. Hornacek likes and trusts Baker, so it seems like a fit.
“We have a pretty good friendship,” Baker said. “I think we’ll try to be on the same team.”