This week brough forth a new, unheralded revelation for many Knicks fans.
Derrick Rose's back spasms left the Knicks with a shallow point guard rotation, and the apparent removal of Sasha Vujacic from the rotation left the doors wide open for a change at the third-string point guard position. To top it off, Brandon Jennings was mostly terrible, leaving an opportunity for someone to grab the bull by the horns and get some real minutes in the spur of the moment.
Enter Ron Baker, the Shot Maker.
With ol' mophead getting legitimate NBA minutes in non-garbage time situations, we got our first glimpse at what the undrafted free agent out of Wichita State can really do. It wasn't always pretty, and there's plenty of work to do, but there are a lot of encouraging signs that point to a future as a useful role player moving forward.
Let's start with the obvious -- Baker is a below-average athlete by NBA standards, although being referred to as such for five straight years has left his athleticism a little underrated, particuarly from a lateral quickness standpoint. Ron is pretty big for a point guard (6'4, 212 according to predraft measurements), but he's not very explosive, particularly from a standstill. Ultimately, this limits his upside (shoutout to Mike Prada and Ben Epstein); Baker is probably won't turn into a starting caliber player. Regardless, there is a vague chalk outline of a valuable rotation player lurking in the shadows of Baker's recent performances.
That chalk outline is there almost entirely due to Baker's outstanding basketball IQ. I already wrote about some of the little things that make up "basketball IQ", as it's become a bit of a cliche, but IQ can make a productive player out of almost anyone; Baker is no exception. While I'm not a huge fan of plus-minus, consider this -- in all 3 of the games Baker played this week as a legitimate rotation piece, he was positive in every single one. He was a +1 at Denver (a 13 point loss), +8 at Golden State (another 13 point loss), and +8 at Phoenix (a 2 point loss). That's not just a coincidence.
Baker's biggest impact has undoubtedly come on the defensive end, where he is already a better defensive player than Brandon Jennings (not really saying much) despite literally never playing actual NBA minutes. Ron is basically the human embodiment of "defense is mostly effort", but he's also flashed some impressive body control, strength, and footwork. You can tell Baker has spent plenty of time with Courtney Lee (who also defends with his body extremely well) when you see plays like this:
Baker's size also allows him to be a much more versatile defender as he continues to fill out and develop -- Baker should be able to defend both guard positions (although he'll probably struggle with some of the smaller, quicker assignments), and he might even be able to survive against certain wings at the end of possessions. That kind of switchability gives the Knicks a bit more leeway on the defensive end, especially against guard-heavy teams that run a lot of perimeter-oriented pick and rolls (cough Portland cough).
Most importantly, Baker brings an impressive pool of defensive IQ to combine with his general decision making (for an undrafted rookie). Modern NBA defenses require each player on the floor to navigate a tightrope with dozens of individual decisions providing the balance. Help without overhelping. Switch when these two guys run a pick and roll, and play straight up when these two guys run a pick and roll. Help off your man to bump an open cutter, but don't help when that man is Klay Thompson. It's pretty damn difficult, and a lot of guys never develop the instinctual decision making to truly excel on the defensive end.
The level to which Baker has grasped these defensive tendencies in such a short period of time is special, and demonstrates the remarkably high level of understanding he has when it comes to this game. Baker showed this kind of stuff in college, but the speed of the NBA game cannot be overstated; expecting these things to translate is often a fool's errand. With that in mind, take a look at this play here, which results in a classic Shaun Livingston fadeaway.
This is the Golden State Warriors, with a one man advantage on a fast break; they end up scoring (which is basically inevitable in these situations), but it was a Livingston midranger rather than a dunk or wide open 3 thanks to Ron Baker. First, he baits Curry into getting rid of the ball with a nearly imperceptible stunt (as if he's going to gamble for the steal). When Porzingis correctly rotates over to David West to deny the layup, Baker is already moving towards Draymond, who is theoretically wide open. Because Baker didn't actually gamble for the steal on Curry, he's still able to recover in time to disrupt Draymond and deny an easy layup. To top it all off, Ron opportunistically doubles after Green picks up the ball, and then recovers back to Livingston in a crossmatch situtation (either Steph or Ian Clark was his man; Lance Thomas picked up Steph, Holiday picked up Clark). This is just great instinctual defense across the board -- this is the kind of stuff Danny Green does over in San Antonio.
But defense is only half the game; nowadays, if you're a bad offensive player, you're hamstringing the rest of the team's offense when you're on the floor. Can Baker be enough of a threat to keep defenses honest and create for others?
The answer is...well...kind of. Ron is a classic glue guy -- the ball doesn't stick in his hands, and the Knicks just flow better with him on the floor (much like Sasha Vujacic, which people understandably lose sight of, since Sasha Vujacic also sucks). Baker isn't a traditional point guard, even though the Knicks have given him basically all of his minutes as the lead ball handler. His passing vision is alright, but his handle and overall physical profile doesn't lend itself to strong point guard play. That doesn't mean he can't play the 1, especially for spot minutes, in the correct system; it just means that, ideally, he isn't your primary ball handler.
Here, Baker curls around a Porzingis screen to artificially generate the space he needs to get in the paint. Once that advantage is created, he makes a great read (difficult lefty pass, as well -- a bit off target, but that is not easy), which leaves Lance Thomas wide open for 3. This is great stuff, but getting Baker that head start is the problem. That's why he's best as a secondary ball handler for now -- loosen up the defense, and Baker can attack the seams and make the correct reads, leading to high quality offensive possessions. But rely too much on Baker as a lead ball handler, and the offense can get stagnant, as he's not enough of a threat to create on his own in the pick and roll.
Playing Baker off-ball can also help the offense as a whole because of his cutting ability and general offensive feel. We haven't seen much of it in his limited minutes, but a close look on tape showed something interesting -- during Baker's limited time on the floor, he got caught cutting to the same spot as another Knick on at least five or six occassions. Obviously, that's bad from a micro perspective; it ruins the offensive spacing, and often removes the general flow of a possession to boot. But we already know that guys like Hernangomez and Holiday are good cutters -- when Baker is cutting to the same spots, at the same time, he has the right idea. As he continues to settle in, assuming he continues to get spot minutes, expect some improvements in that area.
Lastly (and it kinda goes without saying), Ron is also a pretty good shooter; at a minimum, you can park him in the corner and generate some spacing for the team offense to go to work. He showed exceptional shooting ability off the dribble in college, and he'll need to expand that particular aspect of his skillset over time, but for now, he's certainly good enough off the catch to make a defense pay for leaving him. Overall, as an off-ball player, most of his offensive limitations can be hidden; nevertheless, it will be important to strike a balance between that (which increases the odds of actually winning) and hands-on development (which will obviously make Baker a better player over time). As he continues to grow, it's possible that he can develop into a pick and roll maestro a la Matthew Dellavadova (this feels like the laziest comparison of all time, I know), but for now, Baker will be best served off ball as he continues to settle in.
That isn’t meant to imply that Baker shouldn't spend any time with the ball in his hands, though; he's a decent decision maker (we'll talk about his turnovers in a bit), and his consistency pushing the ball in transition leads to a ton of easy opportunities for the team as a whole (much like Brandon Jennings). Here, he pushes the rock and finds Lance Thomas, who has sealed Devin Booker on the low block. The quick entry pass from Baker gets the defense to turn and face Thomas, leaving Holiday uncovered to cut right down the middle for a pretty easy finish.
Again, it's the little things; that's just a hockey assist, but if you put Jose Calderon in there for Baker, this play probably doesn't happen.
Ron has also been surprisingly effective finishing at the rim, but he's only had five or so opportunities, so I don't feel comfortable extrapolating based on such a small sample (the same goes for most of his shooting numbers — shot charts and per possession numbers are pretty useless with 30 minutes of real game time). Baker’s size and strength definitely give him an advantage over Brandon Jennings, who flails like an inflatable tube man every single time he draws contact near the rim, but it's unclear if that will continue. Something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Baker obviously isn't perfect; he's had major issues with live ball turnovers, and he's been a little too liberal with his hands defensively, leading to some bad fouls (which is also descriptive of this entire team). The turnovers are something to monitor, but it's not a major problem -- he's basically out of positition, playing as a lead ball handler, in the freakin' NBA, where plays unfold quicker than anything he's ever seen before. The vast majority of lottery point guards struggle with turnovers coming into the league as they adjust to the athleticism and pace (Mudiay and Russell, for some recent examples); it's entirely expected that an undrafted rookie shooting guard would struggle with the same thing.
Overall, Baker's career could end up going a lot of different directions (Baker can shoot the rock, and if he can become a really good shooter, that changes a lot), but it looks like the Knicks may have found another diamond in the rough. Baker projects to be somewhere in that adequate-to-good range as a defender against most backups, with some positional versatility and a strong defensive IQ to boot. He can play either the 1 or 2 in a pinch, especially if the Knicks focus on running the Triangle when Ron is the nominal point guard (therefore placing him in a largely off-ball role even though he's the only true ball handler on the floor). Most importantly, Baker is the kind of guy other players enjoy playing with.
Let's hope Jeff Hornacek has seen enough to continue giving Baker spot minutes, even through his growing pains. They could try him in lineups with Brandon Jennings in order to provide an offensive spark -- they could even play him with Derrick Rose when Rose is out there with Porzingis as a part of the staggered rotations. Brandon Jennings has been pretty bad these past few games, and while Baker can never dream of replicating Jennings' impact off the dribble, I feel comfortable saying Ron is already a better decision maker; they could make a formidable pair off the bench. Ron could even steal that backup spot in certain matchups, as Brandon is a truly awful defensive player overall.
Like, please watch this play, and try to picture Jennings doing anything that Ron did here, including organized switching onto arguably the two most dangerous offensive players in the league and finishing over one of the best defensive players in the league at the rim. Like I said; Jennings does a lot of stuff that Baker can’t dream of. Clearly, though, it goes both ways.
There's a lot for Baker room to grow, but I hope to see a lot more of him as the season progresses. A muddled pearl hides under a sea of flannels and bad haircuts; the Knicks have a golden opportunity to find it and polish it. If they can, it’ll be another feather in the increasingly feathered cap of Phil Jackson.